|Gencon 2011 scrolls|
|Written By:||L5R Story Team|
|Link:|| Crab Scroll, |
|Story Year:|| 1174, |
Hida Mimori laughed. It was a booming, explosive sound that filled the entire house and likely several adjacent houses as well. It was a familiar sound as well, for on those days when Mimori was spared from his duties upon the Great Carpenter Wall, he could always be found at home with his wife and small children, and he seemed to relish the life they shared.
His wife was such a strong woman. So rugged. Beautiful, he thought. So beautiful. They had known one another since childhood, and to Mimori it was a sign of favor from his ancestors that they had been allowed to marry. She had been his greatest friend for a number of years, and their marriage had only increased that. Their son, now four years of age, was the best of both of them. Even now the little one toddled over to where his wife held their newborn daughter, who was his wife made over. He was pleased by that, enourmasly so. His wife was the perfect Crab woman, and his daughter would be as well.
The little one peered over the edge of the bundle his mother held, and the baby reached out and grabbed him by the nose. The boy was so surprised that he yelped and backpedaled away from the two women, only to stumble over the toy wooden tetsubo his uncle had carved and then sat heavily into a bowl of water that they had put out for their pet dog. The boy began caterwauling at once, lodged in the bowl, water slopping everywhere. Mimori roared.
Mimori ran. Two others tried to bar his path. One of them started to say something, but Mimori punched him in the face and made him stop. There was nothing he wanted to hear from him, not from any of them. The other reached up to stop him, but Mimori put him on the ground. He might have been seriously injured, but Mimori neither noticed nor cared. He ran to the place where she had been posted.
The attack had been brief but frighteningly intense. The demons that had attacked were of a kind never before documented. They were insectile, extremely fast and agile beyond anything that Mimori had ever seen. Their legs, so many of them, could be used as weapons. Razor-tipped weapons that Mimori had seen eviscerate no less than four men on his duty post alone. Now all he could think of was if there had been similar losses as this duty station.
Mimori shouted his wife's name. Others looked at him and tried to talk to him, but he would not listen. Far more concerning, however, were the ones who looked away. They could not look at him. Why would they do that, unless...
He saw a form, a terribly torn and bloodied form, lying amid the others on the surface of the Wall. He rushed to the sight, knocking another from his path as he did so. He dropped to the ground and wailed as he saw the ruined form of his wife. So still. Still so beautiful. He grabbed her and lifted her to him, crushing her cool form against his chest.
Mimori's son was doing well at the dojo. He would reach his gempukku in another year or two. It should be three, by rights, but his studies were coming along so well that he would likely graduate early. Mimori had not spoken to the sensei himself, but he had spoken to others who had spoken to them, and their glowing reports of his son's progress filled him with pride. He had not seen his son or his daughter, who was currently in training to be a shugenja and who had already been arranged to marry one of that family upon her gempukku, since a few weeks after his wife's death. The changes that had come over him since that day were too great. Instead, they were remanded to the custody of his extended family, and he threw himself into his duty to the exclusion of all else. His only interaction with his children, the only interaction he allowed himself, was to watch them from afar when they were unaware of his presence. As he was doing now.
The demons gibbered like fools, and despite their bestial nature, Hida Mimori knew that they sensed their impending doom. Even the simplest creature could know that it was in a trap, after all, and this was no different. One of them, a corpulent, reptilian creature, turned toward them and placed its back against the stones. something in its eyes, some primitive intelligence, told Mimori that intended to fight.
Thank the Fortunes. He needed a fight. He needed to be tested, to push against himself and overcome it. Maybe this beast would be the one that finally sent him to be with his wife? No, probably not. None of the hundreds that he had faced since her death had managed it, so why should this one?
The beast drew back and belched fire. Not a trivial amount, but a massive gout, a spray of fire worthy of a volcano. One of Mimori's comrades was incinerated immediately, and the others leapt back to avoid being burned. Mimori himself did not. He leapt up, hurling himself over the flames and rearing back with his weapon. It was his only purpose, his only skill. It was the only thing he was capable of since the death of his wife.
Kakita Mitohime stood quietly and struggled not to fidget while she waited. It was one of the great oddities of her young life: in a duel, she could find her center and remain utterly motionless for hours on end, if it was what the circumstances required. Anywhere else, she found it difficult to contain her energy. She was waiting for the provincial daimyo to admit her. She found the entire affair annoying, if for not other reason than that the daimyo had summoned her, and now kept her waiting as if for his convenience. Was her value so little? She knew that there were many who thought so, but this seemed unnecessarily cruel and petty...
"Good afternoon, Mitohime," an unfamiliar voice said. "I apologize if your wait was overlong. Some unexpected matters arose that I needed to resolve first."
Mitohime turned toward the voice and froze in place for a tiny fraction of a second before bowing so deeply that her forehead nearly cracked the corner of a low table. "Makoto-sama," she said reverently. "I did not know that it was you who..."
The Crane Champion held up his hands. "A self-indulgent thing, I know. I hope I caused you no consternation. Rise, please."
