|Written By:||Nancy Sauer|
|Edited By:||Fred Wan|
|Released:||November 23rd, 2009|
Two months ago
The gardens of the Crane were beautiful, even in the onset of autumn. Fumisato leaned against the balcony railing and admired the chrysanthemums and the bellflowers in the castle garden below. He had spent the first part of his life never noticing the glories that surrounded him, and then they had all been taken away — every graceful white-walled castle, every poem, painting, song, every garden. The loss had almost destroyed him, and it was then that he had fully realized that he was a Crane, and that no Crane could live without beauty –even if all he ever did was kill in its name.
After a time Fumisato turned away from the view, reentered his study, and knelt down at his desk. There was plague all across the Crane provinces, the Destroyers were slowly inching towards the border, the Empress had called for Winter Court in the Mantis islands, and Daigotsu Rekai had been sighted again. The last problem was his. He once had a plan for dealing with her, months ago, but at the point where he was almost ready to move Rekai abruptly stopped her visits to the Crane lands. Fumisato laid out a clean sheet of paper, inked a brush, and started to write. It was time for a new plan.
Several weeks ago
The House of the White Camellia was elegant in its construction, but the paint on the outer walls needed touching up two seasons ago and the withered garden had a slightly unkempt look. Daidoji Yaichiro looked it over and reflected that it was the kind of place he and Gempachi would have been found in, back when they were common soldiers. The loud parties going on in the south wing of the geisha house only emphasized the point.
Beside him, Gempachi tilted his head slightly and grinned.
“Echoes of a season:
rice sparrow looks curiously at
shards of egg shells,” he said.
Yaichiro laughed. “Best not to keep him waiting,” he said, and started up the steps.
“Why here?” Gempachi complained. “With his status, he could get us into a much nicer geisha house.”
“Perhaps he prefers not to be seen with us,” Yaichiro said quietly. He gestured towards his shoulder, which bore the mon of the Daidoji family and not that of the Fourth Legion. “The letter specified that we be inconspicuous.”
Gempachi made no comment but a brief snort — he’d already expressed his opinion of the letter’s meticulous instructions. The two made their way inside and gave the hostess the name the letter had mentioned. She smiled, bowed deeply, and ushered them down the south hallway. Stopping at one of the rooms she opened the door, bowed them in, and slid the door closed behind them. “Good evening,” the man inside greeted them. He was old, with a deeply lined face and iron-colored hair. His wrists bore the mon of the Daidoji in ink that had long since gone pale and watery.
The man nodded and waved a hand. “You may call me Fumisato. Please, sit down. You brought the letter?” Yaichiro nodded and after he and Gempachi had settled themselves he drew the scroll out of his obi and handed it to him. Fumisato glanced over it and then fed it to the coals in the brazier next to the table.
“You must be curious about my business with you, so I will be brief,” Fumisato said. “The two of you are to be temporarily assigned to me for a special mission. You are going to kill Daigotsu Rekai.”
For a moment the only sound in the room came from the parties in the rooms to either side of them. “Hayaku’s lost voice,” Gempachi finally said, “how can we do that? With the Destroyers pressing on the Crab in the south there is no way to get into the Shadowlands to find it, or even know if it has survived the new armies the Pit has spewed out.”
“She is not in the Shadowlands,” Fumisato said. “Where she dwells is unknown, but she has been making forays into the Crane lands.”
Gempachi and Yaichiro exchanged looks. “Has it been around Kosaten Shiro?” asked Yaichiro.
“Not that I am aware,” Fumisato said. “Most of the sightings I have are in the Doji and Kakita lands — she is not visiting out of nostalgia, she is carrying out missions.”
“We are obedient to the orders of the clan,” Gempachi said, “but why us? And why only the two of us? A squad, or even a company would be more appropriate. Perhaps a Jade Magistrate or two.”
Fumisato shook his head briefly. “I was at this point more than a year ago, and then she stopped coming to the Crane lands. Was her business at an end, or did she somehow learn about my trap? The fewer who know, the less of a chance for a leak. I have some experience in these things; two bushi with combat experience should be enough. Especially given that one has been trained by the Crab, and the other holds the Talisman of Chikushudo.”
