|Written By:||Ree Soesbee|
Autumn Nightfall By Ree Soesbee
Each stroke of the brush against the stone, each delicate application of dark ink upon white rice paper - these things served to draw peace into the life of the elderly magistrate. For nearly thirty years, Kitsuki Yaruma had served the Emperor as the official liaison to the court of the mysterious Dragon Clan. It was a lonely position, and a thankless one - his kinsmen did not understand his preoccupation with the material world, nor did he have companions from his house or family in court. But the gentle strokes of the sable brush against the smooth paper gave him a place to retreat after the business of the day. The aging Emperor often called his appointments short these days, and the court's eyes fell often upon the young son of Hantei - wondering if he would be needed to take the throne before many more seasons passed. Gently, the brush slid across the smooth paper, the calligraphy dark and perfect, each motion the roll of waves against the shore.
--- On a withered branch ---
A barked apology from the far side of his sliding doors made him lift the brush from the page. 'Kitsuki-sama, you have a visitor," his guard grunted, the sharp voice cutting through Yaruma's thoughts as easily as a tanto through the thin paper of the door.
"Very well." The brush hovered in mid-flight above the paper, awaiting the next stroke of its master's hand. "Send him in." A visitor was always an unusual occurrence, as most thought of the enigmatic Dragon family as reclusive and rarely willing to enter the political intrigues of Otosan Uchi. Yaruma couldn't blame the court for the stereotype - after all, for the most part, it was true.
The doors slid open, and behind them a young man was kneeling on the shining wooden floor. "Yaruma-sama," the stranger said. "I wish to seek your advice and wisdom on a delicate matter."
"Enter, child," the old man said rather condescendingly. Although rarely accorded the title and respect due his age, Yaruma was pleased at the young man's manners and knowledge of protocol. He watched as the stranger entered the room, the paper doors sliding softly closed behind him. He was dressed in a dark red robe pulled loosely about a royal blue undertunic in a style known as 'deep plum blossom' - a favorite of the courtiers. But his eyes were not the eyes of a softened petal - they were the hard cold eyes of a warrior. For a moment, Yaruma's hand paused under the weight of the unmade poem. "Age," he thought to himself and set the brush aside. "Age, and nothing more."
"My name is Togai," the young man said in a polite voice, "I hope you will forgive me, Sama, but I know much more about you than you know of me. You have been magistrate to this court for thirty years, and you rarely return to the lands of your kinsmen. Since your wife died twenty years ago, you have never been home." Yaruma's face clouded with the youth's impertinence, but the stranger bowed and continued, "Please, Yaruma-sama, hear me out." Yaruma nodded, but his countenance was dark and brooding. Behind them, a palace maid softly slid aside the door of the chamber, bowing politely from her knees as she brought in a lacquered tray, two delicately painted sakazuki cups and a thin bottle of warmed sake for her master and his guest.
At the Dragon's waved hand, the young man knelt on the wooden floor, his robes flaring out around him. "Your wife, the Lady Cheniko, died in childbirth while you were here at the Imperial Court," Togai continued, "and the child passed into the Void some short months thereafter. Since that day you have served the Empire ceaselessly, and with admirable dedication. Your name is well-known in council, and without your presence at court, the clan of the Dragon would have no courtiers to tell them the news of the Empire."
Distressed by the man's forthrightness, Yaruma picked up his brush and slowly slid the bristles across the carved stone that held the jet black ink. "So they say," he murmured, and began to inscribe the second line of his impromptu poem.
"So they say behind your back, Yaruma-sama, and so they have told you." The young man looked up from the polished wood floor and met the Dragon's eyes. "But they have lied."
"Twenty years ago, your wife gave birth to a son, delivs true." Togai's dark eyes watched Yaruma's brush spread ink upon the smooth rice paper, each character perfectly formed. "But your son did not die that night, nor months afterward. The babe which was placed in his cradle was not yours."
Yaruma's brush did not pause, but a tiny fleck of ink touched the paper beside the perfectly calligraphed line. "You have proof of this, of course?" The Dragon's voice was calm and even, filling the quiet of the room like a summer breeze. The man opposite the small teak table smiled and bowed slightly.