Mitohime rose, her cheeks slightly flush. "Wait... it was you who wished to see me, my lord? Whatever for?"
“I have heard of your prowess on more than one occasion,” Makoto said. “I happened to be in the area when I heard of your duel against Matsu Burai. I am grateful that you have resolved such a long-standing debt of honor, although I suspect that Burai's injured pride will result in the formation of a new one, with you.”
“He may bear me ill will if he wishes, my lord,” Mitohime said. “I am not concerned with his pride, only the weakness of his sword arm.”
Makoto chuckled. “I had heard your tongue was as sharp as your blade. I am pleased to see it was not an exaggeration!”
Mitohime smiled wanly. “Not many share that opinion, my lord, but I thank you for it anyway.”
Makoto nodded. “I understand you visit this province regularly.”
She looked away nervously. “Yes, my lord.”
“Family business, I assume?”
“Yes, my lord,” she repeated.
Makoto drew a deep breath. “How is your mother, Mitohime?” he asked quietly.
Mitohime shifted her weight from one foot to the other anxiously. “She is as well as can be expected, my lord. Her health suffers somewhat.”
“Her burdens have aged her beyond her years,” Makoto agreed. “She carried the responsibilities of others with great pride and dignity despite that it should never have been asked of her.” He paused and regarded the young woman kindly. “Your mother's mistake should never have been made into the disgrace she suffered,” he said. “It is one of the very few things that I disagree with my mother upon. Your mother should have been forgiven.”
“Even if Domotai-sama had forgiven her, she would not have forgiven herself,” Mitohime said. “I do not know all that happened, but that she hates herself as a result is clear to me.”
“I am sorry,” Makoto said. “You have borne a terrible burden, just as she was forced to. Try to shoulder it as best you can. It will not be forever. That may be difficult for you to imagine now, but I promise you it is the truth.”
“Thank you, my lord,” she said, head bowed. “You are more gracious than I deserve.”
It was early evening by the time that Mitohime arrived at the tiny, rural estate where her mother dwelled. There were no servants or any peasants within miles; her mother did everything herself. It was part of her self-loathing, Mitohime knew, and part of her self-imposed punishment. She strode through the front without preamble. “Mother?” she called. “I am here.”
A moment later, her mother appeared in the narrow, plain corridor. She was like a phantom with her prematurely grey hair, lined face, and faded clothing. “Hello, my daughter,” she said in a voice that sounded exhausted. “It is a pleasure to see you once again. I trust your travels went well?”
“Your skill is as formidable as ever,” her mother said, a hint of pride in her voice. “How did you encounter the Lion?”
“I visited an Ikoma library owing to matters of heraldry.”
Her mother stopped in her tracks. “Oh?” she said, her voice forced. “How nice.”
“Tell me,” Mitohime said sternly.
“Why do you always ask me? her mother said. “The knowledge will not bring you peace.”
“I know more than you think,” Mitohime insisted. “I know my father was a Scorpion, and I know that you were not wed. My birth was the nature of your disgrace, because your hand in marriage would have been a great bargaining tool for the clan. I ruined that for you.”
“I chose my fate,” her mother said. “You are blameless. You are the only thing that I do not regret from that time in my life.”
“Tell me my father’s name,” Mitohime said. “I am not a child. I am not a fool. I deserve to know his name and what happened to him. You owe me that much.”
Yung sat on a boulder atop a cliff. To describe the spot in which he preferred to take his daily meals to another would make it sound incredibly dangerous and call his judgement into question, but in reality it was quite safe. The boulder appeared to be a large, loose stone, but Yung believed that it connected to the spine of the mountain upon which it sat. The cliff itself could fall away, but the stone would remain, and there would Koru be, sitting atop it eating a rice ball. The thought entertained him, although he was not entirely sure why. Perhaps there was something of enlightenment found in such a simple notion. He would meditate upon it later in the afternoon, as time permitted.
Someone approached from the path behind him. The pattern and timbre of his footfals identified him at once. "Hello, Koru," Yung said brightly. "How are you this fine afternoon? The Jade Sun blesses us all."
There was a moment of hesitation as Koru stopped, clearly flummoxed by Yung's identification of him. Koru was a younger monk, still trapped in the ways of the world in many respects, and he struggled with some of the greater notions of the Brotherhood. But he would learn, in time. Yung knew this as surely as he knew that the sun would rise the following day. It was the way of things.
Koru appeared at Yung's side. "I see your guest finally departed."
"Guest?" Yung said.
"The Tattooed Monk who was here all morning," Koru explained.
"Oh yes, he was here," Yung agreed. "He was hardly my guest, though. This is nature. We are all at home here."
Koru frowned. "You sit here every morning."
"Only because no one else sits here first."
The young monk was clearly flummoxed, but he let the matter drop after a moment of fidgeting. "Was he a member of the Togashi order, then?"
"He walks the path of the Dragon, yes," Yung said. "We must all walk a path."
"Odd to find a Togashi here," Koru noted.
"I should think no," Yung said. "Hizumi and I share a morning discussion once a month. The first of the month, to be precise. We have for many years."
"Oh. May I ask what you discuss?"
