Memories of a Stone Wall

From 1d4chan

Storytime pertaining the life of Hida Ishigaki as written in his personal Journal.

"My First L5R deck was a Crab deck, obsidian edition. So when I got into L5R rpg of course my first char was a Crab. I consumed source martial on my clan at a voracious pace. With the exception of the very first book of the Shadowlands I have read every sourcebook cover to cover that has anything to do with the Crab clan or the Shadowlands. Hida Ishigaki is my Crab. I shall now recount some of his tales."

Contents

The Story[edit]

Act I: Enter Hida Ishigaki[edit]

>Get picked out as an Emerald Magistrate.
>Guess the Crab's affinity for Water does mean I'm good at spotting clues...oh wait testimony is the only real evidence.
>Huh. Oh well, must be so I can spot tainted fuckers or something.
>Show up for my first day on the job in my battered ass O-Yori. Tetsubo slung over my shoulder. Can't beat the classic look, screw all that crustacean shit.
>Get looked at like I just crawled out of a midden. I cut my beard and everything too! Well, okay lopped it off with my tanto but still...!
>There's an Isawa Water tensai, her pet Shiba, Kitsuki of fucking course, and one of those Mantis twats.
>Yeah, yeah our "cousins." I don't buy it. Osono-Wo was a fucking CRAB, you minor clan money grubbing, peasant weapon swinging pissants do NOT get to call him your Ancestor.
>His blood flows in MY veins. Literally. I can trace a direct paternal line all the way back to Hida himself, not just one of the Samurai that took his name.
>Shugenja proceeds to cough up some blood during the meet and greet. Dafuk?
>Weak smile, explains she's been sick since birth.
>Impressed by her ability to Endure, keeping a proper face on even when she's clearly suffering. Tough girl. The fact that Benten was kind to her doesn't hurt either.
>First job is pretty straightforward, Bandits need to be handled. Gotcha, now I know why they picked me, of all people, for such a prestigious post.
>I'll spare you all the boring details. It went as you'd expect. I drew lots of attention and shrugged off their pathetic "attacks" with my armor and the strong Earth that all Crabs are blessed with, while the rest of the party took them down. The Mantis helped a little bit, I guess.
>The Shugenja though, didn't hurt anyone. Not one offensive spell. She tried to hide it, but I saw her wiping away her tears after the fight was over. Huh. Quite the softie.
>We head back into town, and I decide to reward myself with some good sake.
>Wake up, head is fuzzy.
>Waitwut?
>I've NEVER gotten so drunk I don't remember the night before. My liver is made of high grade Kaiu Steel FFS...
>Roll over, head pounding.
>Stare at disheveled Tensai. Damn she's cute. And a nice rack peeking out of her torn kimonOHNO.
>Screaming ensues.
>Yoriki with Yari swarm into the room.
>I'm under arrest.
>Kitsuki scrambles to look for evidence.
>Mantits starts asking around town, seeing if anyone saw anything.
>Shiba sharpens his sword.
>I keep my damn trap shut.
>Mantits comes back. Everyone he spoke to saw me and the Shugenja leave together. No one saw or heard a thing after that, not even where we went.
>"People didn't see shit, people didn't hear shit. I say it was Ninjas!" Flawless logic from that wannabe Samurai there.
>Kitsuki examines the Sake bottle I was drinking from last night. He says he found proof that it was spiked. Probably by a Ninja. Kitsuki's are pretty smart, so he's probably not wrong. I was framed as rapist by a Ninja.
>Shiba sharpens his sword.
>I said I WAS FRAMED AS A RAPIST BY A NINJA!
>Shiba puts his damn sword away.
>Well, now that that's settled.
>"Ahem. We're going to need some testimony on this, maybe someone confessing to drugging you. Otherwise as things stand..."
>Fuck my life.
>Begin the Ninja hunt.
>Start with waitresses.
>Grill those half people. Grill 'em good.
>First round of questions reveal that one of them has the hots for the proprietor's son.
>I stare blankly.
>Kitsuki thinks he knows what happened.
>Bring her back for round two.
>Kitsuki lets her have it. Spins this batshit insane story about how she spiked my Sake for a guy, who promised he would smooth things over with the proprietor so she could marry the boy she liked.
>That is the most far fetched...
>She breaks down in tears, admitting it.
>I want to go back to The Wall where things make sense.
>Go find Water tit-tensai.
>Well this is awkward. But that's why I'm here.
>Apologize profusely for this whole mess.
>She gives me a smile that doesn't seem very sincere to me. Says it's not my fault so she doesn't blame me.
>I believe her.
>Tell her it's still okay to be pissed about this whole thing. We only cleared my name. Still no idea who was behind it, or why.
>There's that smile again.
>Our intrepid band engages in some more investigations, trails, and questions. I help by keeping my yap shut and punching things that try to run away when they get cornered.
>Heading to bathhouse one evening.
>Dead body on the bridge.
>Well that's not supposed to be there.
>Hey, peasant, go to the inn and get the Kitsuki would ya?
>I take a look without moving the dude. Big slice from shoulder to hip, almost cut him clean in two.
>Learned a thing or two about anatomy and all that from a Kuni friend back home. I realize this guy was cut from behind.
>When the rest of the party gets there I shoo off all the lookie loos.
>Mention that it looks like the guy was cut from behind.
>Kitsuki confirms this.
>Not at all hard to find his killer. The dead guy was courting the city Governor's daughter.
>So was the Kakita that was in town.
>We confront said Kakita.
>He admits to the whole thing.
>But...
>Says it was a fair duel.
>BULLS....
>Shiba cuts me off.
>Oh right. Testimony.
>This Kakita is fairly high ranked himself. Our word vs his leaves the matter unresolved.
>The Shiba then says it.
>THAT IS BULLSHIT AND YOU ARE A MURDERER.
>Welp, it's on now.
>Shiba vs Kakita Iaijutsu duel at high noon.
>Why the hell did you stop me? I could have taken him.
>Incredulous stares.
>Well, if the duel proves that the Kakita was a murderer then he would be executed right? Or at least forced to commit Sudoku?
>Well, yeah.
>So then the duel is to the death, right?
>Yeah.
>Well I've just learned The Mountain Does not Move! I could have taken him.
>More incredulous stares.
>I pout as I watch the Shiba and the Kakita stare at each other for way too long.
>Shugenja girl is doing her damnedest not to fidget.
>Should I put an arm around her? Better not.
>Steel gets drawn, flashes in the noon sun.
>Turns out the Shiba's connection to the Void was stronger.
>A wild Monkey appears.
>We've made our way north, now in the lands of the Phoenix.
>Shugenja informs us that her father is the lord a coastal castle, suggest we stay there for a bit before continuing on.
>Warm castle. Futon. Bath. Sake. Yes plz.
>Meet and greet with her family. Her father has the nastiest case of resting bitch face I've ever seen. And I'm friends with a Kuni that never washes off his face paint.
>Mom is normal enough. Seems a model Rokugani wife. I can see where our shugenja learned her manners.
>Younger brother, not yet enrolled at a School.
>Older brother, Earth Tensai, like their father.
>The pleasantries drag on for fucking ever. Damn near everyone in our party is fidgeting a bit by now. Me and the Shiba are the only ones keeping still, but my legs have gone to sleep.
>Shugenja starts to shake a bit during the meet n' greet.
>Dad switches bitchface from passive to active. My Sensei would kill to be able to give a look of disapproval like that.
>She swallows. Hard. Several Times.
>Finally he waves his hand in dismissal.
>As we're following the servants to the rooms he's giving us, I notice her lips are bright red.
>She doesn't use makeup.
>I stop, grab her shoulder and wipe her lip.
>Blood.
>She was having another coughing fit, but instead of letting it come up like normal she choked it back as best she could, then swallowed the blood.
>I look her dead in the eyes.
>"Why?"
>By now, all of us know how to brew up her medicinal tea when she has her fits.
>I'm the only one who gives no fucks about propriety and holds her up when we're in public though. There's that damn smile again.
>"Oh, it wouldn't be good manners is all."
>Except she's coughed at plenty of times when it wouldn't be good manners.
>I want to press for more, but the Shiba is glaring hard enough to light my beard on fire so I let it drop.
>That night shit gets real.
>I hear something that snaps me awake.
>Even after all this time away from the Wall, I still sleep in my armor with a powdered Wakizashi in my hands.
>But it's not Oni.
>It's flaming arrows.
>Coming from the sea.
>Or, more specifically, the boats floating IN the sea.
>The Green and Gold boats.
>Looks like the Mantis have decided to have yet another go at the Phoenix.
>Well that shit's gonna be awkward later.
>Grab my Tetsubo, run down to the gate.
>Mantis Pirates are already swarming all over.
>We've got a real war on our hands.
>I do what Crabs do and rush to the thickest part of the fighting. The Crab are always in the Vanguard of a Multi-Clan force, after all.
>Draw a line in the dirt with my Tetsubo.
>Mantis come to a screeching halt, trying to figure out why there's a damn Crab in this Phoenix castle.
>They rush forward.
>I was born to do this. I've trained for this. I've fought on the wall against swarming hordes of chittering things and rotting corpses. Nothing can stand before my fury. The line holds.
>The Monkey comes to join me.
>BAM.
>I'm on the ground spitting up my own blood and teeth.
>The Monkey drags me clear as the Mantis swarm about.
>Water Tensai uses her magic to knit my wounds closed. Not a scratch on me when I return to battle.
>Again, dominate the shit out of this battle. Where I walk, Mantis bodies litter my path.
>Monkey comes to help.
>BAM.
>Aaaaaaaaaaaand I'm down again.
>Go away Monkey you're bad luck.
>Don't you want me to get you clear?
>GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME YOU GODDAMN JINX!
>Drag myself into a corner, prop myself up into a cool sitting pose resting on my tetsubo. At least I look good.
>Somehow the others hold out and night ends with the Mantis being driven off.
>Come the morn.
>Daddy dearest is in fine form, accusing us all of being spies sent ahead of the Mantis force.
>Because, you know, there's a Mantis in our group.
>And Emerald Magistrates do that kind of thing.
>And apparently his own Daughter.
>And the Crab who almost died, TWICE. You stay outside a ten foot radius of me at all times Monkey.
>The Kitsuki and the Shiba try, as gently as possible to point these things out to our irate host.
>Spare me your trivial facts, plebs. I rule this castle and I've already decided what happened! (I might be paraphrasing him a bit there.)
>Our little Shugenja starts coughing again.
>She can't hold it back this time, it's a pretty bad attack. After everything that happened last night I'm not surprised.
>I'm moving to catch her already.
>Her father is faster.
>SLAP.
>HOW DARE YOU SHAME ME LIKE THAT CHILD!
>Mom stares on impassively.
>Younger brother on the verge of tears.
>Older brother hides behind his fan.
>We're all pissed. That's our little flower, our hana-chan. The gentlest, most kind hearted person we know. She's saved all our lives countless times with her magic, she has never once inflicted a single wound on anyone or anything, she endures a life of constant pain without a word of complaint.
>Now I know why she thinks so little of herself.
>Now I know why her smile never really reaches her eyes.
>I'm a hair's breadth from becoming a murderer. I think the rest of our group will cover for me.
>She lays her hand on my arm. She knows what I'm thinking.
>She shakes her head.
>I restrain myself.
>Apparently his bout of child abuse has settled him down, like a drunkard getting his first swig of Shochu in a week. He lets the matter drop.
>Our Shugenja does a tea ceremony for all of us that night.
>I really didn't want to, since I'm pretty sure I always spin the bowl too much...or not enough, and because I really didn't like the idea of having her sit there and serve me tea after everything she's been through.
>But then I realized that being an Honorable person was just how she coped. So I went along with it.
>By the Fortunes that shit is bitter. Why the hell is it so bitter? It's supposed to be calming, right?
>I do feel calmer though. Huh.
>Never been much for property, so I just tell her I want to speak to her alone that night.
>She's taken aback. A maiden shouldn't be unaccompanied with a man after all. But she said yes anyway.
>Deep breath.
>"So, you know how Crabs revere Strength, right? Because Hida was the Strongest of the Kami?"
>"But he still lost in the first round of the tournament the Kami held. That's because there's all kinds of Strength, and he just didn't realize it at that time."
>"Strength isn't just hitting things hard, or talking a crushing blow and cushioning it with you Earth and your armor. A reed is strong, because it yields to the hurricane and never gets uprooted."
>She gives me the weirdest look.
>"Uh, yeah. So anyway I'm trying to say that I think you're Strong. Really Strong. To be honest, I'm in awe. And maybe a little jealous."
>She tilts her head and blinks.
>"And I want to say, you're beautiful. Benten surely blessed you when you were born. And you strong..."
>Fucking smooth there you dipshit. Just spit it out.
>"I... I love you. I know I don't really have any property or anything...but I CAN trace a direct line back to Hida himself! I mean, my family split off from the main family back in the 8th century so like, half the clan would have to die before I would ever get even close to being the Hida family daimyo..."
>Dare to look up.
>She's crying.
>Ya blew it, you fucktard.
>She throws her arms around me.
>Wat?
>Hugs me tightly.
>Dare to hope.
>"You have been so kind to me, I always thought it was just pity. Where have you been hiding this philosopher until now?"
>"Don't give me so much credit, I'm still the same idiot I've always been. I just see that having been born and raised a warrior it's not all that amazing that I'm good at it. You, on the other hand...
>"Have been born and raised to be a Shugenja, in the Clan that is best known for their Shugenja."
>"yeah but..."
>"Please, no more compliments tonight. My heart cannot take it."
>"Because I must turn you down."
>"My father would never approve."
>Contemplate murder for the second time that day.
>She's right about him though.
>And considering how she is an Honorable and Dutiful child she will do as her father bids.
>Well, she's got other family members.
>Let's go see her mom.
>Find her mother engaging in some Ikebana.
>Realize I only know that word because of the time I've spent traveling with our Shugenja.
>Sit down politely and wait to be acknowledged.
>Think about what I'm here to talk about, decide to go full dozega.
>Mother pauses when I do that. Then goes back to her arrangements.
>Arranging intensifies.
>Arranging intensifies.
>Arranging intensifies.
>Arranging intensifies.
>Arranging intensifies.
>I see, she's testing me. This family is fucking big on discipline. Fine.
>I'm going to show here that Crab's rep for being louts is due to how we cut loose when we're off duty. When we're ON duty however, not even the Lion can match our discipline.
>She gets up, leaves the room.
>Comes back.
>Sets down more flowers where I can see them out of the corner of my eye.
>Damn did she uproot her whole garden?
>Settle in muscles, we're going to be here a while.
>She decides to open the door to the garden. I can hear some water trickling, followed by a TOK.
>Water trickle
>TOK
>Water trickle
>TOK
>Water trickle
>TOK
>Water trickle
>TOK
>As my bladder starts to protest, I can see EXACTLY how much flower arranging she intends to do.
>Damn, this bitch is merciless.
>The Shiba shared some techniques with me to help quiet my mind. I use them to bolster my formidable stamina.
>Finally a "May I help you?" from mom.
>My spine cracks as I straighten up. Holy fuck I never would have guessed just holding still could hurt so much.
>Now to use subtle innuendo and word play to dance around this sensitive topic while still conveying my point. I've seen the Kitsuki do that plenty of times in court.
>"I wanna marry your daughter."
>NAILED IT
>"Whatever for?"
>I had plenty of time to guess how she would respond, and had readied several responses of my own.
>Whatever for? Was not one I was prepared for.
>"What do you mean, whatever for? Isn't it obvious?"
>Her mother hid her face with the sleeve of her kimono. It was a nice Kimono, fine red silk with gold threads weaving in intricate pattern I couldn't even begin to trace out in my head.
>I wonder when it was that I started to notice other people's kimono's and feel embarrassed by my simple grey cotton one.
>"There is no need to be coy, Ishigaki-san. My daughter is ill. She is frail. Why would a Crab, of all people, want to marry someone like that?
>Oh this shit again. Fine.
>Explain what Strength REALLY means to mom.
>Her eyes, poking up over that sleeve go wider with each word. They threaten to engulf her whole head. By the time I'm finished I am talking to one giant eyeball.
>Given how disciplined this family is, it dawns on me just how shocking the depth of Crab philosophy is to the rest of Rokugan.
>I'm kind of pissed off that this is so surprising.
>Pretty sure I didn't let that show.
>"So, anyway, I was thinking you might help me to convince your husband about this...
>She snaps back to normal in an instant, and her gaze frosts over.
>I've never felt the cold really, a gift from my Ancestor Osono-Wo, but I had to suppress a shiver at that chilly stare.
>"That will not be possible."
>Mother sighs. A surprisingly heavy one.
>"My husband has many duties as the lord of this castle. He is also a candidate for the next Master of Earth. As such alliances must be made, and favors exchanged."
>Favors. He thinks of his daughter as a favor to be traded.
>I know that's how it works in Rokugan, but it's actually a bit rarer in Crab lands than you'd think.
>Most families let their kids find a spouse on their own, though if you're not married by the time your 25 the Family will step in and find you a spouse.
>It's because we've got a high attrition rate. We need lots of babies and couples who love each other a lot have lots of babies, it's as simple as that.
>We Crabs are a practical bunch, after all.
>Dejected I take my leave.
>Well now what? Her younger brother isn't even in school yet, and her older brother looked like a daddy's boy.
>"I believe I can help you."
>HOLYSHITFUKWAT
>Old instincts kick in as I whirl to beat the shit out of whatever the hell managed to sneak that close to me.
>Check myself just in time to avoid killing her older brother.
>He stares calmly at my fist that's almost touching his nose.
>Smiles.
>"It's true what they say: 'When you wake a Crab, use a stick.'"
>Cough. Straighten. Regain composure.
>"As I was saying, I believe I can help you."
>"You need only point out how little my father truly stands to gain from arranging a marriage for my sister."
>Huh?
>He smiles at my look of confusion.
>"She has likely kept it hidden from you, the depths of her illness. The truth is my sister is unlikely to reach retirement age. Or even thirty."
>"For that matter, her illness means that the rigors of childbirth... no even carrying a child in her womb would most likely prove fatal."
>The way he said all that with the smile still on his face creeped me the fuck out.
>"So, as she is no good for continuing a line, she would at best be relegated to marrying an old man with grown children. A plaything, if you will. "
>Contemplatemurderagain.
>"Oh, I do hope you're not put off by all this!"
>"I realize that she's not worth much, but you would STILL be marrying up! You only need sequester her for a year or so while having a concubine bear your children, no one would ever know."
>Kisada-sama grant me the strength to persevere through this visit, that I do not commit double homicide and shame my Ancestors.
>At this point I wouldn't be surprised if the dad, older brother or both were maho-tsukai.
>Actually, kinda hoping at least one of them is.
>I manage to choke out a thank you to her brother for his "helpful advice".
>And head for the Kitsuki's room.
>Mantits is there. Great.
>So is the Jinx.
>I spill my guts. Tell them everything I just went through. I need to know what the proper thing to do in this situation is, and I'm so far outside of what I consider normal I have no clue anymore.
>Do I win the approval of my prospective Father-in-law by reducing the woman I want to be my wife to useless goods?
>Do I grab her and elope?
>Do I set this madhouse on fire and purge the Empire of the insanity that dwells within?!
>The Mantis, with a roaring passion that filled the room, told me to give up on her and try for someone else.
>The Monkey told me to elope, promised he'd cover for us.
>The Kitsuki asked me what SHE thought we should do.
>...
>...
>...
>"... I've... got to go do something real quick."
>Find Naomi, practicing her Calligraphy.
>Sit down.
>Relay the stories of how I spoke with her family.
>She looks up at me with those sad eyes.
>"I didn't want you to find out. But what my Brother says is true. I know how important a large family is to a Crab, but I will likely not be able to give you even a single child."
>"Wait, is that why you turned me down?"
>"Not just that, no. I must still respect my fath..."
>"BULLSHIT YOU DO."
>I'd had it.
>"That man treats you worse than an ETA. He shames himself, his house, your sensei and YOU by failing to recognize your talents. You're a fucking TENSAI! And I don't believe for one second that you couldn't have children. Water is the element of Healing, and Crabs all have a strong Earth! Our kids would be strong enough to live even if your illness makes it difficult! And I've got a friend who's a Kuni, he's always bitching to me about how every year they have to provide some new bit of lore or magical research in a big family meeting. I'm sure he'd love to work on some fortifying Earth magic to help!"
>"I."
>"Love."
>"You."
>Her father's face went from pink to crimson, to purple by the time she was done telling him her decision.
>It was the most satisfying thing I'd ever seen. No way I could keep the grin off my face as I watched a man I had come to detest more than any Oni have an aneurism.
>I thought I couldn't get any happier.
>Then her father exploded in rage.
>He didn't say anything. He was too furious to speak.
>He just ran over to the little shrine at the far end of the room.
>And grabbed the katana that was there.
>And ripped it free of its sheath.
>And pointed it at me.
>I almost had an orgasm.
>I picked up my blade and strolled out into the garden, accepting his foolhardy challenge.
>I had just enough iaijutsu training that I could get my sword out in an instant if I needed it. My Kenjutsu technique was barely adequate for my Sensei to teach me the secret of Two Pincers, One Mind.
>But he was a Shugenja. An overly proud Shugenja, but a Shugenja nonetheless.
>The look Naomi gave me as we took our stances is the only thing that saved his life.
>But I got my wife.