“Sembi?” Fumisato said. He looked startled. “Sembi had children? Is he still alive?”
“We don’t know,” Yaichiro said. “When he retired he shaved his head, took up a staff and robe, and walked away. He said, ‘When I was a child I loved to sit and meditate. Now I’m going to walk and meditate.’ ”
“Sembi lived to see his grandchildren…” Fumisato’s voice broke off, and the two younger samurai politely looked away while he regained his face.
“We should ask the hostess to move us to another room,” Gempachi said, trying to change the subject. “This room is very noisy.”
“I have paid a lot of money for that noise,” Fumisato said. His voice had regained its normal tones.
“Why–” Yaichiro began, and then finished, “they are making it impossible to eavesdrop on us.”
“Make no assumptions,” Fumisato said. “Question everything. But yes, it does make it very, very difficult.” He pulled a scroll out of the stack beside him and rolled it out on the table. “Now, there are things you need to know.”
It had rained during the night. It hadn’t been enough to impair travel, but it had worsened her mood, and her mood was already sour. Daigotsu Rekai walked down the road, leading her horse and fuming to herself. If the old man wasn’t a threat, why did Daigotsu care what he did? And if he was a threat, why not just kill him? Ever her idiot son could figure that much out. It only made sense if Daigotsu wasn’t telling her something, and she loathed the idea that she wasn’t worthy of an explanation. It was possible that the old man knew something about the Destroyers — but Rekai was fairly certain that a few heated irons would be a more efficient method of getting information. “Damn him and his clever little plans,” she murmured to herself.
As she and the horse rounded a turn in the road a small fire came into view. Huddled over it was a bushi who looked up at the sound of hooves, then stood up and took a few steps forward. “Apologies, samurai-san, but this road is closed,” he called.
“Closed?” Rekai said, continuing to walk. Her travel cloak hid her armor, and in the pre-dawn dark it would be difficult for the sentry to see the more unusual aspects of her horse. “Why, has something happened to one of the bridges?”
“The bridges are fine, Daidoji-sama,” the sentry replied, automatically responding to her accent and diction. “But there is plague in some of the villages on the road. No one is allowed to travel here, by order of the magistrates.”
“Ah, I see,” Rekai said. She turned as if to go back, letting the reins slip from her hand as she did so. Then she made a clicking noise with her tongue, and the horse reared up and kicked the startled sentry. His shout of surprise and pain changed into a scream of terror and then abruptly cut off as the creature’s teeth ripped open his abdomen. Rekai waited a few minutes as the horse slurped up the man’s entrails, and then she took up the reins again and dragged it away. She didn’t have time to let it chew up the bonier parts, as satisfying as that would be to watch.
After mounting up Rekai touched the reins to the horse’s neck and it took off at a brisk pace. A quarter mile from the dead sentry the road came to a bridge. Rekai ignored it, sending the horse down the bank to the stream and then back up again, finally plunging through a stand of bamboo that was not nearly as impenetrable as it looked. From the bridge, she knew, the road wound and looped about so as to visit three villages, four shrines, and a particularly decorative stand of birch trees. The hidden path ran arrow-straight to her destination. Smiling a little she sent the horse into a run, then let her cloak slip off. The rain was gone, and now at least she could glory in the rush of the wind.
Fumisato’s plan had several defects, in Yaichiro’s opinion, but the one that bothered him the most was that it gave him too much time to think. He ran his fingers over the snarling face of his mempo. It was the Talisman of Chikushudo, and it gave him the ability to draw on the power of the Realm of Animals. It had been given to him by the Kami Ryoshun, to be used to inspire greatness in others. Fumisato intended to use it to kill Rekai. Yaichiro wasn’t sure that this was exactly what Ryoshun had in mind, but it was very difficult to contradict the Crane Champion’s special magistrate. Yaichiro didn’t believe all the stories he had heard about the man, but he believed in the ones that said he was a dangerous enemy. “I wonder who he really is,” he said.
“Who?” Gempachi said.
“Fumisato. He appears to be one of our kin, but where did he come from? In all the rumors that go around him, no one ever names him as part of a family. No one claims him as a father, or a brother, or an uncle.”