"Predominantly we discuss Hizumi-san's unique opinion on the philosophy of the world," Yung said. "It is most fascinating, even if I do not share his outlook."
"What is the nature of his philosophy?"
Yung smiled. "He believes that destruction is the ultimate creative force."
Koru's mouth hung open for a moment, "What...what does that even mean?" he demanded. "That is preposterous!"
"I agreed, once," Yung said. "I no longer do."
"How can you say that?"
Yung gestured to the desolate rock plain below them. "Watch and understand."
Koru looked down on the field of stone, pitted here and there with craters and other fissures. Squinting, he mare out the form of a lone monk walking among the stones. The monk walked around for a time, seemingly at random, before stopping in a particular spot. The two Brotherhood monks watched from a distance as the monk performed a series of complex kata. Toward the end, the monk began leaping into the air and coming down with a fierce kiai and a strike that shattered the stone where he was standing.
Koru was aghast. "He is destroying the field! For no reason! This is wrong!"
"Is it?" Yung asked. "Look again?"
Koru stared at the older monk for a while, but grudgingly turned back to the vista before him. The dust from the monk's strikes, which appeared to be finished, was blowing away on the light breeze, and Koru's breath caught in his throat.
From this distance, it was now obvious that the strikes had completed some form of sculpture, conducted on an unprecedented scale. The slight adjustments made to the landscape, the changes in depth and shading, gave it now the image of a beautiful sunset. From any other perspective, it would be completely lost, but here and here along, it revealed the majesty hidden in the monk's work. "By the Fortunes," Koru whispered.
"His work, it seems, is complete," Yung said. "I am honored to witness it, but I will miss our conversations."
"What will he do now?" Koru asked.
"Who can say? The Togashi go where they choose and do what they wish. He will begin his work again somewhere else, I imagine. Perhaps find other souls he can convert to his philosophy."
"I...am not sure I find that a comforting thought."
Yung smiled. "Only unenlightened thoughts bring comfort. The difficult thoughts are what guide us on our paths."
Akodo Hiroko walked through the streets of the village, glancing down each alley and listening carefully. She enjoyed the quiet serenity of the village, and not for the first time she made a mental note to thank her husband for the estate he had ordered built for her. It was a small village, unknown to many in the Lion lands, and that he had cared enough to build an estate so that she could take their children to visit her birthplace was a great source of happiness for her.
A child's bright laughter filled the air, and Hiroko smiled. Her second son, Kano, was such a pleasant child. Always smiling or laughving, never solemn like his brother or doubtful like his sister. She loved them all, of course, but it was always him that brough a smile to her face. “Kano-kun!” she called out. “Where are you?”
She follower his voice toward a small temple near the village center. She could hear him talking and wondered what new friend he had made this time. He had a talent for such things. No matter where they went, he always found new friends. And not simply because he wa the Lion Champion’s son, for oftentimes his acquaintances had no idea who he was until later. She entered the temple and looked around. “Who are you talking to my little one?”
Kano appeared, a broad smile on his face. “My new friend!” he announced proudly.
Hiroko chuckled. “Where is he? Can I meet him?”
“It's a her!” Kano laughed. He pointed toward the center of the temple. “She smiled at me!”
Hiroko followed his gesture, her smile fading. There was no one there but a statue of the hero Matsu Hitomi. “Where?” she said.
“There!” he answered, pointing at the statue vigorously. He giggled. “She winked at me again!”
Hiroko smiled, but her heart was not in it. Something about the boy's demeanor suggested he was not playing, but completely serious. “That is nice,” she said. “Come along, Kano, we must go.”
“Can I come back again tomorrow and play, mother?” Kano asked eagerly.
“We shall see,” Hiroko replied.
Akodo Kano tied the strings of his travel pack and tested its weight. Pleased, he turned to the racks containing his armor and swords. Once he took them up and left, there would be no turning back. This step could never be untaken. Oddly, he found himself unconcerned. Perhaps he should not have been surprised though; he had never been particularly prone to regret or reflection.
There was a sound at the tent opening. “Kano.”
He turned back to look at his younger sister and smiled. “Dairuko.”
“What have you done?” she demanded. She looked calm, but there was an undercurrent to her voice that indicated she might be panicked. She was always so worried, so dour. Her hair had begun to gray already despite her youth, and he was sure it was due to her incessant worrying. “I have done only what destiny demands.”
“You must not do this,” she said. “You must accept the Championship. That is your destiny. That is your duty.”
Kano laughed. “I have already refused. Do you think they would simply allow me to change my mind? Perhaps I will tell them I was simply refusing twice as custom dictates. I am certain they would understand.”
“Is everything a joke to you?” Dairuko demanded, her voice louder than he had ever heard it. “Is even the most sacred tradition something to be mocked?”
“I mock nothing,” Kano said. “I simply understand that not everything can be treated with the same absolute solemnity or else it loses all meaning.”
“Please do not do this,” Dairuko said quietly. “I…I cannot be Champion.”
Kano looked at her, surprised. “Of course you can,” he said. “I am not fit to be the Clan Champion. Surely you must realize that. You, on the other hand, are perfect for the duty.”