Act II: Oni[edit]

>It's tradition that the Husband goes on a year long pilgrimage after getting married, to contemplate his new life.
>The husband's mother takes the new wife and teaches her everything there is to know about running a household.
>I don't have a mother anymore. Once there were seven of us. Mom, Dad, me and my four siblings.
>But our clan's never ending war took it's due from my family.
>I was the only one left.
>Naomi was in tears when I finished telling her this.
>Naomi's mother maintained her face though, and nodded in understanding.
>I shall fill in for your departed mother then, and teach my daughter what she needs to know. Do you manage any land?
>Sort off...?
>Mother in Law gave me a smile that I had learned meant "the fuck does that mean?"
>We did have a Jade mine, but it played out years ago.
>Ah, I see...
>I didn't elaborate on what that meant. The Jade in the Earth keeps it pure, safe from the taint. Many times, when the creatures of the Shadowlands slip past the wall, they do so by burrowing through the tainted earth of an exhausted Jade mine.
>Such a thing was the main reason I was the last living member of my family.
>I was fortunate enough to be left for dead, by the swarm
>Though I still bear a scar across my face in the shape of an X. The lines intersect just above my nose and between my eyes.
>Most people flinch instinctively when they first see my face.
>So off I went, pilgriming away.
>Really had no clue what the hell I was supposed to be doing, so I just went to a few random temples. Did hit up the main temples of Osano-Wo, Kisada, and Yakamo though.
>Always makes me feel good about how many divinities once walked Ningen-do as Crabs.
>The colors of the Crab clan are blue, grey and black.
>After a year of temples and monks and praying my balls had gone through all three.
>Upon my return to my only slightly dilapidated home, my new(?) wife attempted to give me the standard Rokugani greeting. No, just the first two. Naomi is a good girl after all.
>Welcome HomeEEEEEEEK
>I scooped her up, tossed her over my shoulder and headed inside.
>The Kitsuki looked up from the tea he was sipping.
>Ah, Ishigaki. We've got a...
>Nope.
>Busy.
>Time passes.
>Not as much time as could have passed, given my endurance, nor as much time as my balls wanted to have passed. But I wasn't about to kill my wife on our first time together.
>Though there was extra time spent cuddling. I was a full foot taller than her, and wide enough she could use me as a futon.
>Once I came back out blinding my party with afterglow they let me know what our next assignment would be.
>Serial Killer.
>Off we go, in ass end of fall trying to reach the city before the winter snows catch us.
>We get inside on the day of the first snowfall.
>Of course by the time we're there the last victim found had already been cremated and the scene cleaned up, so there was no way for the Kitsuki to get any leads using the usual methods.
>Interview time.
>I sat in and glowered whenever the Kitsuki tapped his fan on his right knee. I made a decent bad magistrate with my messed up face.
>No one ever seemed to see or hear anything out of the ordinary, just find a body one day.
>Often in various states of decomposition, such that it was hard to know what had even killed them.
>Only the sheer volume of mysterious deaths led the local magistrate to conclude a serial killer was at work.
>Deducing that this was above his pay-grade, he sent for the Emerald Magistrates.
>The local magistrate would have fallen over himself fawning over us, were it possible for something that round to fall over anything.
>So I guess he rolled over himself fawning over us.
>While I contemplated the fact that there existed a human being shorter than me but twice as wide as me, with all the grace and speed of a drunken silkworm the Kitsuki tried to figure out what, if anything Blob-san could do to assist us.
>Being the genius that he was Kitsuki deduced that was provide extra bodies in the form of Yoriki should we need them.
>The Monkey and the Mantis, meanwhile were down in the seedier parts of town. Apparently the Mantis, like all his kind, was a merchant pretending to be a Samurai and knew how to deal with such people.
>The Monkey went along to bring the wrath of the Fortunes down on the Mantis, where it belonged.
>Our Water Tensai attempted to provide clarity at several of the crime scenes, only to find the local Kami had been chased off by something or other. So she tried some more specific spells. But something interfered with her magic.
>So now we know that someone, either skilled at magic or with a Nemuranai of some sort, was killing people. And showed no signs of stopping any time soon.
>Winter had just begun, so no one was going anywhere for several months.
>The hunt is on.
>Unfortunately, nothing was forthcoming from the underbelly of the city.
>The Mantis was convinced that someone from that side of the world knew something, he just wasn't sure who.
>I proposed a game of who talks first, but the Kitsuki was of the mind that a massive disruption to the underworld would create to much chaos, making it HARDER to find the one we came for.
>So we all sat around scratching our collective heads until the next body showed up.
>On an impulse, I did something I hadn't in a while.
>I prodded the corpse with a finger of jade.
>The body smoldered, smoke tinged with the old scent of burning taint wafted through the room.
>Everyone's face had gone just little bit paler as they stared at me.
>Looks like I get to take center stage again.
>Hooray.
>Step one, get all the Jade. All of it.
>No way to get a Kuni Crystal.
>Fortunately we're able to scrounge enough Jade I don't think we need to go hunting obsidian. Proposing that would have gone over like a fart in front of the Emperor.
>Alright, you two. Send the Mantis and the Monkey on patrol. Your mission is to DISCREETLY touch this small bits of jade to people's skin.
>Our killer is either using a tainted weapon, or maho. Or both. Or is an Oni. Whichever it is, if they've gotten spoiled because no one knows anything about unclean subjects like the taint, we might just get lucky and catch them this way.
>Pfft, yeah right. This is a stupidly long shot, but I've got nothing better right now.
>Naomi you know how to check for spiritual imbalance and kansen, right?
>I'm not very good with Earth kami, but I do know the theory. I'll try.
>Kitsuki, Shiba, you're going to get the Yoriki ready. Grind up this jade for powder, show the Yoriki how to powder their yari, we might need them after all.
>Uh, neither of us have ever done this before.
>Fuck. Okay Shiba you go with Naomi, I'll stay here with Kitsuki and show you all how it's done. If you find something COME BACK and get us.
>One last thing. No one goes anywhere alone. Not even to take a shit. Keep an eye on your buddy AT ALL TIMES. Yes, ALL TIMES. And when the groups come back into contact everyone holds up a piece of jade to bare skin. No exceptions. Shape-shifters and skin stealers are a bitch and a half to deal with.
>I got them moving before they could ask me to clarify what I meant by skin stealers.
>Ah yes, the other reason to make a Crab an Emerald Magistrate. Knowledge of maho and the Shadowlands is taboo, so most Rokugani are woefully misinformed.
>Misinformed though they were, the Yoriki still knew that Jade powder could only mean one thing. I did my best impersonation of my old Gunso and told them that if anyone of them spoke of what was going on they would ALL answer to me.
>The Yoriki decided to be more afraid of the Crab in front of them than the hypothetical Oni they may have to face and obeyed.
>Good.
>I was still holding out hope our quarry didn't know we we had found out it was tainted.
>Everyone gathered at the magistrate's as the sun began to set.
>The Mantis and Monkey had no luck, as I expected.
>Naomi, on the other hand, found Several places that were out of whack (she used some elaborate and formal language I can't really remember but out of whack gets the point across).
>We dug up a map of the city and had her mark them down.
>The Kitsuki realized something. Many of those places were at or very near where bodies had been found.
>Mind like a steel trap. Never forgets anything.
>He deduced that the places where Naomi found the disturbances must be where the actual murders had been committed.
>He studied the map for a time.
>I think I can guess where our killer will strike next. There's a pattern here.
>Good, good. Stake out time!
>In the middle of the night. All of us hidden in alleyways and rooftops.
>Monkey playing the drunken samurai bumbling about and singing off key.
>Left the Yoriki behind. Too many people.
>Still hoping our quarry doesn't know.
>Then we see her.
>My mother.
>Surprised hiss from Naomi next to me.
>What's my mother doing here?
>Look at her.
>You see YOUR mother?
>Yes, right there don't you see her?
>No. I see my mother.
>But your mother is dead...
>Yes.
>What does that mean?
>We should have brought the Yoriki.
>I knew what that was. It was an Oni that preyed on lone travelers, eating their hearts. No matter who looks at it, it looks like their mother. Worse than that, that damned thing had the power of Invulnerability; it could only be harmed by magic or the three sacred substances. Jade powder was only good for two or three strikes before it was all worn off. We had enough powder for each of us, save Naomi, to coat a single weapon.
>I don't think we could kill it with only that much.
>It's already upon the Monkey, who has no idea what's going on.
>Too late now.
>I tell Naomi to tell everyone else to powder their weapons and follow my lead.
>And then I charged at the beast.
>If the Monkey was taken aback by a screaming Crab beating his mother with a tetsubo covered in Jade powder he recovered quickly enough.
>The fact that I had thrown aside any thought of my own safety, something I almost never did, was apparent to everyone there.
>They all quickly powdered their weapons.
>The Oni, enraged, tore into me.
>It was not braggadocio when I say that I could take twice the beating an average samurai could. Add to that my armor, the teachings of the Hida Bushi School, and my own resistance to pain and I am a very difficult person to injure.
>I was barely standing after the Oni's assault.
>Naomi. Small, frail Naomi ran up to my side in arms reach of the Oni, to heal me.
>The Oni saw that and knew right away who it had to kill first.
>Thank the fortunes the Shiba was faster.
>The Mantis sank both kama into it; the Monkey's grandfather scolded the Oni.
>The damn thing was barely slowed.
>I placed myself between it and Naomi. Continuing on my with my foolishness I attacked with reckless fury again. Two solid blows echoed through the snow filled alley. And my jade was spent.
>The Oni seeing me in it's way chose to remove me first. As I hoped it would do. I steeled myself and made ready to meet my Ancestors.
>I looked up from where I lay, surprised I was still alive, even awake. My body, however, would not move.
>The Mantis and Monkey attacked again, but their fear held them back from committing fully.
>The Kitsuki knew what was at stake, but his skill with a katana was even worse than mine.
>And so his blade failed to land.
>Our Jade was almost gone.
>The Shiba took a breath, and fell into a stance as though he were preparing to attack a straw target in a dojo.
>Again, life poured into my limbs as Naomi begged the Kami to save me.
>My mind was blank, my body moved on instinct. With the speed of no thought I did the only thing I could. I warped my arms around the Oni.
>The beast was taken off guard. I knew it could break my grip with ease, but still I held on.
>The Shiba took full advantage. Swimming deep in the void, he struck with a blade that was still fully powdered.
>The Oni sagged in my arms and almost took me to the ground with it.
>They all sagged with relief as the Oni fell
>I had kept it's attention on me, for the most part, so I alone was wounded.
>But they had all strained themselves to their limits in that battle.
>But it wasn't over.
>NAOMI! We need pure water to cleanse this Oni blood off, NOW!
>Get to the temples, wake up everyone. We need salt, Shugenja, monks.
>I may have been going a bit overboard, but better safe than sorry.
>Evil is a physical thing. It seeps into our world from deep within the Shadowlands, where the 9th Kami fell.
>It corrupts everything it touches. Twisting once good people into mockeries of their former selves.
>It can linger on long after the original source is gone. Seeping into wood, even stone.
>The Wall is constantly under construction, because sometimes the bricks themselves become tainted and must be replaced.
>A tainted building could taint it's inhabitants. Such a thing would be very slow, especially with only a single Oni as the source of the taint this far from the Shadowlands, but it could happen.
>The Crab have methods to reduce the risk of such things occurring, and contingency plans should the worst come to pass.
>The rest of Rokugan does not trouble itself with such unclean things.
>Excessive countermeasures it is then.
>I supervised the Eta as they boxed up the Oni's corpse. We took it outside the city walls and burned it downwind from the city
>As I watched the smoke drift away I remembered the story of Oni no Satsujinku with a shudder.
>I then had Naomi check myself and all the Eta for taint. I was glad none were infected, if only because I didn't want to have to behead one in front of her.
>Head back to meet up with everyone.
>Something is nagging at me.
>Run through everything I know about Yamuba again.
>Invulnerable.
>Looks like your mother; good at infiltrating the Empire.
>Prays on lone travelers and children.
>Eats hearts.
>...
>Shit.
>Kitsuki-san, was there any mention of the victims missing their hearts?
>No, the reports were sparse on gory details. All they said was that the bodies were decomposed. Our last victim, however still had theirs.
>And no children have been killed?
>By the Fortunes no!
>We're not done yet.
>Sea of blank faces
>Yamuba, that's what that Oni we fought are called, they're cowards. It's true they're invulnerable, but they attack from ambush, they prey on children. And they eat hearts. They DON'T drain chi and leave a withered husk like we've been finding, and they aren't as dangerous in combat as the one we faced.
>The Monkey was the one to ask what all that meant.
>When an Oni summoned, it must be given a Name. It must be Name owned by the summoner, or surrendered voluntarily by someone else. The Oni then subsists on the chi of the person whose Name it bears. It grows stronger, gains new powers.
>We have to find the Maho-Tsukai that summoned it.
>Now the Mantis spoke up. How in the hell are we even supposed to do that? Wait for them to do something else? They're just going to lay low and slip out once winter is over!
>No, there IS a way.
>As I said, the Oni DRAINS the chi of the person whose name it holds. It sickens them, taints them even. At the very least, their spirit would be so disrupted that they would have extreme mood swings. And that Oni had grown very strong.
>We need only find someone who has taken ill.
>The Mantis went back to his seedy fellows, asking after anyone with a sudden turn of ill health.
>The Kitsuki, now with the job of babysitting our Jinx, did the same with the higher placed members of society
>Some monks take mercy too far. They are willing to hide the tainted, give them tea of Jade Petals. They think it is possible to restore the spiritual balance of a tainted person the way they would fix any other imbalance.
>I told Naomi this, and asked her to check all the temples. The Shiba went with her. She was kind, he could be firm.
>I wandered the streets.
>I checked out teahouses, restaurants, inns, bath houses and brothels.
>Every place I could think of to find a Witch Hunter.
>I was taking another long shot, hoping against hope that someone more suited to this task may be in the City.
>While I was well versed in the creatures and dangers of the Shadowlands, I knew only enough about Maho to recognize it when I see it.
>I had already exhausted my knowledge on the subject, and it was only due to my familiarity with Oni that I knew even that much.
>Of course, I was also deliberately moving alone, and being visible.
>The Tsukai would know their Oni was dead. Being the Crab, it would naturally make me the biggest threat.
>A Crab must be strong, so that all of Rokugan can take shelter behind them. I knew my Duty.
>I failed to find any one who could help, and the Tsukai, wherever they were, did not take my bait.
>The Kitsuki learned nothing.
>Naomi found no temples hiding our quarry.
>The Mantis though came through.
>Though he adamantly refuse to disclose how he came by this information, the boss of the City's only gang had indeed taken ill.
>The Kitsuki tapped his fan to his lips at that.
>Of course, we had no idea where the boss was.
>But Blob-san did indeed know of a restaurant the gang used as a front.
>So we gathered the Yoriki, stormed into the place, and played who talks first.
>The Shiba took the head of the winner with a quick, smooth cut. The losers were taken back to Magistrates to await a less pleasant end.
>Naomi ran outside to throw up.
>We had always done our best to shield her from the harsher truths about keeping the Emperor's laws, but we were just too pressed for time to do so now.
>There was no telling what a cornered Tsukai might do, we HAD to catch him as quickly as possible.
>Racing through the streets we made it to the Inn run by the gang where the boss was hiding
>I stormed through the rice paper door on the outside, tetsubo in hand, not even bothering to open it
>The silence was deafening
>There was dust on the floor.
>Only a few tracks in and out.
>Hear a rattling wheeze from in the back.
>I am here
