Written By: Nancy Sauer
Edited By: Fred Wan
Released: October 18th, 2009
Link: [1], [2]
Story Year: 1171

The great road that wound out of the north to Toshi Ranbo was almost bare of travelers. The devastation left by the Army of Fire, the approach of winter, the rumors of plague, all had combined to reduce the normal stream of humanity to a trickle. At a place where the road crested a small hill one of the few travelers paused and looked out towards the capital. It was as impressive as he had been told: a sprawling city whose growth had outrun its planning, and yet still managed beauty. Doji’s children may not have been able to keep the city, the traveler thought, but they had certainly managed to put their stamp on it. He spent a few more moments thinking of might-have-beens, and then he shook his head and resumed walking. There was much work to be done.

The stone garden was Yoritomo Saburo’s favorite place in the city; its large, shifting expanses of gravel and sand reminded him of his family’s home at the ocean’s edge. Today, however, he sat on a bench on the margin of a pool of beige sand and fumed. He had thought that the biggest problem he and his comrades faced was to find their way into the Shadowlands and discover the thing behind the Prophet’s dreams. He had never thought forward to what they would do after that.

Getting back into the Crab lands had been the first problem–the sentries at the gate had been understandably curious about what a Mantis, a Unicorn, a Lion and a Crane were doing coming out of the Shadowlands. Akodo Shunori had stepped forward then, and showing an audacity that left Saburo breathless in admiration he gave a carefully-worded explanation that left the sentries believing that they were the remains of a unit that had been pushed back from the main battle further along the Wall. The officer in charge had nodded wearily, had them checked for Taint, and then told Shunori to lead them back to their commander for reassignment. It made Saburo’s blood run cold to think how easy the deception, what Shunori had later referred to as “an unfortunate tactical necessity”, had been–but then, the Crab had been operating at their far limits for weeks now. Some slippage was to be expected. At least, he told himself, the Destroyers didn’t seen to be in the mood to try anything as quiet as infiltration.

Now they were grappling with their second problem: finding a way to obtain an audience with the Empress without explaining to anyone exactly what they needed to tell her. Saburo was beginning to think that getting into the Shadowlands had been the easy part. Almost everyone in Toshi Ranbo, it seemed, was convinced that they had vital business that needed the Empress’s direct attention and the Imperial bureaucracy that protected her from them was also was keeping Saburo’s news away.

Saburo’s status as one of the Prophet’s guardians had gotten him a meeting with Yoritomo Yoyonagi’s social secretary. At the end of Saburo’s impassioned appeal the woman had chewed on her lip, frowned, and offered him the chance to have tea with Yoyonagi in three weeks time. It was, she said, the best she could do. Kakita Hideo had convinced a courtier friend to help them. ‘”What you want is impossible,”‘ she had said, looking at them with her kind, beautiful eyes. ‘”But I will do everything I can.”‘ Utaku Kohana and Akodo Shunori had yet to make any progress in speaking to their clans’ representatives to the Imperial Court.

Impossible. What they wanted was impossible. Snarling silently in frustration Saburo picked up a stone to throw, remembered where he was, and then dropped it.

“Why didn’t you throw it?”

Saburo turned around in surprise and found a man standing behind him. He was dressed in the cream-colored robes favored by some of the more militant orders, but he carried nothing more warlike than a staff decorated with bells. He wore a wide-brimmed straw hat against the sun, and now he tilted his head as if to study the Mantis better. Saburo was silent for a moment, struck by the depth of experience he saw in the other man’s eyes, and then he remembered the question. “I didn’t want to ruin the pattern,” he said.

The man walked forward, picked up a fist-sized gray stone, and pitched it into the sand. “Have I ruined the pattern, or created a new one?” he asked.

Saburo stared at the stone for a moment. Then he found three more stones of a similar color and threw them into the sand pond, carefully forming a line.

“Well done,” the monk said.