“How can you say that?”
Kano picked up his pack and his blades, choosing to leave his armor. “The world has changed,” he explained. “The empire that was is no longer, and the Lion must change or we will be lost. You alone are capable of teaching them what must be done.”
“This is a mistake,” she said.
“I know a great deal about mistakes,” Kano said, shouldering the bad. “I have made them something of a habit over the years after all. And I tell you, with absolute certainty, that this is the most correct thing I have ever done.”
Dairuko watched him as he made his way out of the tent and toward the road that led away from the castle. “What will you do?” she finally asked.
He stopped for a moment. “I do not know,” he admitted. “But I cannot wait to find out.”
The night air was thick and humid, and it was pierced by cries of pain. The small home near the seashore was not elaborate or opulent, but it was normally comfortable. Tonight, however, there was no indication of comfort anywhere within. Yoritomo Takhime ground her teeth against the pain, twisting the sheets in her grasp so tightly that she feared they might tear off in her hand. The midwife was working diligently, whispering things to her in an attempt to calm her, but Takhime would not hear them. The baby was not supposed to come for weeks yet! Her beloved Minoken would not return for at least a month! She did not want to welcome the baby alone.
"We are close, my lady." the midwife whispered. "Be strong. Your child comes quickly."
Takhime nodded and close her eyes. Minoken. He was working on a vessel helping to resupply the forces fighting against the destroyers. It was dangerous work, running up the rivers into the mainland, but he was a brilliant sailor and already his captain had indicated he would be in line for a ship of his own if the war went much longer. She wanted the war over so that he could be home again, but she knew how much he wanted a kobune of his own. She would be strong for him, for their daughter. With one final cry of pain, she pushed.
"it is done!" the midwife cried, and Takhime slumped against the sheets, exhausted. She smiled and wept at the same time, grateful both for the end of the discomfort and the arrival of her... her.... "Why isn't she crying?" Takhime whispered. "Where is my daughter?"
The midwife's face appeared in her field of vision. She was so pale, so frightened. "My lady, I... I am sorry. The baby... the baby is not... she..."
"What?" Takhime cried. "what is it? What's wrong? Give me the baby!"
With shaking hands, the midwife handed the tiny, unmoving bundle to the mother, and Takhime's cries became shrieks of primal anguish.
It was well past midnight. Takhime stood at the seashore, the water up to her stomach. She wept, wailed, and sobbed without ceasing. It felt as if her soul had been torn out of her body and trapped in a tiny, still flesh in her arms. She would have willed her life away if it could make the little one live, but she could not. In some distant corner of her mind she knew that this was a reality of life; her mother had given birth to six children, and only four had lived. But nothing could have prpared her for this. There was no preparation for pain of this magnitude. This was a would that would never, could never heal.
Takhime bent down and released her little daughter into the sea. She never drew her first breath. She would never laugh, or know her parents. The horror of it, the tragedy, was more than Takhime could bear. As the little thing drifted away into the sea, she stared at the tiny birthmark on her elbow. It was that image that would haunt her dreams for the rest of her life. She knew in that moment it would be so. Takhime wailed and pulled at her hair. She needed Minoken desperately, and he was not there.
The small home near the seashore had once been a pleasant place, but that was long since passed. It had fallen into a disgraceful state of disrepair, and it was only because of its relative seclusion that its dilapidated state was tolerated; simply put, too few saw it to care for its fate. It scarcely seemed fit to be called a home, but home it was. Yoritomo Takhime haunted its interior, rarely venturing beyond. If not for the kindness and pity of her family, she would would long ago have died and joined her husband and daughter.
News of Yoritomo Minoken's death had reached her almost exactly one year ago, mere days after the stillbirth of their only child. The pain of losing their daughter had seemed so overwhelming, so beyond imagining, that Takhime had foolishly assumed she could suffer nothing worse. The Fortunes had cursed her for her arrogance, and her husband's loss had broken her mind., at least for a time. Now she drifted aimlessly among the ramshackle remnants of their home, a ghost of her former self. Despite her youth she seemed ancient and withered, and even her siblings and cousins who came to see her and bring food did not tarry long. It was just as well; she had no taste for comfort of others. Thus it was that the pounding upon her door in the middle of the late evening startled her.
Takhime arose from her seat like a phantom, staring at the door with large, expressionless eyes that were well accustomed to the dim light within. Novelty, if nothing else, compelled her to go to the door and after only a moment she drew it back. The curiosity in her heart was the first true feeling she had known since the courier arrived on here door with that terrible news all those months ago.
For a moment, it seems that nothing was there, that was the night itself had struck her door for some unknowable reason. Then the darkness shifted amid itself, something moving amonth the blackness. There was the overwhelming stench of the sea, not just the sear air but the stuff of the sea itself: seaweed, soil, and the scent of fish just harvested. Two great eyes loomed in the darkness, and a shape like that of a serpent towered over her. Takhime looked up without fear. Was this death, then, come to claim her as it had claimed her family? She would not feel fear of that. She craved to be with them again. Strange mandibles opened and closed as if trying to speak, but no sound emerged. Finally two massive arms reached forward toward her. In the arms of the serpent man was a tiny child, not much more than an infant, perhaps only a year old at most , and on its elbow...