>Okay, he's inviting us in?
>What's he planning?
>With the Yoriki surrounding the place we moved in.
>A wasted husk that might have once been human laid on a futon.
>I'd seen zombies that looked healthier.
>Please, please kill me.
>A bony hand attached to an arm so emaciated it was practically skeletal raised up, beseeching us to end it.
>Summoning an Oni is never a good idea. I guess you see that now.
>I did not.
>Why lie at this point.
>I did not.
>The Kitsuki stepped in.
>Ishigaki-san. You said an Oni must be given a name, but you suggested it does not have to the name of it's summoner, correct?
>Yeah, if someone can be tricked into giving up their name willingly, or if you own the Name you're giving.
>Own?
>Uh-huh. Yeah, a Lord owns the lives of their Samurai, so they could give an Oni the name of one of their vassals, or if a Tsukai saved the life of another person...
>Like, say, a corrupt magistrate NOT executing a criminal he caught in exchange for a cut? Would that work?
>...
>...
>...
>...MOTHERFUCKER.
>We raced back to the Magistrate's.
>And walked into hell.
>While we were gone Blob-san had taken it upon himself to do his job and execute all the gang members we captured.
>Now the courtyard was full of porcelain masks.
>We venerate our Ancestors with every thought and deed. Our souls are born into this world, we live, learn and die. Emma-O then sends our souls to another realm to shed any negative Kharma before we are reborn. If we do it right, we're reborn into a higher social caste, and if we get THAT right, we get to dwell in Yomi, becoming one of the blessed Ancestors ourselves.
>Undeath flies in the face of both those things. Cheating Kharma, and turning your own Ancestors into abominations.
>There is nothing more abhorrent.
>Should you touch dead flesh, and then perish unclean, you will reborn as an Eta.
>To fight the undead, you must risk your very place in the Celestial Order.
>And so it was little surprise that I, and I alone, was unmoved by this ghastly scene.
>Fortunately, zombies are slow, shambling and weak.
>They ARE difficult to put down for good; you must destroy their head or remove their mask. They feel no pain, hunger, thirst, or fatigue. A severed hand will drag itself with its fingertips and try to grasp and claw.
>And as I said, they are TERRIFYING to all right thinking Rokugani.
>As an obstacle, they are a fine choice.
>The Yoriki were useless, half of them couldn't even keep a grip on their Yari. Some ran, others were too frightened even to do that. More than a few soiled themselves.
>My companions were little better off.
>I could see the white knuckle grip of the Shiba, trying and failing to draw courage from his Grandfather's soul.
>The Monkey and the Kitsuki stared with mouths open. Blades forgotten in their saya.
>Naomi's legs gave out.
>A sheen of sweat glistened on the Mantis' brow as he readied his Kama.
>For once I couldn't bring myself to mock him
>I felt no fear; fear is a sin after all.
>The magistrates office had a wall running all around it, with an opening in the front for a gate.
>Just past the gate was the courtyard.
>One of the zombies had fallen into the koi pond.
>I took my place in the center of the open gate, and I readied a Kata taught by the Hida bushi school.
>I would not be moved, no enemy would pass me. I would become a wall myself.
>The grim tide surged at me.
>I was surrounded instantly, the rotting things clawing and scrabbling, trying to find purchase on my armor.
>They could not.
>I paused just long enough to wonder at my serene calm, before I methodically began to raise my Tetsubo and strike. The masks which gave them life acting as targets.
>Through sheer weight of numbers, the undead were able to get past my armor, but the wounds were little more than shallow scrapes. I knew I would win eventually, even if I had to do this all alone. It was only a matter of time.
>But then my allies rallied themselves and joined me.
>Then something amazing happened.
>A torrent of water rushed past me, bowling over a half dozen zombies and tearing great chunks off of them.
>My Hana-chan, who had never so much as spoken a cross word in all the time I'd known her, was standing there with a scroll in her hand and a snarl on her face.
>It would seem spitting in the face of the Celestial Order was where she drew the line.
>THAT served to prod even the Yoriki that remained into motion.
>Eyes wide with fear, tears and snot running down their faces, they nonetheless took up their Yari and charged.
>Impaling the zombies on the points of their lances, two or three Yoriki would push a zombie to the ground while another or one of my companions stepped in to finish it.
>We cleared out the courtyard.
>Inside we found Blobtsukai-san.
>And we saw what he had been buying time to do.
>Many Tsukai, upon summoning an Oni, get a fairly random result. Often a thing that has yet to ever walk in Ningen-do. The oni then takes its name and grows in power until the one whose name it bears is consumed.
>But a tsukai with knowledge or skill can call forth an Oni that already exists, getting exactly what they want.
>Blobtuskai-san had called forth a replacement for the Yamuba we killed.
>It was an Oni no Tsubaru spawn. How fitting.
>NOW TAKE MY NAME DEMON, AND SLAY THESE PEOPLE THAT WANT TO HARM ME!
>Oni no Blobtsukai-san teleported over to us.
>We took to long getting here. Now we were staring down another invulnerable Oni, this one a true monster that would swallow us whole, damning our very souls to an eternity of torment in it's sizeable gut.
>I waved the others to step back, and struck it with my Tetsubo. No effect, of course.
>It reached out with it's massive claws to seize me.
>I let it.
>I then took the finger of jade I always wore around my neck, held it between my fingers, and punched the Oni. Driving the jade right :into its eye.
>I did it again.
>Oni no Tsubaru spawn are too fat to move around on their own. They teleport themselves.
>They must be able to see where they are going.
>As all eyes turned stared at this turn, the Monkey ran up behind the slightly less fat fuck and put an end to him once and for all.
>As we were in the magistrates office, all the jade powder we had prepared was readily available.
>It took some time, with us darting in and out of the thing's reach, but being blinded it could not catch us, nor run away.
>Two Oni in one day. Not a bad day's work.
>Of course there were still questions that needed to be answered.
>How long had Blobtsukai-san been a Maho-Tsukai?
>Where did he get such knowledge in the first place?
>Why the hell would he call for people to come investigate his own crimes?
>And why were ALL the bodies dessicated? Even if the Yamuba had gained the power to drain chi, that would have taken time. It would have eaten hearts until then, or perhaps even continued to do so.
>As we sat around a teapot, mulling over these questions, a memory stirred.
>There was another time when we "solved" a case without getting all the answers.
>We never did find the Ninja that tricked the teahouse girl into drugging me, nor find out why the hell they would even do that to begin with.
>The Mantis snorted, insisting that there were bound to be times things like that happened.
>The Monkey, more politely, agreed that I was overthinking things.
>Naomi just blushed at the memory.
>Meanwhile the Kitsuki was practically chewing on the end of his fan, and staring at nothing.
>I knew his mannerisms enough that I could spot when he was thinking, and he was thinking as hard as I'd ever seen right now.
>In the end, we did find two scrolls bearing maho on them.
>One for the ritual to summon an Oni, and the other for calling forth the undead.
>Nothing to explain the unnatural desiccation.
>We reluctantly concluded that Blobtuskai-san called for Emerald Magistrates as an alibi, a way to preemptively clear himself of any suspicion in this matter.
>Long ago, when he was still a Yoriki himself, he had caught the man who would become boss of the gang.
>Blobtuskai-san made the boss an offer. I let you go, you give me intel on the gangs.
>And so the corrupt Yoriki rose to prominence with the help of his inside man. He became the magistrate, and used the powers of his office to remove the former leaders of the gang, placing his pawn in charge.
>He then cracked down on all the rival gangs, until only one gang ruled all the vice in the city.
>And that one gang paid him tribute.
>The Kitsuki retired to go over all the old reports and paperwork, double and triple checking everything.
>He enlisted the Mantis, Monkey, and Shiba to assist conducting interviews with everyone even tangentially related to any of Blobtsukai-san's cases, hunting for the discrepancy that may point to the truth.
>I, meanwhile, took my wife on a picnic.
>Bundling her up in extra layers to keep her warm, we rode out of town a ways to sit and be alone together.
>She fed me slices of cucumber, served me tea, and snuggled up in my lap while playing a konto.
>It was just too perfect, too adorable, too soothing after everything we had just been through.
>I couldn't resist, and neither could she.
>The blood of the Fortune of Fire and Thunder in my veins kept me warm, and my body kept her warm as we made love in the snow.
>She felt the chill just enough that her nipples could cut steel.
>We snuggled up under a mountain of blankets and and our kimonos and slept.
>I awoke to something being out of place
>I was surprised that my first instinct was no longer 'grab weapon and smash' but rather 'Is Naomi okay?'
>She was, sleeping soundly. She would stay that way for a while.
>She had confessed to me that she loved the fact I was able to push her to the limits of her endurance, but also attentive enough that I never pushed her past those limits.
>As the fog of sleep lifted off of me, I realized what had woken me.
>Voices.
>There were people nearby
>I slid myself slowly on top of Naomi, just in case someone had the bright idea to stab into our little makeshift tent, and listened.
>Damn looks like they ate all the food already.
>Shit. Slim pickings this winter.
>We could take the horse, at least. Eat it, if we have to.
>Where the hell did they go, anyway?
>Bandits. Great. I guess it's just too much to ask for a nice quite fuck with the wife while everyone else is off doing work.
>Of course, just because life away from the wall had softened my rougher edges, I was still a Crab. I was never far from a weapon.
>As I expected, the sight of a 6ft+ man, covered in scars, with long wild hair erupting from the snow and brandishing a tetsubo took them by surprise.
>Oh, and I was still stark naked.
>I could tell by the looks on their faces that I had won.
>I began to teach them what happens when you come even a little bit close to threatening my wife
>At first, they were overconfident. Emasculated, but over confident. Then they struck my bare flesh, and saw that a true descendant of Hida can take a blow just fine even without their armor.
>HOLY SHIT THAT GUY NEVER SAID ANYTHING ABOUT THIS!
>K, grabbing you now.
>As the rest run off I pull the mouthy one in real close.
>I'm still naked, btw
>What did you just say?
>He spilled his guts. Wasn't much, but a dude (no name given, of course) had told this little band of thieves roughly where we would be, and that we would be easy prey.
>I made him describe the man as best he could. Three times, just to check for discrepancies, as the Kitsuki would.
>Satisfied, I spilled his guts. Hey, he's a bandit after all. We were just going to execute him anyway.
>Glancing back over my shoulder to make sure Naomi was still sleeping (she was) I nudged the bodies away with my tetsubo and kicked fresh snow over the bloodstains.
>Didn't want her to wake up to THAT mess.
>I got dressed, made a nice pot of warm tea, and woke Naomi.
>Thank the Fortunes she was still groggy and not paying attention.
>I gave her some tea to warm her up, helped her get dressed so her obi wouldn't be tied in the front (Only whores do that) and got her away from that place as fast as possible without raising her suspicions.
>The Kitsuki was excited upon our return.
>He had something. A small thing but he was sure it was important. A stranger no one seemed to know had been seen having tea with Blobtuskai-san a few times before the murders began.
>I pulled him into another room and, after swearing him to secrecy, told him what happened on our little picnic, and what I learned.
>I could hear the click form his head as pieces snapped into place.
>He called a meeting, gathering us all up.
>He summed up everything we knew about our hidden manipulator, managing to gloss over how exactly he got the info I gave him, and then laid it out in plain Rokugani.
>We have someone, likely a Ninja and probably a Maho-Tsukai who has hated us since we first came together and is trying to manipulate events to kill us! Not only that, but he's probably connected in some way to our superiors!
>How do you figure that last bit?
>Because otherwise there would be no point to what happened here in this city. Any group of magistrates MIGHT have been sent. He made sure, it was US.
>The Mantis is less than thrilled at this idea.
>Which one of you pissed of the Ninja Blood Sorcerer then? If he had it for us from the day we met, he must have a hate on for ONE of you from before we met!
>Sure it's not you he was after?
>Or course not!
>Try though we might, none of us can think of any enemies that old who could do this.
>But the Kitsuki is right about him being connected to our superiors in some way.
>Time to start mapping out relationships.
>Stuck in the city we as we were, we were forced to rely on letters and the daring fools that would take letters long distance to begin laying the groundwork for our investigation.
>Otherwise the time was quite peaceful.
>I discovered my sweet Hana-Chan had quite a voracious appetite, much to my delight.
>Perhaps those long years of being starved for true love by her family contributed to this.
>In the middle of winter, the Kitsuki's sensei showed up.
>I walked into our new headquarters, the former magistrates offices, one day to see him doing a full dogeza before a white haired old man and getting a fairly nasty tongue lashing.
>The words YOUR ANCESTORS ARE WEEPING were used.
>Nope
>Not touching that
>I went to the kitchen to get some rice balls.
>When Kitsuki stumbled in, I proffered one and asked what the hell that was all about. Did he get pissed we were snooping on our superiors?
>No, he doesn't know about that so could you keep it down?
>Then what...
>He's upset with my Kenjutsu.
>Hah?
>He left from the Dragon lands about the same time you got back from your pilgrimage. He knows nothing about what happened in this city yet.
>But it would seem everyone thinks my Kenjutsu is horrible, and that as a magistrate I should be able to defend myself better.
>But am I really that bad?
>Ummm. You're worse than ME.
>Well, it looks like you all will have to take over the investigation. I'm going to be getting some "special training" from Sensei.
>...that sounds...
>DON'T. SAY. IT.
>I chuckled as I left.
>Time passed
>Sensei was pretty damn rough.
>I happened upon Kitsuki-san in the bath once, and he was covered in welts and bruises.
>If I didn't know any better I'd swear he was learning Mountain Does not Move.
>Apparently Sensei's "Special Training" boiled down to "Beat my student until he learns to get out of the way."
>You sure this guy isn't a Crab?
>Because these training methods seem familiar.
>The Monkey snickered at this.
>Maybe an Oni stole Kitsuki-san's sensei's skin!
>Kitsuki bolts upright
>Ishigaki-san, You DID say something about skin stealers, yes?
>Um... yeah. Bog hags are the most common type but some Shadowlands creatures can flay a person and wear their skin as a disguise...
>Would they still be vulnerable to jade?
>Yeah, the skin gets tainted after being worn for long enough, so the Jade will still burn.
>Later that night...
>YOU TAINTED BASTARD!
>SCREAM
>WHAM
>THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING
>I exchange a glance with Naomi.
>What the actual fuck is going on
>We rush to see what's happening.
>Kitsuki, Mantis and Sensei are there.
>Sensei is on the ground, clutching his abdomen
>Sensei's face is green
>Kitsuki and Mantis are looking confused.
>Explain this shit.
>Kitsuki-san, considering how strange it is that someone would set out on a journey so far and so close to Winter, and factoring in our faceless nemesis with ties to our superiors, came to suspect his own sensei.
>So a test of Jade was in order.
>Alright, so far I can see where your coming from.
>But why is his face green.
>Knowing that Sensei was also a Kitsuki, Kitsuki-san felt there was no hope of being able to do this discreetly. Sensei's eyes see all.
>So... why is his face green.
>Kitsuki-san and Mantis asked Sensei to come to the room being used as a dojo.
>They waited just behind the door.
>When sensei opened the door, Mantis used the element of surprise to throw jade powder at sensei.
>Then sensei screamed, so Kitsuki hit him with a bokken.
>OF COURSE I SCREAMED YOU COLOSSAL DUNCE YOU THREW A POWDERED MINERAL INTO MY EYES!
>It's true that Kitsuki-san did make logic leaps and conclusion jumps from time to time.
>But he was usually right, or very close to it.
>This time though...
>This time...
>Naomi tended to Sensei's injury as I helped him to his feet.
>As we were already touching, I went ahead and pulled him in close
>Conspiratorial whisper
>Look at it this way, you know and I know a real battle isn't like a Kenjutsu match in a dojo, right? Why don't you just write this off as him trying some real life trick to make up for his lack of skill?
>Sensei, clearly displeased by my arm around his shoulder, considered.
>Fine. take your hand off me.
>Whew.
>The rest of that winter passed without incident.
>Kitsuki-san's swordsmanship noticeably improved