“Perhaps he has no family,” Gempachi said. “If he is the last of his line, no one would be so rude as to speak of it.”
“That is true,” Yaichiro said. “I had not thought of that.”
Gempachi made no answer; the thought had come naturally to him. His family had nearly been wiped out during the Clan Wars, and since that time the survivors had been in a constant scramble to retain and advance their status. Sembi’s glory had allowed him and his children to marry well, and Yaichiro moved through life with his path smoothed by a web of helpful relatives. “At least he will never lack for rice,” Gempachi said finally. “Lady Doji may be a hard lord, but no one has ever called her cheap.”
“She brings great honor to her ancestors,” Yaichiro agreed. “As will we, when we kill that creature.”
Honor, Gempachi thought, but no glory. It vexed him. In all the dangers he had faced in his life he had always been supported by the knowledge that whether he lived or died, his kin would profit from his actions. But the shame of Rekai’s fall was so great it literally could not be spoken of, and so no one would ever praise the samurai who had finally ended it. Bushido demanded that he act regardless, but Gempachi’s observance of bushido, like his friendship with Yaichiro, had begun with an eye to its practical advantages.
Yaichiro glanced over at his friend and then turned away, fingers tapping absently on the mempo. Silence descended between them for a while, then Gempachi raised a hand. “Someone is coming,” he said. Yaichiro nodded and put the mempo on.
The rope had been strung across the path at the height of a horse’s shins and carefully colored to blend into the surroundings. Rekai deduced this while flying through the air, having been thrown when her horse had run into it. As she hit the ground and rolled back to her feet she hoped that it was not damaged too badly; it had taken her years to get the thing trained. She put the thought away quickly; this was a trap.
Yaichiro and Gempachi stared at her. The plan had been that they would rush Rekai before she recovered from the fall, but her presence held them fixed in place. They had been told that she had recovered the beauty of her youth, but they were not prepared for the overwhelming vitality of her. Her spirit blazed up in their faces; the clearing could not contain it all.
“What?” Rekai said, looking around. She saw two Crane bushi waiting for her, both armored and bearing yari; one was wearing a mempo cleverly shaped like a bear’s face. “There are only two of you?”
“Two is enough,” Yaichiro said, “when honor strengthens them.”
Rekai laughed. “What honor do you have, Daidoji?” As she spoke she raised an arm with the forearm vertical and the back of the wrist facing out: the gesture of a Daidoji displaying their tattoo. Gempachi made a slight hissing noise, nothing more, and glanced out of the corner of his eye towards Yaichiro. The other man gave a tiny nod and then the two were in motion, each charging Rekai from a slightly different direction.
The Lost woman studied their approach for a few seconds, and then she drew her blade and ran to meet Gempachi. The one in the mempo, she thought, was clearly insecure in his skills and could be dealt with second. Her target was adept with a yari, but that bothered her not at all: she recognized the forms he used even as he began them and used her quickness to slip in between the strikes. As she came in for a cut Gempachi dropped the yari and drew his katana. It had not totally cleared the sheath when Rekai’s blade crashed into it, and he backpedalled furiously to get the room he needed. Rekai watched him go with an expressionless face that blossomed into a smile when her crippled horse rolled over and tried to bite the Crane on the leg.
Rekai left them to each other and spun about to catch Yaichiro’s yari on her blade and guide the strike away from her. They circled each other, watching, and then began to cross steel. Rekai made several attempts to get past Yaichiro’s guard, only to be forced back. She frowned to herself in irritation. Such a reliance on defense was usually the mark of a weak or cowardly fighter, but her opponent’s motions were precise and economical; the sign of a mind fully in control of itself. This, she realized, was another layer of the trap.
Rekai swung around and was confronted with the largest bear she had ever seen. While she blinked and wondered how the Daidoji could have arranged for it to sneak up behind her it roared and struck out at her with one immense paw. Reacting with pure, unthinking instinct Rekai attempted to bring her sword up to block. The bear’s claws raked her arm, splintering armor and gouging flesh, and the katana flew from her hand. Yaichiro lunged in from behind with a yari strike. Rekai’s armor held against it, but the blow threw her back towards the bear. The animal struck again, this time damaging the armor on her torso.