Takhime gasped and her hands flew to her mouth. She knew the mark. She saw it each time her eyes closed, every time she had closed for more than year. The little one's bright eyes lit up and she cooed at Takhime reaching for her. The woman's heart surged as if to escape her chest, pounding so hard that there was no other sound in the world. She reached forward, looking up to the creature. It nodded, and handed the girl to Takhime.
The little child squealed in delight and tugged at Takhime's thin dirty hair. She laughed, and Takhime began to weep. The thing in the doorway disappeared as it had appeared, its outline winding down the path toward the sea once more.
"Minori," Takhime whispered, weeping. "My little Minori, you've come home to me..."
Everything that was within Shiba Sawaken screamed at him that something was wrong. He did not know what. He only knew that as he watched his Champion prepare to duel her enemy, that something was deeply, fundamentally wrong. It was only a lifetime of discipline and adherence to rigid protocol that stayed his hand, that kept his blade within his saya. The image in his mind, of himself drawing his blade and rushing to her aid, was so powerful that it seemed like something he had actually witnessed or done, a memory rather than a merely wish.
The sunlight glinted of the enemy's blade. Right into Tsukimi's eyes. The Phoenix Champion blinked.
The enemy struck.
Sawaken and two other men carried Shiba Tsukimi into a small, crude watch tower nestled amid the peaks. She stirred and clutched at their clothing, but she did not cry out. Sawaken could not imagine the level of will required, because merely looking at the wound on her face caused his stomach to churn uncontrollably, and he was a man who had seen a great deal of combat so far in this conflict. Leaving his Champion with the others for a moment, Sawaken threw open a number of emergency supply crates and retrieved several thick winter garments. He spread them out across the low tables, and then helped the others move Tsukimi to the table. "Make her as confortable as you can," he instructed one of them, then fixed the other with a pointed stare. "We will head down the mountain for help. If anything happens to one of us, the other must proceed regardless."
"I am no healer," the first man protested.
"Your mother is, so you have been exposed to more than the rest of us," Sawaken said sharply. "The others from the command staff will be here shortly, and they will help you, but we will not wait." He pointed to Tsukimi. "She cannot wait."
The second man looked away. "She will not survive long enough for help to arrive," he said quietly. "Look at her."
Both men were older than Sawaken, but he would not accept their meek response. He slapped the second man across the face with such force that he fell into the floor and stared up at Sawaken in mute horror. "We will not abandon our lady!" Sawaken shouted. "I will do all in my power to protect her from any threat, no matter what the cost!"
The man on the ground looked at the young warrior piteously. "It is not your fault this happened, Sawaken."
It seemed as if Sawaken's blood would boil from his veins. Why could they not see it? They could still stop this! He raise his hand as if to strike the other man again... and someone took him gently by the arm.
Sawaken turned and found himself face to face with an incredibly serene woman. "There is so much anger in your spirit," she said sadly. "Release it. Do not let this tragedy change who you are."
The rage flooded from him in an instant, and his eyes filled with tears. He looked down at the other man and shook his head. "I did not mean... I would never..." he looked back at her. "Please Master Kimi... you have to do something."
Isawa Kimi, Master of the Void, looked so deeply into his eyes that it seemed as if she could see everything he had ever been. "I will do all that I can, brave yojimbo." She moved to the crude mat where they had laid Tsukimi, gently ran one of her hands along the Champion's bloodied face. "The poison in her system is very powerful, very subtle," she said sadly.
"Poison?" Sawaken said, his hand hovering near his blade. "He poison her?"
"There is little in the world that the Scorpion Champion would not consider to achieve victory," the Master of the Void said. "His heart is filled with a poison more virulent than anything ever found in the world."
"He must pay for his crimes!"
"What crimes?" Kimi asked. "He will take affront at the idea, and the war will continue."
Sawaken gestured to the Champion. "Will this be proof enough?"
"Only if we allow her to die," Kimi replied. "If she is to live, I must erase all vestiges of the poison from her. It is the only way she can survive. As it is, the poison has taken her eyes." She looked at the other three samurai. "Decide now what is more important... her life, or justice?"
"Save her," Sawaken said at once.
"Then be silent, please," Kimi said, "and ensure no one else enters. this will prove extremely difficult."
Hours later, Shiba Tsukimi sat up suddenly, inhaling sharply as she did. She reached up to her face at once, feeling the bandages that covered her eyes.
"Tsukimi-sama!" a voice she recognized as Sawaken said. "Please, try not to move. your wounds are very serious."
She looked about at the strange colors and shapes, things such as she had never seen. She could see the energy within Sawaken, flowing from him to the table, to the watchtower itself. "My eyes," she said softly.
"I am sorry, my lady, but... they could not be saved."
Tsukimi held her hand up in front of her and looked at it. "I no longer need them," she said.