Act III: Good News[edit]

>As the first weeks of spring roll in, Monkey gets a letter from back home.
>GOOD NEWS EVERYONE! YOU'RE GETTING MARRIED!
>Congratulations, Monkey! I'm sure you'll make a fine little housewife!
>Monkey sits there with a thousand yard stare.
>I said I'M SURE YOU'LL MAKE A FINE LITTLE HOUSEWIFE.
>Monkey sits there with a thousand yard stare.
>Poke.
>Monkey.
>Poke.
>Monkey.
>Poke.
>You're a woman, Monkey.
>Monkey sits there with thousand yard stare...
>Okay, so I'm just... going... to take... this LETTER... out of your hands here.
>Where are we going now?
>We pack up our things, acquire a palanquin for Naomi so the journey is easier on her and head back to the Monkey's home.
>Eventually, with enough needling from everyone else, the Monkey admits he hates his fiancee.
>Considering how my married life has been going, I find that a bit silly. Set to work telling him how great marriage is.
>No, you don't understand! She hated ME first! She doesn't want to get married to me, and is making my life hell so I'll call it off!
>Uh. so why don't you?
>How else am I going to find a wife? My family owns one, ONE rice paddy!
>Hey at least your holding is producing, all I've got is a hole in the ground.
>Look, you're worrying about nothing. Just relax and let the love master teach you everything you need to know to melt a woman's heart!
>And after she kicks you in the junk for following a Crab's advice, you could turn to me.
>Kitsuki-san seems to have recovered from sensei's "lessons" if he's joining in the banter again.
>I am far more eloquent, after all.
>That night.
>Eating dinner.
>Naomi asks to speak with me.
>Yeah?
>So... um. I'm late.
>Late? for what?
>No, Ishigaki-kun. I'm. LATE. By about two months...
>Are... Are you?
>Being at a loss for words is not a new experience for me.
>Being so happy I can't speak properly however, is.
>I once bragged about how great a samurai I would become at the School, and so my Sensei gave me a nice heavy log to carry on my back as I ran around said school. After all, this is nothing to a great Samurai.
>I ran until my head went light and my knees turned to jelly.
>This was the same feeling, only it was very pleasant.
>I looked up at Naomi with the biggest, dopiest grin I've ever worn.
>Not sure when I sat down, but I must have because my ass was firmly planted on the ground.
>C'mere you.
>Snag
>Kyah
>Cuddle.
>Ishigaki-kun everyone is staring!
>Let them. They're just jealous I have the best wife in Rokugan, and NOW I'M GOING TO BE A FATHER!
>Surprise from the rest of the party, since I said it loud enough for them to hear.
>Congratulations.
>Naomi is worried about what her brother said.
>Hey! Hey. You're going to be okay. Kuni-san is working on some things right now, and we're bound by the red string of fate now. In this life and the next, I will love you. My strength is your strength; your strength is my strength.
>She smiles, allowing herself to be reassured.
>We reach the Monkey house.
>The Monkey family is a about what you would expect from some Toku bushi.
>His dad looks, dresses, and even speaks like a farmer. Only the wakizashi tucked into his obi gives away any sign of his status.
>His mother, at first glance, seemed a serene housewife. But the callouses on her hand and the faint scar on her chin spoke of a time when she was a Samurai-ko, before her marriage.
>From the way she moved I could tell she continued to practice her Kata daily.
>Now to meet the fiance. Let's see what all this fuss is about.
>And she gives a polite greeting. Very formal, perfect etiquette. Already wearing a kimono in the Monkey clan's colors, so I've no clue which clan she came from.
>Give the Monkey a quizzical look.
>He's gone pale and is sweating bullets.
>Introductions get passed around.
>...and this is Hida Naomi...
>I suddenly feel on edge.
>...Ishigaki-san's wife.
>The feeling is gone.
>Dinner time.
>Plain ass rice.
>One tiny fish, mostly bones.
>Three slices of cucumber.
>I contemplate how rude it would be to add some of my travel rations to my plate.
>As is often the case when contemplating matters of etiquette, if I want to do it I probably shouldn't.
>Dinner conversation.
>I can engage in polite small talk without embarrassing everyone around me now.
>Play dumb and keep with the small talk whenever anyone tries to get me to speak of weightier things.
>Fiance has some questions for me though. And Naomi.
>She wants to know all about married life, how we met, who arranged our marriage. Very much interested in the business side of things.
>You know, the part we skipped over because we were genuinely in love.
>Monkey's parents smiled at that confession and shared a glance. Fiance covered her mouth with her hand and didn't speak to either me or Naomi the rest of the night.
>In the morning we learn we're going to the castle of the Monkey's lord.
>This is, it turns out, a big to do.
>Lots of strings were pulled, many favors exchanged to get this Monkey engaged.
>To a Shinjo woman.
>Despite her family being known for producing bushi, there were no calluses on her hands. Her skin was quite creamy, so she clearly spent little time out of doors.
>I was surprised to learn a pampered Hime-san could come out of the Unicorn clan.
>After entering the castle, we bathed to wash the dust from the road off. Then meet back up for tea.
>Naomi was blushing all the way to the tips of her ears when she came back from the baths.
>She saw me look, gave a little not now head shake.
>Hime-san is sitting next to the Monkey.
>He's staring at his food.
>Whenever a serving girl comes over to add a new dish, I get that weird sense of danger.
>It always leaves as quickly as it came, but I can tell I'm not the only one who feels it.
>The serving girls are almost rude in their haste to leave the table.
>Okay...I think I see what's going on here.
>That night.
>Me and Naomi.
>So what was it that had you blushing so bad?
>She's just... well...
>Naomi was not one to speak ill of others. I gave her shoulder a squeeze to encourage her to let her feelings out.
>She's so...RUDE.
>How scathing.
>She kept questioning about what it was "really" like being married to you! She called you a brute! She insinuated that I must be miserable having to... to... you know. stuff. bed. mumble. blush.
>Yeah, stuff. Bed. We're a pair of kinky degenerates after all.
>But if she keeps being that adorable I may have to do some more bed stuff with her.
>I had to leave before I slapped her!
>Whoah.
>Naomi was serious.
>She saw my surprise.
>Well, she was speaking badly of you. I did not like that.
>That's it, switch flipped. Bed. Stuff. Now.
>Yelp
>What about...
>They're just going to have to learn to deal with it. this is happening.
>Giggle. You are so bad!
>A new day dawns.
>Sitting down with everyone I lay out what I think is happening.
>Hime-san has it in her head that marriages are never happy affairs.
>And she's making it clear that if she isn't happy, you don't get to be happy. She seems to think that sex is the only thing that makes you happy, which is why she gives that discreet aura of menace off whenever a woman gets near you.
>And how in the hell do you even know that?
>Shiba is the one to cover for me. It makes sense given what she's done so far.
>The shock value of him speaking up alone is enough to quell any further questions.
>So what do we do?
>What do you mean WE? This is your problem Monkey.
>Waitno guys c'mon help me out here! You gotta do something! Anything!
>Look, just convince her she's wrong.
>HOW?!
>Holy shit do I have to draw you a map? She thinks sex is only fun for men, that's why she's so pissed. She sees herself being treated like a broodmare. So woo her. Or give some great sex! Either way, convince her you see her as more than an more than a incubator for your children!
>Naomi blushes.
>That night four adult men and one adult woman were crouched in the bushes of the palace garden.
>I cannot believe we are doing this.
>Shh, Naomi. You want them to hear us?
>We watched from our hiding spot as Monkey tried to court Hime-san.
>Why won't you believe me? I'm telling you I don't think of you that way!
>He had just spoken plainly.
>It was going as well as you would imagine.
>HAH! Your LORD arranged this marriage, then spent years giving you prestigious posts you don't even deserve to keep my family from realizing how bad an Idea this is!
>Ouch.
>"Or are you really trying to suggest that you love me? This is only the third time we've met!"
>Oof
>"Of course I do not love you! I don't even know you! But we can respect one another, can't we?"
>"You speak of respect? You expect me to stay in that hovel and watch over your rice paddy while you go out drinking in the arms of Geisha every night!"
>"You expect me to sit at home and get fat with child while you claim credit for your friends' hard work to glorify your own name!"
>Yamete! Yamete Hime-san! He's already dead!
>"For that matter, everyone just expects it of me to bear children! No one ever bothered to ask if I even WANT children, let alone what it takes to make one!"
>"And you have the brazen GALL to speak to me of Respect!"
>"It... it's okay if you don't want kids. I won't force you or anything..."
>"Oh how GRACIOUS of you! And you will announce this to everyone at the ceremony then? So that others know not to press the issue with gossip and barbed questions?"
>Hime-san would know all about barbed questions, clearly.
>I actually felt sorry for the bad luck Monkey. Caught between his duty to his lord and this vindictive woman.
>Angry at the world and lashing out at the nearest target.
>Naomi tugged on my sleeve.
>With a nod of her head she suggested we leave.
>And so we did.
>As we sat around the teapot the Mantis voiced the question in all our heads.
>Why are we trying to help the Monkey with his relationship woes, again? Aren't there bandits or something we could be killing?
>Now that he says that, it HAS been a while since we've been in a fight. Perhaps I should check my rice ball for Ninjas.
>Naomi looked around.
>Have we not shared triumph and tragedy together? Are we not joined by a common bond or duty and of friendship? Of course we should help him with his woes; he is our friend.
>And? How do you propose we do that, exactly?
>I didn't find any Ninjas in rice ball. I found the lack of riceball Ninjas deeply suspicious.
>I examined another riceball, just to be sure.
>That's when I realized Naomi had been staring at me.
>What?
>I swiped a hand at my beard, in case some rice had fallen into it.
>Ishigaki-kun, do you really not see?
>See what... Ninjas?
>Nin... No. I am not going to ask.
>The root of the problem is that Hime-san is under the impression that because certain things are expected of her, they could not make her happy. It is simply the apparent lack of choice she takes issue with.
>Then Monkey threw himself down before Naomi
>Oh great Naomi-sama! Please! This one begs you to speak to Hime-san! Convince her of your wisdom, I beg of you!
>Well that was the most absurd thing I'll see all day.
>Naomi looked at me.
>I looked at her.
>EVERYONE looked at her.
>Naomi sighed.
>Three days later, the Monkey was married.
>They aren't head over heels in love like me and my Hana-Chan. But the Monkey is not suicidal.
>They have a more... traditional marriage than we do.
>I don't pry about children
>To this day, Naomi has never shared with me what exactly she said to change Hime-san's mind so drastically.
>Wake up
>Naomi snuggled in against my chest.
>My stomach feels a bit wet.
>OHNO DID SHE COUGH UP BLOOD IN HER SLEEP AGAIN
>Lift her gently.
>It's white.
>...
>... Wait.
>Look at Naomi's breasts.
>Huh. Making milk already.
>Naomi's eyes open up, half lidded and groggy.
>Ishigakiku? Wha..?
>Oh, it's nothing. Wipe wipe.
>You may want to wipe your chest before you get dressed.
>She looks down.
>Embarrassed squeak.
>I go and get us breakfast, bring it back to the room.
>As I'm walking back I realize we've got a situation on our hands.
>Soon enough she's going to start to show.
>We're going to have to take some time off soon.
>And get her back to my home.
>Bring all this up as we eat.
>Where is your home Ishigaki-kun?
>It's just a small house, tucked away in the foothills north of the wall.
>There was a village once, Ishigaki Mura, when the mine was still operational. It's abandoned know though.
>Naomi arches an eyebrow.
>Yeah, I took my adult name from the village. So?
>She giggled at my defensiveness.
>It's a good name, Ishigaki-kun. Suits you perfectly.
>We speak with our superior, and explain the situation. He nods. Of course we must return to my home and prepare for the birth of our first child.
>Send a letter off ahead of us, I've no idea what shape the house is even in after being unused all this time.
>Wrangle my construction cr... brave friends to come along.
>Get another palanquin.
>Off we go, to my perfectly safe and secure and sunshiny home.
>Nothing could go wrong a week's ride from the Wall, right?
>We are met at the border to the Crab lands by a dour looking patrol.
>Their officer dismounts. Chu-i by her sashimono.
>Looks me up and down.
>Her nose wrinkles up like she smelled something bad.
>My beard is trimmed. My hair washed. My armor is clean, polished, and dent-free.
>Realize what her problem is.
>I've become a geisha.
>She looks over the others.
>They squirm a bit. They really didn't like the idea of donning their armor while on the road.
>An armored Samurai going anywhere is almost a declaration of war. But not here. Wearing your armor is a matter of course.
>She sniffs dismissively. Looks in the Palanquin. Hushed questions. Answers even I can't hear.
>She come back, handing me back the papers.
>There's a genuine smile on her face now.
>Yells to her men. 'This man came home with a pregnant wife!'
>Cheers.
>I can only imagine how red Naomi must be in there.
>But a birth is a joyous occasion. Whole villages will take a day off to celebrate a single child being born. She's going to get lots of attention, whether she wants it or not.
>We get as much of an escort as the Patrols can spare, which isn't much.
>But it's enough. If there was anyone or anything contemplating attacking us, our honor guard dissuaded them from doing so.
>At last we see it. My home. The village is gone, just a few skeletal frames fallen down and rotting. The hill where the mine entrance was is off in the distance. I can see the large boulder in front of it. The ropes and the sutra are still in place. Nothing will come up from that hole again, at least.
>My house is so plain it's almost comical. A simple walkway around a rectangle of a building. All very classic and easy to imagine.
>A "garden" out back with some hardy grass, an empty pond, and one big rock.
>I used to punch that rock to toughen up my hands for Jujitsu.
>My friends managed to keep neutral faces.
>Naomi, however, was peering about from within her palanquin with great interest.
>I rattled up to the entrance.
>To my great relief I see that the house, despite me not living in it for so long, is not a ramshackle dump.
>Spot a pair of sandals already in the foyer. The right one is showing wear all along the left side.
>I know whose sandal that is.
>TOSHIRO GET OUT HERE YOU BASTARD!
>Party jumps
>Step
>Thumpdrag
>Step
>Thumpdrag
>Step
>Thumpdrag
>Kuni Toshiro, my friend from long ago comes to stand in the doorway of my house.
>He is a true Crab. We understand one another so deeply we do not even need to speak out loud to communicate with one another.
>His right leg is twisted at an odd angle, giving him a club foot. An old wound earned on the Wall.
>I was there when it happened, and I'm amazed he still has any leg at all.
>He is wearing his face paint, or course. He never takes it off.
>He says it is polite.
>Considering his face is more scarred than mine, he's probably right.
>We stare at one another just long enough for my comrades to wonder if there is going to be a fight before we break out laughing.
>I knew why he didn't come out to greet us, and he knew I knew. We planned a joke to play on my friends without even seeing each others faces.
>Everyone, this is Kuni Toshiro-san. My best friend. Come on in.
>I help Naomi out of the palanquin.
>Toshiro thumpdrags himself over
>So this is the woman who stole your heart eh?
>He peers up at me.
>You do look much more... alive than last I saw you.
>We retire for the evening, with warm food, fine Crab sake (warm milk for Naomi) and Toshiro entertains us all with stories from the Wall. Lighthearted things about daily life and social mishaps, not stories of the darkness that waits just beyond the firelight.
>I wake up.
>No. It's nothing. There is nothing there to disturb my sleep.
>Yet I am disturbed.
>I slip out of Naomi's arms, tuck her in gently, and don my armor.
>I take my tetsubo in hand and walk around my home.
>I crack open doors and peek in on my friends.
>None of them are in armor.
>None of them stir.
>I know why I cannot sleep.
>I step outside onto the walkway.
>Toshiro is there.
>He looks at me, giving a half smirk half laugh. Just a hint of mockery.
>I know what he means. The wall is not far from here. The Shadowlands lie just beyond. I have brought people born and raised in Rokugan to the very gates of Hell, where nothing is as they think it should be.
>That lack of understanding could kill them.
>It could kill my beloved wife, and our unborn child.
>Of course I am restless.
>As we walk our patrol, Toshiro opens a few doors. He looks at the sutra he has placed there.
>I know this spell. It is a ward. Should a thing with the taint try to cross those barriers they will burst into flames. I have seen him use it many, many times.
>I nod my thanks.
>We finish our patrol and he produces a small bottle of sake.
>Yes, it time for me to get off duty and back to sleep.
>We drink.
>I return to my wife.
>Naomi asked to be taken around the area, she wished to see all of her new home.
>There's just some fallen buildings and an old mine.
>That large rock, yes?
>Yeah.
>That was a seal, Ishigaki.
>Crap.
>I can hear the others ears prick up.
>Okay, grand tour for everyone.
>I take them to the "village"
>I point out where the inn was, for Samurai on their way to or from the wall. The small hill on which I stood, daring the other children to come knock me off. None of them could.
>I took them to the mine.
>I told Naomi to stay well back, just in case.
>And I told them of the night my family died.
>The night I got the scar on my face.
>The night I couldn't protect the people who entrusted their lives to me.
>The night Ishigaki Mura ceased to exist.
>It was hardly an uncommon story among the Crab. Many have suffered loss in my Clan. It's one reason I never brought it up.
>Naomi, of course, was in tears.
>The others seemed to be taken aback as well.
>And there is the other reason I never brought it up. Such is part of life for a Crab, such is nigh unthinkable for one outside our Clan.