"If you will permit me to tell the tale, Yaruma-sama." After a moment, the magistrate nodded. "Your line is renowned through the Empire. The lineage of the mighty Kitsuki, son of the Agasha, runs true in your veins. Is it true that no poison can harm you? That your line is immune to such dark things?" Yaruma nodded, and Togai continued blithely, "Ah, that is a rare gift indeed, and worthy of the proud blood you bear in your veins. But let me speak on, and tell you of my Lord's bravery. Perhaps you will see in it a tale worthy of the famous scrolls of Togashi castle?" Yaruma's eyes flashed at the youth's bold words, but Togai bowed genially, and the old man's anger faded before it was born. "Twenty three years ago," the young man's voice rose with pride, "my noble daimyo, Bayushi Shoju, opened a scroll beneath the walls of our oldest castle - a scroll which had lain, undisturbed, for centuries uncounted. It had been lost for centuries, and its blood-stained seal was corroded and faded, but so I am told, still intact. It bore upon it the mark of Bayushi Daijin, an ancient daimyo of our clan, rumored to have met Shinsei himself and, ah, but that is another tale. And not all legends should be told." He said this with confident plausibility, as if defying the Dragon to deny it.
"The scroll - its words written in blood which stained the page with an ancient warning - spoke of the future of Rokugan itself. It said that an evil would come upon the land, a darkness so foul and corrupt that nothing we have seen could match it - no light could stand before it. An evil older than time itself - the foul blackness of the Destroyer. He Whom We Must Not Name." A brief, rueful smile. "Fu Leng."
For a second, the name seemed to shake the foundations of the building. "Age," thought Yaruma. "Only my old bones shaking at the chill breath of the southern breeze." He raised his brush from the paper, thoughtfully looking down at the second line.
--- A crow has settled ---
Togai paused for a moment, remembering. "I was very young when I first learned of the scroll. Shoju's forces were building, the lands of the Scorpion began to turn their resources to something besides our own goals - we began to build toward war. It was inevitable, from the moment the seal of blood in the labyrinth was broken." His face was impassive, his dark eyes still glinting like pools of dark ink - cold and unreadable. "The dreams were the worst part of all. Despite our plans and goals, our carefully structured political ambitions. All of our work hinged on one act, on one death.
Can you imagine the patience? The delicately woven web of lies and deceit we have created under Shoju's hand?" Yaruma stopped his writing, the brush hanging uselessly in his wrinkled hand. "Can you even comprehend the truth behind the mask?" For a moment, Togai's eyes darkened with rage and frustration, and fear gripped the magistrate's heart. Not of the man who knelt in his chambers, but of the part which had brought him here.
"But - what has this to do with me?" The sound surprised Yaruma. Could that croaking caw truly be his own stentorious voice, so skilled in council and oratory? Where was his confidence, the thirty years of rhetoric and wisdom the council expected of him? Again, in a shaking squawk, "What has it to do with my son?"
Togai's voice was a sharpened hiss. "The evil one must arise within a mortal form. His power cannot create a body of its own. For that he has need of a pawn."
"On the contrary, Yaruma-sama. The Dark Lord has far more twisted means of extending his power. His creature, the flesh which will become darkness incarnate, the blasphemy revealed in the bloody handwriting of Shoju's scroll in none other than the one man in whom we must all trust. He will become the Emperor."
Yaruma's hand shook, and ink trailed down the edge of the half-formed poem, forgotten on the table beside him. For a moment, the magistrate's soul denied the possibility that what this Scorpion spoke was the truth. But, like the biting wind through his golden kimono, the knowledge sank into his heart and Yaruma saw the face of madness. "Why are you telling me this?" the whisper was soft and plaintive. "Where is your mask, Scorpion?"
Togai's face creased, his teeth white and even. "A mask serves to hide the truth, to keep its bearer hidden. My purpose here is not one of hiding, magistrate. It is rather to show you the reality from which you hide." He watched Yaruma, seeing the Dragon's hand shake and his calm begin to crack under the force of the Scorpion's words. "Words can do anything, Yaruma-sama. They can raise the lowest samurai to the Emperor's side, as the Crane have shown. They can fuel a man's heart and win trophies beyond imagining. They can change the future. Nothing is final. Not even death." Togai leaned closer to his stunned listener, his voice dropping to a hushed whisper. "We will change the future. Shoju will defeat the prophecy before it can begin, and when we are done, Rokugan will thank the Scorpion. We will ring in a thousand years of peace. The Dark One will be bested, and you will have been a small part of our tale."