The young woman sat impassively while the much older woman gathered her things, placing them carefully one item at a time in her traveling pouch. The young woman's father flitted about in the background, wringing his hands nervously and managing to appear the very picture of anxiety despite the fearsome visage depicted on his mask. The old priestess bowed slightly to the father, who returned it absently, then turned back toward the doorway that led from the simple home to the city beyond.
A black-clad samurai stood at the door, nothing visible of his person save for his eyes. Two more much larger samurai stood behind him, each carrying a heavy weapon and each almost completely plated in armor. "What is your conclusion venerable priestess?"
Yogo Rieko sighed and stretched her back, wincing at the sound of it popping. It was foolish for a woman of her advanced years to sit for so long, truly. "I have conducted every examination that the Kuroiban have at our disposal," she said. "I would venture a guess that no one, not even the Phoenix, could have been more comprehensive in their evaluation."
"Your reputation precedes you, Rieko-sama," the leader of the three men said, his tone cordial but his eyes merciless. "May I ask again what the conclusion you have reached is?" He gestured over his shoulder and one of the other men drew his weapon noisily, drawing a yelp from the father but no reaction at all whatsoever from his daughter.
"I find absolutely no trace of any corruption in Hawado," Rieko answered.
The leader's hand stopped instantly, palm held out to halt the other man's movement, "I beg your pardon?"
"The girl shows no reaction whatsoever to jade or crystal," Rieko continued. "The kami I spoke to found nothing offensive or unusual about her at all. I spent more than three hours in communion with the elements all throughout this place and found no indication of any sort at all that Hawado is anything more than a young woman."
"You see?" the father said, his tone high-pitched. "My daughter is a good girl! She has done nothing."
"Be silent father," Shosuro Hawado said quietly. Her tone was absolutely flat, but her father still winced as if struck when she spoke. His eyes suggested he was more afraid of his daughter than anyone else in the room.
"But...the things she can do..." the Shosuro officer started.
"Have you seen any of them yourself?" Rieko demanded.
"No," he admitted. "But the testimony of men I trust has her performing acts that are quite simply...impossible."
"The world is a grand and mysterious thing," Rieko said. "There is much that we do not understand, and perhaps never will. I will tell you this, however...if there is something evil in that girl, it is no evil I have ever encountered." She paused for a moment. "Ultimately the decision as to what will become of her is yours. No one will fault you if you err on the side of caution, if you so choose."
The officer's eyes had taken on a hungry look. "No, thank you, inquisitor. I have something altogether different in mind.
The ronin Akita chuckled to himself as he fixed the bolts that ensured he would not be disturbed in his personal quarters, deep in the bowels of the City of Lies. It was likely unnecessary, as he had worked for months to ensure that, when he began stealing territory from one of the Scorpion-controlled cartels within the city, he did so through a web of intermediaries so complex that it made it impossible for anyone to know who he was. Even those few who dealt with him face to face did not know what he looked like, thanks to his preference for stylized masks, or his real name. The best methods were those stolen from one's enemies, after all.
The large quantity of koku that Akita had secreted into his chambers was more than he had ever possessed on his own, but it was only the begining. His plans were grandiose, and had been developed over the course of years spent working for the Scorpion in a variety of identities and locations. They had no chance to link them together. The Scorpion were soenmeshed in their own schemes and were so disdainful of the pawns they used that they were blind to schemes that could blossom right under their noses. It was a mistake they would learn to regret in the near future. Or not, depending upon whether or not they were able to decipher any of his schemes. Akita chuckled to himself again and poured a drink of sake. He rarely allowed himself such indulgences, but today had been a very successful one, and he wished to celebrate.
When Shosuro Hawado simply walked through the wall, Akita was so suprised that he choked uncontrollably on his sake. He was still coughing when the young woman plunged a dagger through his eye, killing him instantly. She glanced around the room with obvious disdain, picking up the bag of koku, then casually knocking the lantern over so that a fire started. "I will never live in such pathetic squalor," she promised herself quietly.
Then she stepped through the wall and was gone.
Tsuda was the larger of the two boys, at least three years older than Shima. This did not appear to matter as the two faced one another in the monastery's courtyard, as the the younger and faster Shima proceeded to soundly beat the older boy until he was just a mass of bruises and blood in the dirt. Shima turned to the others watching him and raised his hands above his head, this bloodied lips splitting in a victorious grin. Several of the other children cheered, alghough many chose not to. Shima walked in a circle around his defeated foe, ignoring the instant soreness and weariness of his limbs, exalting in the admiration of the others. When the slap to the back of his head came, it was so quick and so unexpected that he was thrown to the dirt next to Tsuda.
"What is the meaning of this?" a stern voice demanded. "There are to be no unauthorized duels in this dojo!"
Shima picked himself up from the dirt, scowling. The scowl disappeared instantly when he saw who had cuffed him. "Grandmaster Tetsuo!" he said, his tone awed and slightly fearful. "I... I a sorry, grandmaster!"
Tetsuo grabbed the boy's rough kimono by the shoulder and hauled him up to his feet. He gestured to the two of the larger boys in the audience and then pointed to Tsuda. "Take that one to the herbalist at once!" he said. "The rest of you, back to your chores!" The children scattered like leaves in the wind while the two youths hefted Tsuda up and took him toward the temple. Tetsuo glared at Shima. "What is the meaning of this? If you tell me that this was over matters of lineage again, wretched boy, there will be a reckoning."