>I told them the Kuni who placed that seal assured me that nothing would able to use the mine again. That so long as that boulder stood the mine was safe, and the taint would spread no farther.
>Toshiro echoed that.
>My friends took a few steps back anyway.
>Good.
>They're learning.
>Naomi was well along when I spotted a goblin.
>The summers heat was just starting to give way to fall when a furtive shadow ducked down into the rotting remains of a house.
>I moved quickly, then softened my tread. Keeping my breathing even I moved up.
>The thing heard me, it leapt from its hiding spot and tried to run.
>I chased it down and killed it.
>One tiny little goblin. Naked save for the mud and shit caked onto its body. But the tanto it carried was sharp.
>I thought of Naomi, belly heavy with child.
>Her illness was making this last part difficult
>She had little strength, and didn't move around much on her own.
>I went back to get the others. I wanted to do a thorough search of the area.
>Toshiro stayed behind to watch over her.
>His Earth magic had been a great help to ease her burdens. And he had managed to improve upon her medicine
>Naomi insisted it was my love that made her illness seem less severe.
>As we hunted I wondered what good my love had done.
>Despite my earlier words, she was now clearly unwell.
>The things her brother said to me came back to haunt me.
>HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOIIIIIIIII!
>The Mantis had found something.
>Goblin tracks.
>The Kitsuki was already studying them.
>A half dozen, trying to avoid notice.
>They're moving away, and there aren't many.
>The Mantis, or course. Showing just how far from their parent Clan they have fallen.
>So, why not just let them go.
>I held up the tanto.
>One little Goblin can do a lot of damage if it sneaks into the right place.
>Mantis shrugs. This is your home, we'll do what you think is best.
>We pursue.
>The goblins are quick, but we manage to overtake them.
>The fight is short, and brutal. Goblins do not fare well in open combat.
>We return to my home, we bathe and Toshiro tosses some salt and purifies us.
>I hold my wife. A bone deep fear like I've never felt before weighing down on my limbs.
>I'm sitting on the walkway, overlooking the garden.
>Naomi is in the room behind me, bundled up under a pile of blankets.
>The door is open because the crisp autumn air helps her to breath easier.
>Toshiro is there. He has asked the fire Kami to keep her warm. Despite earth being his element, he has an understanding with the fire Kami as well. I know that the kami of fire are excitable and can get easily carried away, but Toshiro handles them well.
>Had it been anyone other than him, I would have insisted on more mundane means of warming her, lest her blankets burst into flame.
>The thought darkens my mood.
>I hear a grunt over my shoulder.
>Toshiro is scowling at me.
>Naomi stirs fitfully.
>It is both a blessing and a curse to have people so close to you they can read your mind.
>I breath deeply, trying out the meditation techniques Shiba-san taught me before he was recalled by his Clan.
>Something about Yojimbo being Yojimbo, not magistrates.
>Yes, Naomi was no longer a Phoenix. She was a Crab. Therefore she was no longer Shiba-san's concern.
>I smelled her father's hand at work.
>I said a silent prayer to whatever fortune might be listening that Shiba-san be spared any further malice from that man.
>No, not you dirty Kansen fucks. Shoo.
>I didn't really know if there were any Kansen around. I doubted it, as I'm sure Toshiro had done his best to make my house inhospitable to them.
>But still, better safe than sorry.
>A low rumble reached my ears.
>I looked up. No clouds.
>The Kitsuki came outside.
>You hear that, Ishigaki-san
>Hai.
>Toshiro looked up.
>Horses?
>Must be.
>We walked around the outside of the house until we spotted the dust cloud.
>Ten... no Twelve.
>I had always thought myself observant, but the Kitsuki was on a whole different level. When we first met we were equals. Now I was in awe of the clarity of his vision, so refined by his School.
>They came up to us, horses whipped into a lather.
>One fell from his saddle and bled on my lawn.
>The rest of the group were little better off.
>All bore heavy wounds. Some looked fatal.
>Toshiro looked at them in dismay. I knew his ability with the water kami was very basic.
>Toshiro was a simple shugenja. He destroyed the enemies of our Clan with fire and Jade. He could not help all these wounded Crab.
>The leader slid, almost fell of her horse.
>Please. my men...
>I caught her before she could hit the ground.
>It was the Chu-i from before.
>I closed my eyes.
>Chikusho
>Chikusho
>Chikusho
>Chikusho
>Chikusho
>CHIKUSHO
>I knew what I had to do. She would never forgive me for turning these people away, or for offering only bandages and water.
>Follow me, carry anyone who can't walk.
>I took them to my wife.
>Naomi looked up from where she sat as we came around the corner.
>Her face was flush.
>I sat next to her and placed my forehead to hers.
>Fever.
>Chikusho
>The Kitsuki had gathered everyone.
>Wounds that still bleed were dressed, water given
>Toshiro knelt beside Naomi. He could not save all those Crabs, but he could help ease the burden she was placing on herself
>The wounded were brought before Naomi. The man who fell first.
>But he was already gone.
>Naomi choked back her tears as she shook her head.
>Of the twelve riders that came, two perished.
>The rest were saved.
>And my wife lost consciousness from the strain.
>Chikusho
>I'm beating my fist into my old punching rock.
>I'm doing this because I am furious, and I need an outlet for this rage.
>Ten of my kinsmen, all of them on death's door saved.
>But it may have cost the life of my wife and soon to be born child.
>I am angry at these Crabs that came here.
>I am angry at Toshiro, for not being able to save them himself, or for not being able to help Naomi more.
>I am angry at myself for allowing this.
>I am angry at Naomi because her kind heart would allow no other outcome.
>But some part of me retains enough sense to know that is not fair. Not to any of those people.
>And so I punish myself for my inappropriate anger.
>My friends seem nervous. I have never lost my composure so severely in front of them.
>In fact, most of the times I did "lose my face" it was an act to scare someone into being more cooperative.
>This time I am genuinely out of control, and they know it.
>I see Toshiro speak to them. The look a little relieved and go back inside.
>I cannot hear his words. All I can hear is the blood roaring in my ears as my heart pounds.
>I lose my balance as my fist slips off the rock.
>I fall face first in the dirt.
>Toshiro sits down next to me. I can see his clubbed foot.
>You done now?
>I think so.
>Good. Sit up. Baka.
>I do.
>He takes my bleeding hands and begins to pray.
>The water kami feel different from when Naomi does it.
>She gives a slow, gentle, inexorable feeling of life itself filling you.
>Toshiro's Kami are more like being bent over and having life rammed into you whether you are ready or not. It hurts, even as you are being healed.
>I think it hurts more than I remember, actually.
>POP
>My knuckles begin to shift back into place. I really hurt myself.
>Baka-yaro
>Now I'm sure it hurts more than normal.
>He's right. Toshiro is always right.
>She's going to be okay you know.
>It's just fatigue.
>I open my mouth. Instead of a protest I hiss as a fresh wave of pain stings my hands.
>How many prayers to Jurojin do YOU know again?
>Stop reading my mind, goddammit.
>Toshiro just makes his half snort half laugh noise.
>The Chu-i approaches us as Toshiro finishes.
>She throws herself down into a dozega
>Stop.
>GOMEN...
>STOP.
>She looks up.
>I should be the one apologizing for that shameful display. I am sorry I showed you such an ugly thing.
>I bow.
>It's... it's okay. You're worried about your wife.
>And you were worried about your men.
>Now. Tell me what did that to them.
>What?
>My eyes narrow. I am a Crab. And there is something strong enough to severely wound a Crab patrol very close to my pregnant wife.
>I cannot allow this.
>What did you fight?
>Ogres.
>How many?
>Six
>Two to one against ogres?
>Though I did not voice my thought she knows what I am thinking.
>The had weapons, wore armor. All of them.
>Shit.
>That made sense.
>Ogres are stupid brutes. Mountains of muscle who think only of food, sex and violence. Barely able to speak. Not different from most people's view of Crab.
>But that is not the Ogres natural state. It is a curse from the dark kami. Away from the Shadowlands, their minds can return. They can remember a time when they ruled the world, before man sprang up from the blood of Onnotangu and the tears of Amaterasu.
>An Ogre that is as intelligent as a human, while being stronger, faster and tougher, with real weapons, armor and even a School...
>We killed two, injured most of the rest. But their leader...
>He has a Nodachi. And he knows well how to use it.
>Please, stay here and guard my wife.
>With my life.
>I enter into my house to don my armor.
>The others are already dressed and ready.
>I don't even have to ask.
>I bow to thank them.
>Forget everything you think you know about Ogres. The ones we face now are intelligent. They can set ambushes. They wear armor over their already thick hides and will wield Weapons.
>We will have to work together, create openings for one another, and defend each other if we are going to win, let alone survive.
>And we don't have Naomi with us.
>I let all that sink in. Save Toshiro, there was not single one of us who would already be dead if not for her skill at healing magic.
>We headed out.
>The Mantis and the Monkey ranged ahead, scouting.
>The Kitsuki looked uncomfortable. He kept fiddling with the bindings on the armor we had acquired for him.
>I gave his Do a tug. It stayed in place.
>It's fine, leave it alone.
>Okay.
>I envisioned the battle that was to come.
>The Kitsuki was many things. Warrior was not one them. Yes his skills had been polished at the rough hands of his master, yes he could anticipate enemies attacks. But it would difficult indeed for his blade to reach the Ogres flesh, and even then...
>The Monkey was insane. Like all Toku he took excessive risks, Fortune favors the foolish and the bold, and he was both.
>The Mantis, merchant that he was, was still dependable in a fight. His peasant weapons may not seem like much, But I had seen him cut men in half with well placed swings.
>Even an Ogre would know it when the Mantis struck them.
>Toshiro continued to thumpdrag along beside me. He was the one I most counted on.
>A plan took shape in my mind.
>The Mantis and Monkey came back, having found sign of the brutes.
>I laid out our rough strategy for this battle.
>Kitsuki will guard Toshiro, who will do as he is wont to do. Monkey, you will set the Ogres up. Sting them, annoy them, get them to drop their guard. Then the Mantis will exploit those openings for all they are worth.
>What are you going to do?
>What I always do. Persevere.
>We tracked them back to a camp sight. They had piled up earthen walls around their lair.
>No intention of letting Ogres just move in wherever they please, we made our best effort to creep up on them.
>Sadly we were not Ninjas.
>We separated, the Mantis and Monkey going left, me going right.
>It was as the Chu-i said. There were four Ogres and two of them bore wounds.
>The Monkey dove between the legs of one of the ogres, slashing at the back of his calves.
>Incensed and off balance the Ogre turned to him, but the Monkey was not where the ogre's Dai Tsuchi fell.
>The Mantis struck, both Kama plunging deep into the Ogre's shoulders. It bellowed as it fell.
>Another Ogre charged at Toshiro and Kitsuki-san.
>Kitsuki-san did stood in the thing's path and was knocked aside by a the thing's tetsubo.
>But that was all the time Toshiro needed to finish his spell. Two red orbs of pure flame struck the Ogre, engulfing it.
>I faced off with the last ogre.
>He had an Ono.
>I decided it would be best if I could end this quickly, and so I swung my Tetsubo. I was rewarded with two solid cracks, my weapon was ideal for dealing with thick hides and heavy armor alike.
>The ogre was too sturdy however, and I failed to take him off his feet.
>His Ono fell upon me, tearing aside my sode and biting deeply into me.
>I staggered under the sheer force of the impact, but kept my feet.
>Even as the ogre menacing Toshiro burned, he called forth a blast of pure jade to sear it.
>The Ogre, horribly wounded but still standing, lashed out with his tetsubo.
>He struck Toshiro with full force.
>But Toshiro was a Crab. He staggered back, coughing blood, but straightened.
>The Monkey helped the Kitsuki to his feet as the Mantis fell upon the burning Ogre like a thunderbolt.
>It's attention was fixated on Toshiro.
>At the last second it saw the Mantis and turned. Too late.
>The Mantis lept into the air and scythed his kama through the creatures neck.
>It's headless body fell, still burning.
>Sure, finish off all the wounded ones to make yourself look good, you selfish priwwHHUUFFFF
>The sky tumbled and turned about me as I flew
>I landed a good five feet from where I had been standing, blood seeping from my side where the Ogre's ono had torn another great rent in my armor.
>I stood back up facing the thing bearing down on me. I could feel it's bloodlust.
>It came at me again, but this time I warded it away with a defensive swipe of my tetsubo.
>I likely could not take another blow like that, so I put all my effort into keeping myself alive.
>Meanwhile the last ogre, the one with the Nodachi, had stepped up. The Kitsuki, Mantis and Monkey all began to close on him, coming from three sides.
>Toshiro chanted his prayer. I had no idea what he was doing, but given how long it was taking it was bound to be spectacular.
>I realized too late that the leader was intentionally drawing them in closer. I tried to shout a warning.
>With one massive swing of it's blade, the ogre struck them all.
>The Mantis hissed in pain.
>The Monkey fell to one knee.
>The Kitsuki hit the ground hard and did not move.
>I warded off another attack. I had my hands full and could not go to help them.
>Toshiro finished his spell. The skin of the ogre leader began to harden, then turn to Jade.
>Toshiro shouted his prayer, beseeching the Kami of Earth to entomb this malignant beast for all time.
>He was now locked in a struggle with it, attempting to crush the Ogre's lifeforce with pure jade.
>The Ogre I had been fighting with thought to move past me, and put an end to the Shugenja.
>Having none of that, I struck. My first blow smashed the creatures kneecap, as it's leg twisted and it fell, I crushed its skull.
>Then I struck it once more, just to make sure the damn thing was good and dead.
>I limped over to where the others were. The Monkey was quickly tying bandages off on the Kitsuki.
>So Kitsuki-san survived.
>Meanwhile the battle between Toshiro and the Ogre raged.
>I could hear the thing bellowing in fury from with it's jade prison, though it's cries sounded further and further away with every passing second.
>Toshiro was sweating heavily. I knew this spell took a heavy toll on it's caster, and left them very vulnerable while the fought to subdue the beast.
>But all the other Ogres had fallen. Toshiro was free to focus solely in his magic.
>The Ogre's bellows became chirrups, then whimpers.
>Then... nothing.
>Toshiro leaned forward heavily, both hands on his knees.
>It's done.
>We finished patching up Kitsuki-san and even got him awake.
>The blow must have scrambled his brains a bit, because he kept blinking as though he couldn't bring anything into focus.
>Battered, Beaten but Triumphant we set off back for the house.
>We returned to screams.
>Heart in my throat I raced through the front door and into my house.
>I forgot to open the door.
>I was greeted by nine terrified but hopeful faces.
>They looked to my wife's bedroom.
>I ran in.
>I forgot to open the door again.
>The Chu-i looked up at me.
>Thank the Fortunes you're back in time! Quick, get the futon... no wait, did the Shugenja make it back with you?! We need him!
>ISHIGAKI!
>I dropped to my knees and took her outstretched hand in mind.
>It HURTS, Ishigaki!
>What the hell is going on?!?!
>The chu-i smacked me.
>I stare at her.
>Calm down, it's not what you think.
>Her water broke, that's all.
>...
>...
>...THAT'S ALL?!?!
>TOSHIRO GET THE FUCK IN HERE NOW!
>He thumpdragged in just as fast as he could thumpdrag.
>Oh. Ah. I see.
>Toshiro began giving orders.
>People were stripped out of blood stained armor and clothing.
>No time for a proper bath.
>Buckets of cold water dumped over our heads.
>Salt.
>Streamers on the end of a bamboo stick.
>More salt.
>We were rushed into clean clothing, our bloody armor set outside lest the blood bring bad karma.
>And I found myself wandering around my house, a futon balled up and jammed under my kimono, bellowing in time with my wife.
>A woman giving birth is extremely vulnerable to a spiritual attack, and a newborn child even more so.
>So it was the duty of the husband to wander about, faking being a pregnant woman, to confuse the evil spirits and safeguard his wife and child.
>Every cry from Naomi sent my heart into my throat.
>Every muffled snigger sent a twitch through my right eyebrow.
>Clutching my futonbaby to keep it from falling out, I moaned with great sincerity.
>The Mantis assured me that when I blush with embarrassment I'm even cuter than Naomi.
>I didn't kill him.
>I remain proud of the restraint I showed, to this very day.
>At last there was silence.
>Then a cry.
>Not my wife.
>My child.
>Uuuaaahhhh?
>Yes Ishigaki you can stop doing that and come in.
>Naomi had deep bags under her eyes. Her hair was matted to her head with sweat. And she was radiant.
>And there, in Toshiro's arms. was an ugly bawling pink blob.
>It was the most beautiful ugly bawling pink blob I'd ever seen.
>Want to hold your daughter?
>Daughter...
>Hah.
>Haha.
>HahahahahahHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAA
>I flopped down on the floor next to Naomi, and held her as Toshiro handed me my daughter.
>Laughter I couldn't stop kept pouring out of me.
>They were safe. They were both safe, and whole.
>I felt so much tension I hadn't even realised I was holding on too drain out of me, and I'm glad I was already sitting down.
>Naomi began to squirm under her blanket.
>Ishigaki-kun, help me sit up?
>I scooped her up with one hand.
>Then cradled my family in my massive arms.
>Our daughter quieted down as she looked at up at us with giant eyes.
>Just like her mother's.
>Let's hope she gets your looks, Naomi.
>Hmmm. that may be for the best.
>She needs a name.
>She does.
>Well, how about we nudge her along to taking after you with it?
>Oh? You have something in mind.
>Daiko.
>Naomi blinked. Then blushed.
>Hai. Daiko.
>Welcome to your home, Hida Daiko.