"I... l want no part in this..."
"You have no choice. When Hantei dines tonight, he will sit beside my Lord's wife, the Emperor's most trusted councilor. His dish will be poisoned. When my Lord Shoju moves to kill Hantei, The Emperor will falter. The poison will not kill him - but it will make the outcome certain. Hantei will die by the blade - an honorable death. We have given him that, at least, and by my Lord Shoju's command. Do you not see the irony?"
Yaruma dropped the brush upon the paper, leaving dark paths of ink as it rolled across the white page. "No!" he cried, and began to rise. The Scorpion caught his wrist and forced him back to his knees.
"If you warn them, the Emperor will be left to the grasp of the Dark One. If you do this, you will fail in your duty to protect Rokugan. If you do not, you have failed your sworn oath to your Lord." Togai's eyes were cold and hard, and his voice was sharp in the gathering dusk.
"My lord magistrate?" The call came from beyond the chamber doors. "Are you in need of anything?" The guard's voice promised aid and protection, offered to defend the Dragon courtier from all evils. Yaruma did not listen. There was no longer any need for protection, for defense. The trap was sprung, and all Yaruma could do was listen.
"Why tell me? What has this to do with my son? I am only a lone courtier - I have no power in the court. I can do nothing for you - I can gain you nothing. My family has forsaken me, my past has forgotten me, and I am alone." The Dragon's wry croak held only a bitter shred of its confidence, "If you kill me, it will mean nothing. There is no other Dragon in the court. No one will care about my death."
"You misunderstand, gentle magistrate. I know that there is nothing you can do for me. In this, you are correct - you cannot give me anything you have not already given. Your part in this is done. It is my part which is to come, my time to perform my duty toward my Lord."
"You are here to poison the Emperor..." Yaruma's voice wavered uncertainly. "It will not work. He has tasters who will warn him of your poison..." The sound was weak and unsure, and Togai smiled.
"I have been named his Imperial taster, father. There will be no warning, no word of the poison will reach any ears other than your own, and my daimyo will give the Emperor a clean, honorable death."
The words slowly fell upon Yaruma's shoulders, and, at the last, his path became clear. He watched as Togai stood slowly, seeming to tower above him. Without looking back at the old man, Togai drew a black silk mask from his obi and purposefully tied it about his face, masking his features in a veil of night. He walked to the entrance, his robes sliding across the floor behind him, and placed one hand on the frame of the rice paper door.
The once-bright eyes of the Dragon magistrate stared, broken and empty, at the Scorpion's retreating form. At the last moment, he croaked a word from between his frozen lips, "Togai..." The young man paused, not looking back, his hand frozen on the panel of the rice-paper door. "From the table to the side of the doorway. The katana. Take it with you. It..." The old man's voice shook, but deep beneath it, a shred of dignity remained unshaken by the dark truths. "...it belonged to your ancestor." Togai paused, nodded, and reached for the daisho, only to be stopped by Yaruma's voice. "No. Not the wakizashi. It has not yet finished its duty."
"Its duty...?" Togai lifted the ancient katana from its ivory stand. "To its lord, or to the land he serves?"
Silence was his only answer, and Togai slid the doorway open and left the chambers of the Dragon. The guard, watching the Scorpion leave, leaned into the room toward his master. "Your pardon, my Lord - is all well?"
Kitsuki Yaruma sat quietly by the window, his eyes staring out at the darkening sky. The first stars were peering through the dusky haze, and the sun balanced on the horizon as if it were a bird clutching a thin branch between its faltering feet. Softly, so quietly that the guard barely heard the response, Yaruma whispered, "No, nemurani-san. Nothing is well. In fact, nothing will ever be truly well again." With a wave of his hand, he gestured for the door to be shut, and faced the silence of the room alone.
In the morning, the Scorpion troops burst into the chamber, ready to administer a swift death to the Dragon magistrate so that no word could be passed to his clan of the newly-won coup. Their orders were clear - to deny him an honorable death, and send him to the Void as swiftly as possible. On the floor they found his body, dressed in the white robes of ritual seppuku, his wakizashi lying bloodied and lost upon the floor beside him. Wrapped about the blade of the weapon was an ink-stained sheet of rice paper, and the final line of the poem which had become his death song.
--- Autumn nightfall ---
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