"He insulted my form!" Shima blurted out. "He said my cobra stance was pathetic! I had to show him he was wrong!" He frowned and looked down. "I am sorry, master, but I could not let him say those things about me!"
Tetsuo grunted. It was almost a chuckle, but not quite. "Pathetic, eh?" He shook his head, "That boy has no room to talk. You are one of the most promising students in your class. If someone says something that proves them a fool, they are best ignored. Although I suppose he will no longer bother to insult you now. His friends might, though."
"Let them!" Shima said, "I will show all of them!" He realized what he was saying and looked down again, "I am sorry grandmaster."
"It is understandable in this instance, I suppose, "Tetsuo said. "There will be punishment for failing to maintain discipline, but Tsuda's willbe far worse. Not only did he instigate the matter, be he did so in a foolish and selfish manner."
Shima grinned, "If I must suffer, let my enemies suffer even more at my hand."
Tetsuo raised an eyebrow, "The writings of Master Michio? Impressive. I was of the impression that you were a lackluster student."
"I am not a strong reader," the boy admitted. "I try to read a little of his work every night after chores, if I can."
"He was a great man," Tetsuo said. "All that I knew at the time of his death, I learned from him."
"Is it true what they say about his death?" Shima asked, his breath short. "The stories are amazing!"
Tetsuo frowned and said nothing for a moment, "There is wisdom in the tale," he admitted. "Michio-sama would have been disgusted with your display at the end of your fight, for instance."
Shima's face fell completely. "He would?" he said meekly.
Tetsuo nodded. "Michio cared absolutely not at all for the adulation of others. The cheers of your schoolmates were intoxicating to you, was it not?"
"Yes," he admitted.
"Michio found the adulation of others sickening. They cheered for others to forget their own weaknesses, he said." Tetsuo seemed to consider for a moment, then slowly nodded. "I will tell you the tale," he said, "only because I think you can learn from it, and in you I see great potential. To see your potential tainted with weakness and sentimentality would be a terrible shame."
Shima bowed deeply, "Thank you, grandmaster!"
Tetsuo turned and looked to the mountains beyond the monastery's gate, considering his words. "In the days after the Spider's exodus, those of us who served in the order were busy building our place in the Empire, even as the Empire itself was rebuilt. It was a great time, but a dangerous time. There were many terrible things that escaped the Destroyer's ranks, and others that fled from the taming of the Spider. Michio wandered the land even as we obeyed his orders to construct our temples. He wandered the Empire in search of enemies to kill.
"It was not a simple matter. There were many who found the presence of the Spider an offense, and sought reasons to express themselves despite the Empress' decree that the order was to be accepted. Michio-sama once told me that for the entire first year of his travels, he was attacked almost every day, sometimes more than once. He did not mind. He believed that killing such fools was a service he performed for the Empress, purging her Empire of the weak and stupid."
Shima grinned broadly but said nothing.
"There were others who did not feel the same way as the attackers," Tetsuo continued. "There were many, a great many in fact, who saw his war against the demons and gaijin as a holy crusade, and they celebrated him for it. They called him a hero despite that he did not ask them to. They threw celebrations in his name despite that he would not attend. He wanted nothing of their weakness, but they insisted on thrusting it upon him.
"So it was that one day, while Michio-sama traveled the regions east of the Shinomen Mori, he was approached by a group from a large village in the area. 'Are you Michio, the great hero?' one of them asked him.
"'I am Michio the warrior,' he replied. 'Only fools have heroes.'
"If the others understood his words, they gave no indication. 'We have prepared a feast and celebration in your honor, great Michio,' the peasants said. 'Come and celebrate with us, please!'
"'I told you, only fools believe in heroes,' Michio told them. 'There is no such thing.'"
Here Tetsuo paused. "I wish that I could have been there when it happened," he said. "I wish that I could have seen it. Sadly, I was not there at that moment, only during the aftermath. There were four from the village. Only one survived what followed, and he never went home. He joined the order instead, and became our witness fro Michio's final battle. According to his account, there was a tremendous clap of lightning, and the Heavens themselves parted. A lone figure emerged and stood before them. 'I am Goemon, Fortune of Heroes,' the entity said, 'and your words offend me.'
"Michio did not falter. 'Your existence offends me,' he is said to have replied, and the battle was joined."
"It's true," Shima said breathlessly. "Michio-sama fought a Fortune!"
"Indeed," Tetsuo said. "Both fought only with their hands. The force of their confrontation is said to have killed the other three witnesses, and the survivor, after more than two hours of tireless combat, was said to have been blinded by the sheer force of the killing blow that Michio-sama delivered to the Fortune."
"Amazing!" Shima said.