Act IV: Winter Court at Kyuden Hida[edit]

>I have made mention in passing before, but I am not a smart person. If my mind appears to be moving quickly it is an illusion created by a familiar situation.
>Being a parent was most definitely NOT familiar.
>I was so focused on my wife's health during her pregnancy that I never once gave any thought go what would happen afterwards.
>My wife and I were both Emerald Magistrates.
>My home was a week's ride from the wall.
>And I had no holdings to bolster my income.
>How then, was I going to wander the length and breadth of the Empire while making sure my family was safe?
>And what of our daughter?
>It's true that traditionally a married woman takes over running the household and raising the children, but enough women went back to court, or regained their figure and donned their armor again that it was just fine to retain some nursemaids.
>But Naomi, so bereft of parental love, would never want that.
>For that matter, a large, belligerent and loving family suited me just fine.
>I looked over at Naomi
>She still looked tired from her ordeal, but the color had returned to her cheeks.
>My daughter grghled happily in her arms.
>She was already on her third meal, and it was only midday.
>I tried not to be jealous of my own newborn daughter for monopolizing my wife's perfect breasts.
>I sat down with wife and spoke with her about the future.
>As I suspected she fully intended to raise Daiko herself.
>Besides, Ishigaki-kun, I am still sick.
>I do not wish to slow the rest of you down anymore.
>Bullshit.
>Naomi uses confused blink attack.
>It's super adorable!
>Neither your illness nor your compassion have ever been a burden on us.
>You're a water tensai! You heal our wounds, you give us speed and strength in battle, you provide clarity when even Kitsuki-san can't find a clue!
>We need you.
>So does she.
>Fuck.
>She was right.
>So? Make some Sake.
>The Mantis, as usual, thinks to solve this problem like a merchant
>Look, all you need is a fresh water source to open a brewery, and everyone knows the Crab make great sake.
>You'll have an income, something for her to manage, and you can use that to get a few ji-samurai vassals of your own to keep her safe while you're away.
>The Monkey piped up. If you need Koku, Hime-san and I can help.
>We all stare at him.
>What, with your one rice paddy?
>No, Hime-san has been quite well, actually.
>I don't how much she's making, exactly, but I get a 5 koku allowance.
>A year?
>No, a month.
>Stare.
>Is that a lot?
>Samurai, as rule, do not bother with matters of money.
>Their lord provides them weapons, armor, food and a place to stay. They have no need of anything else. To suggest otherwise is to insult one's Lord, implying that the Lord cannot provide for his retainers.
>That's how everyone says it works.
>That's not how it works at all.
>It IS true that many samurai have no idea the true value of a koku, or how business actually works.
>When you are in the lands of your Lord, and you need a place to sleep and food, you enter the inn and are given these things as a matter of course.
>You may leave money behind if you wish to especially polite, but there is no shame in not doing so.
>But when you are away from your Lords lands it IS expected that you compensate others, even if they are just peasants, for the things they provide you.
>You are taking from THEIR Lord, he is being a polite host, and you should compensate him with a gift to be polite as well.
>That traditional gift takes the form of a small piece of metal with a hole in the middle of it.
>The greater the request you make of the Lord's servants, the more pieces of metal you should give in return.
>Yes Monkey, 5 koku a month is a fairly decent amount.
>Well, anyway. How do I juggle my duty, my desire to be near my family, and my wife's desire to give our child a warm and loving home?
>A solution, quite literally, fell into our laps.
>Winter was soon to be upon us again, and our superior wished for us to attend the winter court at Kyuden Hida.
>Our superior was going to be there, and they wished for us to join them as their attendants.
>This was not exactly what I had in mind when I wanted to stay close to my family.
>I had felt some trepidation bringing my friends into the Crab lands already, now we were being told to go spend a winter in a castle that was a part of the Wall itself.
>Kitsuki-san saw my look of consternation.
>He reread the letter. Twice.
>Ishigaki-san. This letter. It is implying that Naomi must come as well.
>...
>...
>... But she just gave birth last week!
>I am aware. I think it is Them.
>We all felt a chill run down our spines.
>Save Toshiro, who did not yet know.
>A maho-tsukai, who is also a Ninja, had been influencing our superiors since the day we all met, maybe before, and trying to kill us.
>Toshiro grunted sourly.
>And we're still not sure why.
>Toshiro stood up. Leaning on the tetsubo he used for a crutch.
>I will protect them.
>I went and hugged my wife and daughter.
>Greedy pig was suckling again.
>That's right Daiko, you grow up big and strong.
>Grhghbbwl.
>Puke.
>...
>...
>... I'll get a fresh Kimono for you.
>Please.
>We bundled up Naomi and Daiko under as many blankets as we could.
>Daiko blurbled and kicked at the cold autumn wind, but she was smiling, enjoying the sensation.
>The Monkey watched her.
>Nodded his head.
>I want one.
>We'd been avoiding bringing that subject up with him.
>His wife was a bit prickly on that matter.
>She could be a bit prickly on any matter, really.
>No, she's not so bad anymore.
>Oh?
>I mean, her letters aren't an endless stream of insults or anything.
>But you haven't been home since we left?
>Well, you know. I'm just calling this my pilgrimage. Supposed to take a year, right?
>Monkeys. Just no sense of right and wrong.
>We passed the journey with mild banter and idle speculation on the future.
>Recent events had naturally brought family into everyone's mind and it was obvious all were contemplating marriage and children.
>Naomi tried to protest that we were the ones bearing the Palanquin, since we hadn't kept the porters around and had no place to stop and get more.
>But she was beloved by all of us, and we insisted she rest as much as possible.
>Gurgles and coos seemed to brighten the dearry landscape
>Naomi, hidden behind the screen of the palanquin, allowed herself to be just a silly right back to our daughter. Tickles, tummy blowing, and goofy faces.
>She did have a younger brother after all, so she had practice entertaining infants.
>Toshiro never bore the Palanquin. He had enough work thumpdragging along with us, after all.
>But he kept pace with the Palanquin, stubbornly refusing every offer Naomi made to make room for him.
>To the relief of both the Kitsuki, and the Monkey.
>It annoyed me that the Mantis' could have handled the extra weight without difficulty, and knew it.
>On occasion, I wonder why I dislike the Mantis so much.
>Then I realize that my list of grievances must be so long there is no point in remembering each and every insult.
>Kyuden Hida loomed large in the distance.
>There are two schools of thought on the construction of a castle.
>In one style the castle is surrounded by walls. Not just one wall, but layers of walls forcing an enemy to breach one gate after another while dealing with sorties and archers. This is the style the Crab use most.
>In the other style, the interior is made to be deliberately confusing, with blind turns, right angles, dead ends, and only a single correct path. The more pacifistic clans use this style. It is easier to make the castle pretty in this fashion, then one made clearly and solely for war.
>Of course, the Kaiu are the greatest engineers in the empire. Few realize that the Great Kaiu Wall is, in fact, built in THAT style.
>Within and beneath the Wall there is a twisting labyrinth of tunnels, corridors and traps.
>And not the kind of traps most Rokugani think of. There are portcullises that will slam shut, cutting a portion of a force off from the rest, but there are many more deadfalls, spike pits, scything blades, grinders, flamethrowers and the Kami only know what else. Cruely and efficiently destroying any enemy force that gets inside.
>And, since Kyuden Hida forms a part of the Wall itself, on could say that Kyuden Hida is built in BOTH styles.
>It is an impressive and dour edifice, a clearly imposing monument to the might and endurance of the Crab clan.
>Oh, and there's a gigantic Oni Skull hanging over the front gate.
>That's pretty cool too.
>I allowed myself a small grin of satisfaction as the others stopped short, staring at the Crab's Seat of Power.
>Naomi parted her screen, and held out Daiko so our daughter could look.
>There was a tightness in Naomi's eyes.
>Yes, this would be the fate of our daughter. She was born a Crab, and so she would one day shoulder the burden of waging a war that had lasted since the dawn of the Empire itself.
>I swallowed a lump in my throat.
>We passed under the skull and I felt the tingle of trepidation again.
>The skull is as much a warning to those who would seek shelter in Kyuden Hida as those who would seek to assault it.
>BEHOLD, THIS IS THE ENEMY WE FACE.
>That sense of trepidation was swept aside as we entered the courtyard.
>Every where you would care to look, large burly hunks of metal drilled and sparred.
>Kyuden Hida held Three THOUSAND of the Crab clan's finest warriors.
>Foremost among them were the Champion and the Hida House Guard.
>And it's not like there were no children or civilians in Kyuden Hida.
>All those Samurai need cooks, porters, labor crews to help repairs and cleaning, eta, etc.
>And this was the HOME of the Champion. His family lived here as well.
>Should the Shadowlands attack, there are procedures for protecting those who are not warriors.
>Perhaps my time away from the wall, where I saw myself as yojimbo to all those unable to fight, had made me oversensitive to danger.
>That thought worried me.
>That was one of the nine types of false madness.
>I would speak with Toshiro later, to see if my fire had indeed been disturbed.
>We were ushered into a waiting room where our superior, Ikoma Tsabutai awaited us.
>We bowed and made our greetings.
>Hgrehlbbrebbrb.
>Tsabutai-sama arched an eyebrow at my daughter's solemn greeting.
>Naomi gave birth but two weeks ago, Tsabutai-sama. Your letter implied you wished for her specifically.
>Hrm yes. I had thought her magic would be able to answer many of the questions that are bound to arise in the coming months.
>I did not realize she had given birth such a short time ago, though. I see you didn't even have time to find a proper nursemaid. I must apologize for this inconvenience.
>Apologize with your life, fool.
>I thought.
>Instead, my wife and I both assured Tsabutai-sama that it was no trouble at all, and that we were happy to fulfill our duties.
>Good, good. I am delighted to have such splendid subordinates. I shall hold you both up as examples to shirkers in the future.
>Kitsuki-san used the opening to ask.
>Forgive me Ikoma Tsabutai-sama, but what questions do you foresee arising? We do not even know what it is you wish of us yet.
>Ah, you need not concern yourselves with trivial details. Just do as you have been so far and I will call upon you when I have need. Otherwise, feel free to enjoy the Winter Court here.
>He said that like he owned the place.
>We accepted his dismissal.
>And were shown to our rooms.
>As Kyuden Hida is qualified to host the imperial court, it has many guest rooms for visiting dignitaries.
>Any courtier would be appalled at the spartan quarters provided, while remaining oblivious to the fact that these rooms are some of the safest in the castle.
>As Emerald magistrates we warranted middling tier rooms. So, bare with a futon and only three people to a room.
>But the others insisted that they cram the four of themselves in so Naomi, Daiko and I could have some privacy.
>I snagged a servant and asked for some more blankets, explaining Naomi's poor health.
>As he scurried off, I heard a familiar sound from our room.
>Naomi was coughing again. Another bad one.
>I took Daiko up in one arm and held the other in front of Naomi.
>She doubled over it, going limp and allowing the fit to pass.
>Daiko stared intently at Naomi, and didn't make a sound.
>I laid Daiko down as the fit passed, then cradled Naomi with her back to my chest. She was sweating hard.
>The others came in; Kitsuki-san heard.
>They produced small cloths I used to wipe her sweat away as Toshiro brewed her medicinal tea.
>Mantis picked Daiko up when she began to fuss. She calmed down quickly.
>No Daiko. That's a Mantis. You don't know where it's been. Icky icky.
>I thought.
>Naomi's eyes fluttered open and she looked up at me.
>I'm sorry everyone, I don't mean to be such a burden on you all.
>Hush, Naomi.
>Toshiro handed me a cup of warm tea for her.
>He politely looked aside as I finished wiping the sweat from her chest and underarms.
>I pulled her Kimono closed and took the tea cup, holding up to her lips.
>As she sipped her tea the Monkey spoke.
>"You're not a burden Naomi!"
>Mantis. "Not even a bit".
>Kitsuki-san. "Indeed this much is nothing, really".
>Toshiro. "I think of Ishigaki as a brother. That makes you my sister. Think nothing of it".
>She smiled and leaned back into me.
>The others politely ignored our public display of affection.
>Kitsuki san started the discussion.
>Tsabutai-sama has always given the impression he has things planned out well ahead of time, even making fortunate accidents seem intentional.
>But there was something a bit odd about how he acted tonight.
>What do you mean?
>It's simple math, even you could do it Ishigaki. I cannot believe that Tsabutai-sama "forgot" when Naomi-san would give birth, even if it was only a general guess.
>Wait, do you think Tsabutai himself is tied to THEM?
>I cannot say. THEY have been careful to use agents to do their bidding, hiding behind cutouts before. It may be they influence someone who has Tsabutai-sama's ear.
>But I do know that by investigating his relationships we will certainly grow closer to finding THEM.
>The Monkey cracked his knuckles. "Can't wait for that".
>With Daiko tucked away in the nursery during the day, the rest of us set to work investigating.
>Step one was straightforward and simple, we just needed to see who was connected to who. Even the real nature of the relationship didn't matter, just that the ties existed.
>As always, there is a right way to meet people in Rokugan.
>Properly, one is introduced to a stranger by a mutual acquaintance. The person making the introduction takes you to the person you're meeting, and greets them. That person the returns the greeting.
>Why hello [introducer]! And this must be...
>At this point the introducer tells them your name.
>It is rude to make someone confess their own ignorance; you may be implying they're just stupid. Or someone who does not know that you've not yet met may get that impression.
>So to save face, the person you are being introduced to acts like they already know you, then trail off
>So that the introducer can act like they are being rude by cutting the other person off when they answer.
>I've never really understood why so many grown ass adults insist on playing pretend so often, but I'm not about to make waves by saying that out loud.
>Naomi and Kitsuki-san both navigate the court with ease. They're quite good at getting introductions, as well as having people who want to meet them.
>The rest of us... well we don't cause any incidents.
>I hover about, rudely joining inconsequential conversations about polite, inoffensive topics such as weather and bonsai gardens. Then I watch other people make introductions and note who's speaking with who on behalf of who.
>I have to dip out periodically to check on my daughter. I use this an excuse to write things down, because there is no way I could track of the tangled web I'm investigating.
>Once I entered the Nursery to find Naomi already there.
>You holding up alright?
>Hai, Ishigaki-kun.
>She been eating again?
>No, I just wanted to see her. You as well, I see.
>I fished my notes out and snagged up the brush and inkpot.
>My calligraphy was... legible. It was very legible.
>Naomi glanced over my shoulder.
>I see.
>Don't judge me, there's a lot of people here.
>I know.
>Smile.
>She's teasing me.
>I glance around.
>No one in sight
>I give her rump a soft smack.
>She yelps and rubs at her behind.
>But she's smiling, eager for more playtime.
>We push aside our desires and head back out to court.
>The Mantis is still speaking with the same three people he had been with when we left. He moves slowly in court.
>The Monkey has been flitting about, introducing himself to everyone who will lock eyes with him. He seems oblivious to how much aggravation he's causing.
>The opening rounds of winter court are in full swing.
>That evening.
>We present our findings to Kitsuki-san. He's glad I took notes. Naomi's memory proves to quite sharp as well, and she recounts the day with sufficient clarity that even Kitsuki-san is impressed.
>I'll need time to go over all these notes, and figure out which direction we should move in. The rest of you should just act normally, for the time being.
>Normally, eh?
>Good, get out of our room. My wife and I have a conversation from earlier to finish.
>The next day we headed down to the same room we had been in the previous day.
>I looked around in dismay.
>I realized I didn't recognize a single person there.
>It wasn't that I hadn't been paying attention, far from it.
>But this was the court of Crab Clan Champion.
>There were a LOT of courtiers here, many high ranking, and almost all of them wondering what they did to deserve this punishment.
>I saw one Asako courtier, so young his cheeks looked like they had never felt the touch of a razor, trying to start up a conversation with one of the House Guard standing around the room.
>I didn't catch what the Guard said but from the look of horror on the boys face I suspect it was something along the lines of PISSCUNTSHITCOCKNBALLSDOUBLEASFUK.
>No one in the Empire can use foul language quite like a Crab.
>I had just resigned myself to another long day of note taking when Naomi tugged my kimono.
>There, that man is the current Master of Earth.
>I looked to where she indicated and saw a mummified corpse conversing with none other than the Kuni family Daimyo.
>I remembered Naomi's mother saying her husband was a candidate for the next Master of Earth.
>Looking at the current one I could believe it.
>Dark brown skin that was almost entirely wrinkle was stretched taut on his bony frame. A few wisps of translucent white hair spilled from the back of his skull, and a goatee of the same color stretched down to the floor. Both eyes completely clouded over with cataracts, and thin, bloodless lips pulled in over pale pink gums. Not a single tooth left in his head.
>I took a moment to be impressed that that thing had managed to cross the entirety of the empire to be here.
>As I watched, the Mummy of Earth rapped it's tapin stick twice. An attendant rushed to it's side, knelt, and placed a teacup in the outstretched claw.
>I looked closer at the attendant.
>It was Naomi's father.