Rekai howled in anger and pain. Twisting about she evaded Yaichiro’s next charge and seizing the yari shaft she sent him in towards the bear. While Yaichiro was trying to recover his balance Rekai rammed her elbow into the side of his face, putting her whole body behind the blow. Yaichiro stumbled back, stunned. Rekai drew her wakizashi and rushed the bear, stabbing it where she guessed its heart was. The animal made a loud anguished groan, took two shuffling steps back, and disappeared. Rekai stared for a moment, and then she began to cast about for her katana. She did not know if there was a connection between the bear and the mempo that had its likeness, but she was sure that killing the man who wore it would improve the situation.
Across the clearing Gempachi did for Rekai’s horse by running his yari through its neck and pinning it to the ground. He backed away from its death agonies, swearing profusely. When he left the Wall he had thought he had put its horrors behind him, but it was becoming clear that his clan considered him a solution to any horrors that made their way to the Crane lands. It was a disheartening thought.
He looked around and saw Rekai, bloody but still dangerous, stoop to pick up her sword. His stomach clenched at the idea of having to face her again, but she didn’t even look at him. Instead she began walking towards Yaichiro. His friend was on his hands and knees, shaking his head as if to clear it. Something attracted Yaichiro’s attention and he looked up to see Rekai’s approach.
He’d let Yaichiro fight her, Gempachi decided. Being one of a Kami’s darlings had to be worth something, and even if Rekai killed him she would be worse for the fight. Gempachi glanced about, looking for the bear, and then looked back over to his friend. Yaichiro had not moved; he was still watching Rekai with a level gaze, blood dripping down the bruised side of his face. The mempo was on the ground beside him, so close that his fingertips brushed it, but Yaichiro ignored it.
He’s stunned in the head, Gempachi thought. Then he was in motion, charging across the clearing with his sword ready. “DAIDOJI!” he screamed as he ran.
Rekai turned around and gave him an annoyed look. She blocked Gempachi’s first two attacks with ease and then went on the offensive, landing a blow so heavy it almost made him drop his katana. She was preparing for a follow-up when suddenly she spasmed, dropped her weapon, and screamed. She staggered sideways, allowing Gempachi to see the arrow sticking out of her side. Rekai twitched twice more, sprouting two more arrows in her back, and then collapsed. Gempachi traced the path of the arrows to their source and discovered Fumisato at the other end of the clearing. The special magistrate was pale and sweating, but the hand that held the bow was steady.
“You took your time, Fumisato-sama,” Yaichiro said. He slowly got up, holding the mempo in his hand, and started to walk towards Gempachi.
“I am an old man,” Fumisato said. He stopped to take a few breaths. “Climbing out of a tree takes time.”
Gempachi looked at the two of them in turn. “You knew he was here?” he asked Yaichiro.
“No,” Yaichiro said, “but — ‘Make no assumptions. Question everything.’ There was no reason to think that he had told us everything, and many reasons to think otherwise.”
“You could have said something to me,” Gempachi said.
Yaichiro grimaced slightly, then bent over to spit out blood and teeth. “Apologies,” he said. “There were no parties handy.”
Gempachi snorted and then looked over at Fumisato. “What now?”
“We dispose of the body,” Fumisato said. “And forget that she ever existed.”
There was sun in the garden, but Fumisato did not go to look at it. Dressed in his warmest kimono, he sat at his desk with several lamps nearby to take the chill out of the air. In an alcove across the room sat an ikebana arrangement of chrysanthemum flowers and bare twigs: a reminder of what he was missing. He contemplated having it removed, but rejected the action as petty. The problem was that he was old, very old, and the hours he had spent in the cold waiting for Rekai had simply underlined the fact.
Slowly, reluctantly, Fumisato reached for the inkstone and started to prepare some ink. He could retire now, or he could, like Rekai, become a liability to the clan he had sworn to protect. It was not an attractive choice, but there was only one answer. He laid a clean sheet of paper down and began to brush out a letter to Lady Domotai.