"It was my great honor to be among those who arrived only a few moments after Michio-sama struck the killing blow," Tetsuo said. His ever-severe tone had taken on a reverent, awed quality that Shima had never heard. "The wounds that Michio-sama had suffered... I have never seen their like. No mortal could possibly have survived them, and yet Michio-sama did. His will, his unbreakable will, kept him alive when his body should have collapsed. 'I have tasted a true challenge today, Testuo,' he told me. 'Nothing in this world can ever compare to it.'" Tetsuo lowered his head. "It was not that Michio-sama was defeated. He simply could no longer find challenge in this life, and so he surrendered his flesh so that his spirit could seek greater foes elsewhere."
"One day I will be like him!" Shima erupted. "I will be as strong and powerful as he was, and no one will ever dare speak to me like Tsuda did again!"
Testuo raised an eyebrow. "We shall see about that, boy. Report at dawn for your punishment. In the meantime, practice your forms. Your cobra stance is excellent despite what your fool cousin said, but your monkey stance is inadequate."
Moto Taha stood behind the tree and made an attempt to still his breathing and his beating heart. He breathed through his mouth and tried to remain absolutely silent, listening carefully to everything around him. There was a sudden noise nearby, and his heart leapt. He gripped the hilt of his weapon and opened his senses, trying to find out where his prey might be without moving. he waited, holding his himself absolutely still, waiting until the very last moment, then he lunged out. he moved faster than he had ever moved, swinging his weapon in a killing arc.
Taha pulled his strike at the last possible moment, bringing the blade to a halt only inches away from Shinjo Baeshuko's face. She smirked slightly. "Thank you very much," she whispered, her voice no louder than the rustling wind in the grass.
Taha lowered his weapon. "I thought you were the Khan."
Baeshuko Smirked. "As if you would ever hear the Khan approach."
"I hate these accursed exercises!" Taha muttered. "What do they prove?"
"Do not be naive," Baeshuko admonished. "Only those who can best the Khan are permitted the join the Khan's Elite. I want to be one of them. Do you?"
"Yes," Taha said. "Yes, damn it! Of course I do!"
"Well then, best get a hold of yourself and resume the exercise!" Baeshuko said. "The conditions of the test are quite clear."
Taha nodded, then paused. "The conditions do not specify the terms by which the Khan must be bested, only that the defeat must be decisive, correct?"
Taha gestured towards the scout. "Then I say we combine our efforts. If we work together, than at least one of us will make the cut, yes?"
Baeshuko considered it for a moment, then nodded. "And you can always try again next year," she added with a smile.
"Oh, so clever," Taha said with a sneer.
"I shall have to speak with my advisors," a new voice said. "The criteria currently in place for approving candidates appear to be lacking."
Taha and Baeshuko were on guard at once, adopting defensive stances. A massive warrior in all-concealing armor dropped from the treetops nearby and charged, churning up the earth beneath armored feet the second they touched the ground. Taha swung on the Khan as soon as range permitted, but the larger warrior ducked beneath the strike and shouldered Taha to the ground with such force that all the air was driven from his lungs in a single whoop. Baeshuko danced away from the engagement more carefully, then feinted and came back in, but the Khan was too fast. The scout had her legs swept out from under her in an instant, dropping her into the dirt next to Taha. "Do you yield?"
Baeshuko slumped back on the ground to lay flat on her back. "Yes," she said, her tone clearly upset.
"Yes," Taha agreed. "Emma-O take it, yes!"
"Mind your tongue!" Baeshuko reminded her comrade.
"Anger is a perfectly suitable response," the Khan corrected. "It will make him try harder the next time. If he learns nothing from this, how can he ever hope to succeed at a later attempt?" The Khan reached up and removed the kabuto that concealed all features, shaking her long black hair free of the helmet as she did so. Shinjo Min-Hee, daughter of Shinjo Shono, kicked aside the wooden weapon Moto Taha had been weilding. "Perhaps in another few years, you will be successful."
Taha forced a smile. "Thank you, my Khan."
The Khan entered her personal estate and took a long drink of cold water. She placed her kabuto on the table next to her desk and began removing her greaves. Her handmaiden Ide Toruko, approached and bowed. "I am sorry to disturb you, my lady. I know you do not generally wish to be disturbed before bathing after such exercises, but..."
"I assume it must be quite important, then," Min-Hee observed.
"I felt strongly that you would wish to know that the Lion Champion's younger brother has declined to accept the position despite all standard protocol to the contrary."
Min-Hee stopped. "Akodo Kano declined?"
"He did, my Khan," Toruko confirmed.
She wiped her face with a soft cloth. "Who then? The sister?"
"Yes, my Khan. The youngest of the three siblings, Akodo Dairuko, is taking the position. There has been some... discontent among Lion over the entire affair."
"I imagine so," Min-Hee said. "But ultimately this has very little to do with the Unicorn, and thus it is of no interest to me."
Toruko looked surprised. "I... thought you would want to be advised. There may be some repercussions due to your... your involvement... in the succession."
Min-Hee shrugged. "I killed the Lion Champion in a duel," she said. "his father killed my father in war. The cycle is now complete. If the new Lion Champion or her wayward brother wish to pursue a blood feud, I have no particular objection." She turned to her handmaiden and smiled. "Thank you, that will be all."