>Well shit.
>The way Naomi grips my arm tells me she saw him too.
>Take her and leave.
>Go looking for the others.
>Spot Kitsuki-san.
>Get the fuck over here head jerks from outside the room.
>Kitsuki-san excuses himself, comes to join us. Takes one look at my face and asks.
>How bad is it?
>Her father is here.
>Ah.
>Do we know why?
>Naomi shakes her head.
>I have sent letters, of course. But I have not heard from them since we left the castle.
>A familiar thumpdraging heralded the arrival of Toshiro
>I have something important you must hear... and you seem to have made an unpleasant discovery yourselves.
>Kitsuki-san nods.
>I'll get the others, emergency meeting time.
>We head back to our rooms. I snag Daiko on the way, to help calm Naomi.
>She's hiding it well, but now that she's a mother herself she can see clearly just how abnormal her father's behavior has been.
>Her own sense of Honor, and proper conduct, is at war with real feelings for him.
>So I smother her in cyoot to numb those emotions until she can sort through them.
>We bring Toshiro up to speed on the nature of Naomi's family.
>She makes half hearted excuses for her father, as her Honor demands, and more vehement excuses for her mother and older brother doing nothing to stop it.
>I'm will to accept he was probably an ass to Oniisan as well, and that's why Oniisan seems such a daddy's boy.
>But at the end of the day I don't love Naomi's mother, or her brothers. I love her. And their inaction allowed her to be hurt.
>Toshiro grunted.
>Naomi... Your grandfather. Was he a Shugenja as well?
>Hai.
>His element?
>Earth.
>Let me guess, every shugenja in your family?
>All Earth.
>I hadn't know that. Naomi was ill from birth. Jurojin had turned his face from her. Of course she would struggle with the Earth Kami. And that had broken a very old family tradition.
>I understood just a little better why her father despised her so. And I hated that.
>Toshiro then told us what he had learned.
>The Master of Earth was here, and he was dying.
>Yeah we knew about that. Naomi's father is one of his attendants.
>And the later part is obvious once you see him.
>I think you misunderstand. The Master of Earth himself does not think he will ever leave Kyuden Hida.
>Naomi's head jerked up sharply.
>Are the other masters here?
>No, just him.
>Naomi bit her thumb.
>While the recommendation of the former Master carries great weight, it is ultimately the council that decides who will join their ranks.
>The council of Masters is technically a circle of equals, but seniority does count, and the Master of Earth has been on the council for longer than all the others combined.
>He may intend to simply appoint his successor and not care at all what they rest of the council has to say.
>Safe to say that's a pretty big insult?
>Very.
>Then all his attendants...
>Candidates for the position, most likely.
>Mantis grumbles.
>So he ran all the way to the other side of the empire just to avoid politicking over who gets to be the next Master of Earth when he finally croaks?
>Toshiro speaks again.
>No, nostalgia I think. The Kuni Daimyo spent several years studying under the Master of Earth when his father was still the Daimyo.
>As I understand it, in his youth the Master of Earth spent a year on the Wall.
>Everyone was surprised at that.
>You shouldn't be so taken aback, the Kuni family are the foremost practitioners of Earth magic in the Empire. We have always been close to the Master of Earth.
>Yes but to come here...
>Well Earth magic does cover spells that call upon Jade, and strikes at the impurity of the taint. One could hardly call oneself the MASTER of Earth without have some experience in the matter.
>Oh. I see.
>What is it Ishigaki-kun?
>You know Kyuden means that a castle is deemed important enough to host the Emperor's Winter Court, right?
>Hai
>Well, Kyuden Hida has hosted the court only a very few times, and most of those were times when the clans summer wars were threatening to get out of control. It's always used as way for the Emperor to remind everyone not to weaken the Empire TOO much with their infighting.
>So you think the Master of Earth is doing the same thing? Testing to see which of his candidates is trying to master their element, and which is just trying to advance their career?
>Yeah, if he's the kind of guy who would spend time here of his own free will.
>The Monkey was the one to say it.
>Wow Naomi, yer dad's fucked.
>Daiko put an emphatic exclamation point on the Monkey's statement by filling her diaper.
>And like that Naomi and I were left alone with our daughter.
>Even my best friend, tears cutting streaks through his face paint, thumpdragged himself outside faster than I thought a man with a club foot could move.
>Out of love for my wife, I ordered her outside. She had enough issue with breathing.
>I would face this challenge alone.
>We spent the next few days gathering as much information about the court as we could.
>Kitsuki-san made some contact with the several of Tsabutai-sama's connections, and began to study them.
>We were all certain of it. Someone, somewhere in this court, was the link that could lead us to our Ninja Blood Sorcerer.
>Toshiro kept watch over the Mummy of Earth, under various pretenses. Since it seemed to wish spend most of its time in discussion with the Kuni Daimyo, being near his family's head was often excuse enough.
>The rest of us tried to avoid being seen by Naomi's father as much as possible.
>We didn't know how much, if any, a grudge he held, but we felt it best not to risk it.
>Hopefully a castle that can house thousands would be large enough to avoid a chance encounter.
>One day, in the third week of the court, a haggard looking nursemaid shuffled nervously at the edge of the room we were in.
>She was staring intently at me.
>Curious I walked over.
>Ignoring the fluttering fans as I initiated conversation with a heimin.
>Um, great samurai, would you happen to be Hida Ishigaki-sama? She kept her eyes downcast and head bowed.
>I am.
>And your daughter is Hida Daiko-sama?
>Is something wrong with my daughter?
>She looked up in surprise, yelped when our eyes met, then quickly dropped her gaze again.
>No, No nothing is wrong! I'm a sorry to have bothered you.
>Hey take it easy. I'm not mad or anything.
>I realized that she had committed a serious breach of etiquette by looking into the eyes of Samurai.
>In this world there are four types of people. Or perhaps it would be better to say there are people, and three other types grouped by how close they are to being people.
>A Samurai is a person.
>A farmer is half a person.
>An Eta is not a person at all.
>And below even Eta are the Gaijin and things outside the Celestial order. Dirty though it may be, even Eta have souls. Gaijin do not.
>It is well within the rights of any samurai to demand whatever they wish from anyone of lesser station, even if what they want is the life of the lesser.
>Of course, it doesn't really work that way.
>Those half people still produce, be it rice, buildings or even, in the case of merchants, coin.
>Slaughtering your lords servants, even though it is your right, is still squandering your lords resources. And if those peasants belong to someone other than YOUR lord, then it becomes a very big deal.
>So this peasant girl had risked coming to the attention of a Samurai, something most peasants hope never to do, and had then looked him the eyes as though she were his equal.
>I understood why she was scared.
>But I've never been the type to care about accidental slip ups like that. And besides that, Samurai have a purpose as well. Those beneath us produce. We protect and administrate.
>I wasn't a very good administrator, but I was one hell of a protector.
>So I spoke softly and reassured her she was in trouble, and asked her tell me what was so important.
>Well, Hida Daiko-sama wont stop crying. I think she's hungry.
>Oh, alright then.
>Naomi has four courtiers surrounding her. She seems the center of attention.
>All are young pretty boys in expensive Kimonos.
>I butt in, and they hide sneers behind fans.
>I speak just loud enough for them to hear.
>Naomi, Daiko seems to giving the nurses a hard time. Our daughter seems hungry. Let's go.
>I can see it in their eyes. They're quite taken aback by this.
>Sweet naive Hana-chan. She didn't even realize she was being courted.
>As we approach the nursery, I see a red and yellow kimono standing outside.
>Chikusho
>Naomi's brother turned around and smiled at us both.
>Hello! It's been some time! Have you eaten rice today?
>Hohiro! it has been so long!
>Naomi is genuinely delighted to see her older brother, so while I WANT to step between the two and glare at him until he leaves, I settle for an elbow nudge and head jerk in the direction of the bawling infant.
>Hohiro feigns surprise. Badly.
>What is this? You have a child?!
>I think he's doing it on purpose.
>Hai, She's hungry. Please come in, meet your niece!
>Oh shit Naomi what are you doing?
>I would be honored.
>Naomi opened the door to the nursery with a grin that went ear to ear.
>Naomi.
>Stop.
>We entered the room and Naomi scooped up Daiko.
>Ishigaki, help me please?
>I loosened up her Obi just enough for her to get free even as my mind was screaming.
>FFS He's right there watching you!
>My cheeks were beginning to hurt. I realized my face had been frozen in a fake smile for some time.
>Politely trying to hide my deep seated disgust
>Every polite smile I had ever seen in my life seemed much more sinister to me now.
>Hohiro walked around me to sit beside Naomi, looking at her intently.
>So you really did it?
>You're a real mother now?
>Yes, is it not wonderful?
>Ishigaki-kun was so kind and gentle, he took care of me through the worst parts of my pregnancy. And Toshiro-san as well! He is a Kuni, and knows many prayers to Jurojin.
>I see.
>That is wonderful news Naomi.
>And I'm amazed at how quickly you regained your figure!
>Given what he'd said the last time, I was sure that he suspected Naomi did not, in fact, give birth to Daiko.
>It was true that Naomi lost weight quickly after she gave birth, at the time I was worried she was losing it too quickly.
>She didn't put on that much to begin with.
>In the last few months she was very weak and had to force herself to eat at all.
>But everyone who knew anything about babies assured me that while it was unusual, Naomi was an unusual case, and that she would be fine with rest.
>Looking at her now, it did seem she was fully recovered.
>Once Daiko finished her meal, I helped Naomi straighten up while Hohiro held his niece.
>I kept the smile plastered in place and prayed that Naomi would be so focused on her brother she would not notice.
>Hello, little Daiko! I'm your uncle Hohiro! Ah, your parents gave you a fine name didn't they! Yes you do take after your mother, I can see you have her eyes...
>So he finally realized the truth.
>His smile flickered. Seems he was genuinely surprised.
>I felt Naomi's hand on my knee. She was squeezing it tightly.
>She was looking at the floor.
>Oni-san. Why are you so surprised by all of this?
>Whatever do you mean, Naomi?
>I sent letters. I wrote every week. To each of you...
>You did?
>Did... you not get them?
>No... I thought you may have hated us...
>Dipshit. If you knew your sister at all you'd know she's not capable of hate.
>I kept the smile in place.
>I thought my face was going to break.
>No Oniisan, I could never hate you.
>They must have just gotten lost. It is a long way from here to the lands of the Phoenix after all.
>Hmm, yes they likely did just get lost.
>Ah, I am sorry, I must return to father.
>Hohiro gave us back our daughter.
>My wife cradled Daiko in her arms and wept silently.
>Naomi took Daiko back to our room.
>She said she did not feel well and wished to rest.
>I stayed with them until they were both sound asleep.
>Then I practically ran through the halls until I made it outside.
>I needed to turn my mind off, lose myself in something simple.
>I approached one of the dueling circles where bushi tested themselves against one another.
>The Crabs standing about, watching matches and waiting for their own turns, gave me some awfully hairy eyeballs.
>My hair was combed and washed, beard trimmed neatly, and I wore a silken Kimono in Crab colors. My only weapons were the Wakizashi and Jite tucked into my obi. I wasn't wearing armor.
>And yet I also had the build of a warrior, and the scars to speak of my history of battle.
>To their eyes, I was a contradiction.
>I pointed to largest ball of corded muscle I could see and jerked my head towards an empty circle.
>He blinked once, then chuckled as he stepped in.
>What did you have in mind, geisha-san?
>Jiujitsu.
>I knew my Tsubojutsu was just fine. But away from my homeland I had little chance to practice Kobo Ichi-Kai under the eye of a sensei.
>I was worried some bad habits may have crept in unnoticed.
>Would you like to go get some armor first?
>I have my armor here with me, and no, I'm fine as is.
>He gave a suit yourself shrug, removed his katana from his obi so the saya would not hinder his movements and took his stance.
>I took mine.
>Stars exploded in my eyes and I almost fell.
>Damn he was fast!
>I stomped on his knee, but he twisted with the blow and remained standing. I threw an elbow at his neck that he pushed aside with his palm.
>He stabbed his fingers towards my eyes, and I flinched back.
>I.
>Flinched.
>He followed my backpedal, got his ankle behind my own, and punched me in the sternum. Twisting his hips to add force to the blow.
>I fell on my ass.
>He scowled down at me.
>You haven't practiced nearly enough. Your reflexes are dull.
>I see.
>When I left the Crab lands to become an Emerald Magistrate I had been a warrior through and through.
>But as time passed I had spent more and more time learning the ways of courtly life, and being a good magistrate. I had let my martial training fall by the wayside.
>Crabs my age, those who had survived this long, were now quite far ahead of me. It would be difficult for me to catch up.
>I stood up.
>Again, please.
>I spent the day training.
>All of it. Kenjutsu, Kyujutsu, Tsubojutsu, Jiujutsu, Tantojutsu.
>I stripped to the waist and went through the old exercise katas we learned at Sunda Mizu to master the Mountain does not Move.
>By exercise kata I mean we take a horse stance while others strike us repeatedly.
>First fists, then bokken. Finally tetsubo.
>By the end of it my body was battered, bruised and bleeding. My nice Kimono was torn and dirty.
>And my renewed commitment to my training had allowed me to regain at least some of the respect of my fellow Crab.
>As I went to head for the baths I caught sight of the Monkey.
>He was staring wide eyed.
>Is THAT how you Crabs train?
>A samurai-ko snorted.
>HAH. Don't let that softie fool you. Real Crab training is much harsher. We were just going soft on him, ease him back into the routine!
>She was just bragging to the Monkey. I was just a little rusty.
>I wasn't that bad.
>I hoped.
>I'm going to get a bath, did you want something Monkey?
>Oh yeah, Kitsuki-san want's to get everyone together again.
>Did we find something?
>Monkey shrugged Iuhknow.
>Fine. Tell him I'll be along after I get cleaned up.
>K.
>I soaked my aching muscles in scalding hot water, and washed the blood from my cuts and scrapes.
>My body stung all over, like when you peel off some dead skin and a strong wind hits your fresh pink skin.
>I focused on that pain. Then, as I learned to do long ago, I wadded it up into a ball, placed in a sack, tied the sack off, and tossed it aside.
>When I got back to others Kitsuki-san was sitting on the floor with his arms folded up. He looked like nothing so much as a pouting child.
>Took you long enough.
>That was very odd. Something must have frustrated Kitsuki-san greatly for him to be in such a foul temper.
>Let's hear it then.
>Kitsuki-san sighed.
>Tsabutai-sama has ordered me to accompany him for "the foreseeable future".
>Wait, isn't that a good thing? Now you can
>NO. It is not.
>I am his attendant. I must sit quiet and observe, speaking only when I am addressed directly.
>Still don't see how it's bad.
>Every single person he meets with we already know about. And they're ALL on guard around me. The most heated topic I heard all day was a discussion on the merits of various styles of paintings!
>As things stand, he has effectively cut off my attempts to investigate!
>What's worse is he's not even trying to hide the fact that that is what he is doing.
>He never asked me for anything!
>So what your saying is he knows we're snooping around and has cockblocked us by tying your hands?
>Yes. And he wants us all to know he knows. He is warning us to stop.
>The Mantis growled. Makes you wonder what he doesn't want us to find.
>Monkey, laying on his stomach with his chin propped up in his hands. "Aside from which one of his friends is a Ninja Tsukai?"
>We don't know that our enemy is one of Tsabutai's circle for certain, not yet anyway. It's only a possibility.
>Doesn't him hiding things from us prove that though?
>No. Not really. It is said that everyone has a secret they would rather no one find out about, and it IS rather unusual for a samurai to investigate their superiors.
>That was true. The authority of one above your station was absolute. The Lion Clan Champion could not order a Crane Clan Samurai only because the Crane Samurai belonged to the Crane Champion, who was the Lion's equal in rank.
>We fumed for a bit
>Our best investigator was pinned down
>Of the rest of us, only Naomi had any real chance of being able to continue on discreetly.
>If we continued to peruse our goal, we invited reprisals from Tsabutai-sama.
>He would be well within his rights to punish us quite severely.
>It seemed, for the time being at least, we had no choice but to stop.
>None of us were happy with this turn of events.
>That night.
>After Naomi fell asleep I slipped quietly out of our futon and donned my armor.
>I stepped outside our room.
>Toshiro was there.
>Finally.
>I'd been sitting out here for the last four days. You never used to be one to hold back what you were thinking.
>Picked up some bad habits away from the Wall.
>He eyed me up and down.
>Yosh
>We left
>The Crab standing guard looked us over. Seeing that we were both sensibly dressed they made no attempt to stop us.
>We stepped out onto the southern battlements.
>Onto the Wall.
>A howling wind assaulted us the moment we we set foot outside, and even I had to lean into it lest I be knocked flat.
>100 yards below us, the River of the Last Stand rushed by.
>I breathed in deeply, inhaling the stench that wafted up from the Shadowlands.
>I had feared returning to this place. I feared for my friends, for my family, who were knew nothing of the dangers here.
>Because it was the duty of the Crab to keep them warm and safe.
>It was my duty to protect my friends, my family, from the horror that lurked beyond.
>And, now that I faced it once more, I felt serene.
>The Hida family motto is a simple one. "I will not fail."
>I.
>WILL.
>NOT.
>FAIL.
>Toshiro nodded in approval.
>"Your Fire is just fine. It was agitated, but that's just the nature of fire."
>Figures he would know what was on my mind.
>And then we heard the scream.