Saburo laughed a bit. “Would that all the patterns in my life could change so easily,” he said.

The monk sat down on the bench next to Saburo. “You think forming that pattern was easy?”

“Well, yes,” Saburo said. “All I had to do was pick up the rocks and throw them.”

“The sand is not native to here, nor are the rocks. Everything had to brought here and put into position for you, so that when the moment came, you could strike.”

Saburo thought about the effort someone had taken to create the sand garden. Then he thought about the city that surrounded it, and the Court that lay in its heart. The young Mantis took a deep breath and stood up. “Excuse me, brother,” he said. “I need to keep looking for rocks.”

In the past week Utaku Kohana had realized several important things. She hated being separated from her horse. She hated Toshi Ranbo. She hated being woken up in the middle of the night by nightmares. And she really, really hated being followed down long, dark alleyways.

Whirling suddenly she pulled the large, heavy-bladed dagger she kept in her obi and dropped into a knife-fighter’s stance. “All right, fool,” she snarled, “let me show you that a katana is not the only–” She broke off her challenge as her eyes registered who was actually in the alley with her.

A monk in plain robes and a straw hat stood there, regarding her with a calm, if somewhat puzzled, look. “I’m sorry,” he said, “where you expecting someone in particular?”

Kohana blushed and hurriedly sheathed the knife. “No. I mean, yes. I’m so very sorry, brother. I thought you were someone following me.”

“Well, we are both going through this alley, and you are ahead of me, so…” He smiled and held up a hand to forestall another apology. “Toshi Ranbo is full of fools who cannot recognize danger when they see it. I would never expect a samurai to let such a thing pass. We need not give further attention to it.”

“Thank you, brother,” Kohana said. She bowed slightly to him, in respect for the Tao. and continued on her way. She was relieved to find him so understanding of the situation. Had things gone badly she might have ended up looking like someone with no manners at all, and how could she help her comrades get the Empress’s attention with a reputation like that? The thought led to another, and another, and by the time she had reached the end of the alley Kohana had made a decision. She paused when she reached the end of the alley and waited for the monk. “Excuse me, brother,” she said, “but I did not ask your name.”

“I am called Furumaro,” he said.

“Brother Furumaro, I would like to seek your advice on something,” she said.

“Stay out of alleys,” he said seriously. The he smiled. “I would be happy to share whatever wisdom I have. I believe there is a small shrine nearby; it would offer you some privacy.”

“Thank you,” Kohana said.

She spent their walk organizing her thoughts, and as soon as they had knelt down in the shrine’s quiet she knew what to say. “Brother, I have just come back from the Shadowlands, and since then my spirit has been greatly troubled.”

“Troubled?” the monk said. He looked somewhat taken aback. “Some would call you lucky, if that is all that mars your spirit.”

“I know,” Kohana said. “But this–it is almost as bad as Taint, I think. I have never feared anyone in a fight. I know that there are warriors stronger or more skilled than I, but I have never feared them. I am a Battle Maiden, and fear should be beneath me.” She paused for a moment and made her fingers stop worrying the folds of her hakama. “But what I saw in the Shadowlands–it is like nothing I have ever seen or heard of. Nothing I could have imagined. I know that the Empire is strengthened by Bushido, and that the Celestial Heavens have touched our Empress with wisdom. But the things that come for us in the South–I am afraid of them. I fear them as I have never feared anything else.”

“Hmm,” Furumaro said. He raised a fine-boned hand and thoughtfully rubbed his chin. “I once knew a young woman like you. Very much like you, in fact. She also found something from the Shadowlands to fear.”

“What did she do?” Kohana said.

“She made her heart larger by learning to love more things. That gave her the strength she needed to battle her enemies.”

Kohana frowned in thought. “Is that what I should do?”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. Some things are not good to love. But if she could find a way, then you should also be able to find away, yes?”

“Yes,” Kohana said slowly. “Yes. I will.” She stood up, feeling stronger for her decision. “Thank you, Brother Furumaro.”

“It was no trouble, child. Carry the Fortunes.”

The noodle shop had plenty of tables inside, but Mirumoto Ichizo had elected to take his bowl of noodles outside and sit on the bench next to the door. He didn’t like to get too close to other people with the plague running through the city. As he ate he thought about Yoritomo Saburo. Ichizo had spotted the Mantis samurai the day before, a brief glimpse before the crowd shifted. Saburo had not noticed him, engrossed in whatever business that had brought him to Toshi Ranbo.

Ichizo had wounded Saburo at the Topaz Championship where the two had their gempukku. The judges had declared it an accident and no penalties had been assigned to him, but for months afterwards Ichizo had blamed himself. But yesterday he realized that he no longer felt quite the same way about the matter. It was unfortunate that he drawn blood in an event that was supposed to be only a show of skill, but over the past few years he had seen samurai with years of experience make errors of judgment–so was it so remarkable that he had done so on the threshold of adulthood? And then there were the judges to consider. By blaming himself when they did not, wasn’t he claiming that his judgment was superior to theirs? Was that intelligent of him? Ichizo finished his noodles and put the bowl on the ground for the shop servers to retrieve. He was changing, and he didn’t know if he was growing wiser or becoming more lax. It troubled him.

“Excuse me, Dragon-san. May I sit on this bench with you?”

Ichizo looked up to see a monk of indeterminate age standing next to him. “Of course, brother,” he said, and moved over slightly to give the man more room.

The monk sat down and sighed. “Many thanks, Dragon-san. The road I walk is a long one.”

Ichizo smiled slightly. “‘Relish the moment before you make the first step on a journey, for that is the sweetest moment in the world,’” he said.

The monk raised an eyebrow at him. “‘If you are walking, walk. If you are running, run. Never meander,’” he replied.

“‘If you meet Shinsei on the road,’” Ichizo said, “‘kill him.’”

The monk stared at him in utter surprise for a moment, and then he threw back his head and laughed. The laughter had a rich, warm sound to it that raised the hairs on the back of Ichizo’s neck. “Indeed, Dragon-san, indeed. You are very wise for one so young.”

“Not so wise, brother. I read the Tao, but I know that is the study of a lifetime.” As he spoke Ichizo realized that maybe that was the answer to his questions: maybe he should consult the Tao. It would likely lead to more questions, but that was not an inherently bad thing.

“Many lifetimes,” the monk said. “It is nonsense, but it leads men to greatness. I don’t understand it at all.”

This man, Ichizo decided, was clearly enlightened. “Brother, may I ask you a question? I am in need of advice.”

“If you read the Tao, you know all I could tell you.”

Ichizo pondered this for a moment and then nodded. “Thank you, brother. That is very helpful.” He rose to his feet, pulled a few coins out of his obi and dropped them on the bench. “Seeking wisdom is hungry work. Please allow me to buy you some noodles.”

“You are gracious,” the monk said. He smiled as he scooped up the coins. “This will not be forgotten.”

Furumaro chewed absently on a wisp of straw as he strode down the busy street through the heart of the Imperial City. The noodles had been exquisite, the finest he had enjoyed in quite some time, but his mind was still burdened by the young samurai he had met throughout the city. They were so young, and clearly had potential to accomplish great things in their lifetimes.

But would they be equal to the task before them? To the enormity of the burden they would soon assume? He did not know.

Doubtless one day soon they would accidentally share stories and realize that they had all spoken to a mysterious monk on this day. They might find such a coincidence suspicious, and of course they would be right to do so. Furumaro longed to share with them the truth, to lay the path before them that they might begin in earnest. But it was not yet time for that.

Destiny could not be commanded, only guided.

Change could not be rushed, only facilitated.

Furumaro dwelled upon these things as he took in the wonders of the Imperial City.

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