Act V: A Shout in the Dark[edit]

>On the Wall there is a special duty. The Screamer.
>A Samurai is expected to keep face at all times. Even when pierced by an arrow or cut by a blade, they should not cry out in pain, or fear.
>Shouts of challenge, Kiai, and roars of battle rage are just fine.
>But on the Wall some have the duty to Scream. They are placed in most vulnerable positions, so that should the enemy launch a surprise attack, they will be the first targets.
>It is an important duty, to be the Screamer.
>It is also a simple one.
>Live long enough to Scream, and alert the others to danger.
>Follow the Screamer. There you will find the enemy.
>This Scream came not from the Wall, but up from the bowels of Kyuden Hida.
>I bent slightly.
>Toshiro leapt upon my back, legs clutching my waist and brandishing his Crutchtsubo.
>I ran towards the Screamer.
>As we neared I realized where the Screamer was.
>It was unthinkable.
>Somehow an enemy had managed to get to bypass the Wall, every single guard, and enter into the most secure rooms of Kyuden Hida.
>I could hear the Screamer quite clearly, I knew exactly where he was. Three floors up from where Naomi and the others were.
>We rounded the last corner and I set Toshiro down, reading my own Tetsubo.
>Several Crab were lined up outside the room awaiting their turn to step in to fight.
>A bushi came flying out of the room, crashing into the wall.
>The bushi in the front charged into the room with a fierce Kiai.
>Two others pulled the fallen bushi out of the way. Blood leaked from his armor like soup from a cracked bowl.
>Toshiro and I stepped up.
>The gunso directing the flow looked at us.
>Nodded.
>"It's not an Ugulu, but something is going on with magic."
>Understood.
>"NAOSHIGE! YASIMASU! OUT!"
>Two bushi came out, one holding the other up.
>They both moved under their own power, but with clear difficulty.
>Toshiro and I stepped in.
>A half dozen red and gold figures lay sprawled about the room. The last one standing hurled a blast of Jade energy at the Creature in the middle of the room. The Energy seemed to wash off it to no effect.
>Fuck.
>"SAIGANKI!"
>One of the Crabs spread out around the Oni yelled out a code word.
>Oh great, we've got a Rock Crusher.
>The Crab have several words that are used to quickly convey information about various situations.
>The Crab who spoke up just informed us this Oni was not harmed by Jade or Crystal.
>Some other phrases let us know that we've got a large horde with multiple types of Shadowlands Creatures on the way, the various abilities of an Oni, and if the teahouse you and your friends are in is staffed by monsters in disguise who are unaware that you are onto them, and that your friends should gather up their weapons and meet your outside.
>Yes.
>I'm serious.
>Toshiro grunted an acknowledgement, and fished out a scroll
>I stepped up, taking a warding stance, and stood between the Oni and the Shugenja.
>It was an ugly thing. Squat, all ropey tendons, with four arms ending in black claws. Ichor dripped from them and hissed where it fell, scorching the futons.
>The top of it's head was smooth as an eggshell, with two long vertical slits where a nose should have been. I couldn't see a mouth.
>Yep, never seen one like that before.
>It snapped it's arms like a whip at us, and I saw it's arms had two extra elbow joints.
>I took it's blow on my tetsubo, it was strong.
>One bushi hissed as it's claw dug into him. I could see his armor had been melted away by whatever foul substance was coating the beasts talons.
>A shout from Toshiro. A tetsubo, made of magical Earth appeared before me.
>I took hold of it.
>The other Crab struck as one, making an opening for me.
>I Brought my Tetsubo down hard. And again.
>And again. My limbs were invigorated. I moved with a speed I did not possess.
>I spared a glance over my shoulder. Naomi was in the doorway, pointing at me.
>The creature was tough, and it fought with wild ferocity.
>My fellow Crabs protected me, as I was the one best able to hurt it.
>It howled in frustration, then pain as I struck again, putting all my weight into my strikes.
>Empowered by both Toshiro and Naomi, I felled the beast.
>The other Crabs stabbed it repeatedly making sure it was dead.
>Naomi rushed over to the fallen Phoenix scrolls of healing already in hand.
>But only one of them was still alive. Hohiro, her brother.
>The one that I had seen casting the ineffective spell was none other than my dear Father-in-law.
>And there, on the floor, a long mess of intestines the only thing connecting the top and bottom half of his body, was the Master of Earth.
>Fuck.
>The Crab who had been tossed from the room managed to survive, thanks to Naomi's timely arrival.
>The guards were loathe to allow her and my friends to leave their rooms. Even though she now wore my Clan's colors it was obvious to everyone she was not a Crab by birth. But when she insisted that she be allowed to serve her new Clan and informed them she was a Tensai they allowed her to come out.
>His name was Kazuma.
>It was while Naomi was desperately trying to get him to stop showering her with thanks, or at the very least stop trying to break a hole in the floor with his forehead that the Champion of the Crab arrived on scene.
>I am a large man. Most Rokugani must tilt their necks to look me in the eyes. I tower over my wife. I even have an inch or two on most of my fellow Crabs.
>My Champion loomed over even me. With biceps as big around as most men's thighs. His shoulder were the span of the haft of an Ono.
>Ketsuen, the Ancestral armor of the Crab, had gone on a long and strange journey. It had been lost to the Shadowlands, tainted, rediscovered, purified and eventually returned to the Crab Clan.
>The Helmet of that armor, despite it's simple design, nonetheless serves to assist it's wearer in being the scariest motherfucker in any room he cares to enter.
>And this mountain, this battle scarred veteran who I could never hope to match up to, this man who can intimidate others with his mere presence, was very very angry.
>And he was looking at my wife, and me beside her.
>Now it was my turn to slam my forehead into the floor. I was of high standing, as an Emerald Magistrate, but I was still firmly within the ranks of the Buke. My Champion, however was Kuge. He was head of both the Hida Family, and the Crab Clan, and so my Lord twice over.
>Crabs do not, as a rule, stand on ceremony. But neither do we tolerate open disrespect.
>"And you are?"
>"I am Hida Ishigaki, my lord. This is my wife Hida Naomi."
>"Neither of you are stationed here."
>It was not a question.
>"No my Lord, we are Emerald Magistrates in the retinue of Ikoma Tsabutai-sama."
>"I see. Why did you come then?"
>"I had gone for a walk in the night to clear my mind, my Lord. When I heard the Screamer I moved without thinking."
>"And you?"
>He was addressing Naomi.
>"I could tell where the sound of the... Screamer was coming from. I am a a Water Tensai; and I wished to be of service to my Clan."
>Hida-sama glanced at Kazuma.
>"You have. Continue to server your Clan well"
>"Hai, my Lord!"
>The Champion then entered the charnel house that was the quarters for the Master of Earth.
>"Well? How will the Crab answer for THIS?!"
>Isawa Shoji, my Father-in-law, was already raging.
>He was a proud man, and his pride had been wounded severely today. So of course he was looking to blame someone else for the death of the Master of Earth.
>"I have no words to express my sorrow at the loss of the Master of Earth. Rest assured we will conduct a full investigation as to how this occurred and those responsible will be punished."
>I had little doubt whoever that was, the Champion would scrape their wakizashi dull on a rock first.
>No matter how you looked at it, this was a big incident. It would have been one thing had the Master of Earth just passed on in his sleep. But an Oni, a creature our Clan existed to fight, had waltzed into what should have been one of the most secure places in the Empire and ripped the Master of Earth in half.
>In the worst case scenario the Phoenix could raise a stink to the Emperor himself, and the Crab Champion could be held accountable.
>This was, without a doubt, a crisis for the Crab.
>And then Hohiro spoke out of turn.
>"Father, please calm yourself".
>"WHAT DI-"
>"This is a great tragedy for our Clan, the Master of Earth and nearly all his possible successors are now dead. But this Oni was clearly a creature of singular and great power, for it to shrug off the power of so many Earth Tensai."
>Hohiro had given his father a way out.
>Hohiro and Shoji had both failed to protect their Master and their fellow tensai. Shoji especially, was unwounded. That was, embarrassing, to say the least
>So, by acknowledging the power of the Oni, Shoji allowed the Crab to save some face while covering his own ass.
>Shoji was temperamental, and vengeful, but he didn't get to where he was by being stupid about it. He knew how to pick his battles.
>He took the way out.
>"Yes, you have a point my son."
>"Still, it is odd such a creature got so deep into the castle, is it not?"
>"How was this possible?"
>"THAT is something I would like to know as well."
>Hida-sama's growl promised dire retribution for whosoever had shamed the Crab this day.
>Hida-sama left the room, before Shoji could find a socially acceptable way to bitch some more.
>He approached me again.
>"You said you and your group were Emerald Magistrates yes? And your superior was here as well?"
>"Hai, my Lord."
>"Take me to him."
>We led Hida-sama to where Tsabutai-sama was staying. We waited outside as they exchanged words.
>Hida-sama left.
>"Enter please."
>We did so and knelt before Tsabutai-sama.
>"I have heard what has happened. Hida-sama has asked me to oversee this investigation. As an Emerald Magistrate, I will have no bias in this matter. I have agreed to render impartial judgment. I shall be relying on you all to bring this matter to a swift conclusion."
>Of course, Tsabutai-sama only sought out testimony. Since no one saw or heard anything unusual until the Oni was already upon the Phoenix, he quickly hit a dead end. And so, with a little persuasion from Kitsuki-san, he gave us leave to investigate on our own.
>We played a game. We had all the guards go to where they were just before the attack happened, and each of us tried to sneak past them.
>We were all caught.
>We enlisted the aid of Shugenja that knew magic to help conceal our movements.
>We were still caught.
>No matter where we entered from, it was only by turning completely invisible that we could get to the Master of Earth's room undetected.
>It was Toshiro who said it.
>If that Oni could become invisible, then it would have been able to escape. It did not.
>We have to consider that the Oni was summoned inside Kyuden Hida.
>"Hida's balls, that's horrifying."
>Mantis looked at Kitsuki-san.
>"Think it might have been THEM?"
>Kitsuki-san pursed his lips, tapped his fan to them.
>"I have no idea. If we just had some idea of what THEIR goal was then maybe I could say one way or another."
>"Alright then. Let's report to Tsabutai-sama. Since we're looking for a Maho-Tsukai we should let the witch hunters take over, right?"
>I don't think we should, I said.
>"Why the hell not?!"
>"Simply because of how stupid it would be to summon an Oni here of all places."
>Wat
>"Look, no one is more paranoid about taint than the Crab clan. You probably don't even know how many times you've all been tested for the taint."
>"6 for me."
>You don't count Kitsuki-san.
>"Anyway, there's no way a Tsukai was in here for any length of time without being AMAZING at hiding themselves."
>"I'm talking beyond even a finger of corrupted jade or Jade Petal tea, because we look for those things."
>"We even look out for the mood swings and odd behaviors brought on by the early stages of the taint!"
>The others nodded slowly. We weren't looking for a needle in a haystack, we were looking for a needle with a rusty center in a stack of needles.
>The first thing to do then, was clear away as many needles as possible.
>So, who stands to gain the most from this?
>Well, anyone with a grudge against the Crab, or the Phoenix.
>The Master of Earth was largely pissing on the council.
>I spoke up.
>"Naomi... how many of the candidates survived the attack?"
>"Just one, not counting my father."
>"Do you know him?"
>"I know of him. Some years back he was caught frequenting opium dens."
>I could not look at Naomi.
>I spoke.
>"Isawa Shoji did it."
>The master of Earth was going to appoint his successor and damn what the council wanted. This was Shoji's only chance, he wouldn't live long enough to replace the Master of Earth chosen now.
>The attack killed the Master, preventing him from even voicing support for any one of his potential successors.
>It killed almost all of the Shoji's rivals for the position.
>The only ones to survive were a contender with a scandal staining his past, Shoji's own son, and Shoji himself.
>Shoji didn't have a scratch on him.
>And he obstinately lobbed useless magic at the Oni.
>There is no way that Oni could have snuck past all the guards to enter the Master of Earth's room unnoticed.
>But if it had been summoned form inside the room, or next door, that's a different mater.
>And Shoji would have unfettered access to those rooms.
>I knelt on the floor in the center of the room, surrounded by greatness.
>The Crab Clan Champion, the Kuni Family Daimyo, My superior Emerald Magistrate Ikoma Tsabutai, were all present to hear my testimony.
>As was the man I was accusing, my Father-in-law.
>You would think I would be pleased things turning out this way. I hated that man with a passion. He had hurt my wife so badly I wanted nothing more than to squeeze his neck until his eyes popped from their sockets.
>But this... this was too heavy a crime.
>The crime of being a Maho-Tsukai can and often does blow back on the Tsukai's family.
>Often they are exiled. Sometimes they are even killed along with the Tsukai.
>Being a Tsukai means you are a traitor to the Empire, and traitors are dealt with in the harshest of ways.
>My wife was a Crab now. She assisted in the investigation that revealed Shoji's plot. She would be spared. But her mother? Her brothers?
>The weight of this had sent Naomi into another fit. So bad she lost consciousness.
>I hated Shoji for doing this. I hated myself more that I could not look the other way for her sake.
>The assembled powers conferred in hushed tones.
>Shoji went purple and sputtered in apoplectic fury.
>Tsabutai-sama spoke.
>"Indeed Hida Ishigaki-san, we can find no fault with your words. That you must speak out against your own Father-in-law makes them even more damning."
>"WAIT! This, this, this THUG! He turned my daughter against me! Soiled her Honor! I've never approved of their marriage! He only makes these accusations out of jealousy and spite!"
>"Be that as it may, Shoji-san, there is enough evidence to call the Witch Hunters. If you are innocent of these ghastly crimes, then they will surely exonerate you."
>The door to the room opened.
>"That must be them now."
>The Witch Hunter entered.
>Along with Hohiro.
>Shoji looked at his son with a confused, yet hopeful expression.
>"Hohiro?!"
>"Be at ease father."
>The Kuni daimyo addressed his kinsman.
>"And? What did your investigation reveal."
>"We did indeed find the scroll used to summon the Oni."
>Shoji went a deeper shade of purple.
>"As well as a pouch of Jade Petal tea."
>"IT'S NOT MINE!"
>"Correct."
>What the fuck did he just say?
>"Hohiro-san found us, and told us that he saw someone speaking with Isawa Tesai, the other survivor, shortly before the attack."
>"He begged us to search that man's room, and while it is expected of family members to lie on behalf of their kin, my instincts told me to trust him."
>Everyone was hanging on every word now.
>"Isawa Hohiro-san's instincts were not wrong, as it turned out."
>"Ikoma Tsabutai is a Maho-Tsukai!"
>"WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS! HOGHGGGHGHGHGHG"
>Before Tsabutai could finish his outburst Hohiro had drawn his Wakizashi and cut Tsabutai open from gullet to groin.
>Maggots writhed inside of his guts, black ichor seeped to the floor instead of blood.
>No clearer proof of the taint was needed.
>I had been wrong.
>I had accused an innocent man of practicing Maho.
>When it was MY superior who had been the one doing it.
>"There you see! They're all in it! They framed me to cover for their superior!"
>"Harboring someone with taint is a capital offense Hida-sama, your duty is clear! Execute them! ALL of them!"
>Like I said, Shoji knew how to pick his battles, and he now had a major advantage in this one.
>Cold eyes turned to me. Everything Shoji had said was terrifyingly probable.
>My fate, and the fate of my friends, my wife, and maybe even my daughter was hanging by a thread.
>"NO!"
>"The truth is we suspected that there was something amiss about Tsabutai for some time now!"
>Arched eyebrows
>"Really?"
>"Yes, We did not know what, exactly. So we were attempting to investigate, discreetly."
>"One must not accuse one's superior lightly, after all, so we wanted to be absolutely sure before we said anything!"
>It wasn't QUITE true, but it was close enough.
>They went to fetch my fellows, none of them knew what had transpired yet there had been no time to get our stories straight, if we were indeed conspiring.
>The fact that everyone realized the seriousness of the situation, even without understanding why, and admitted we were investigating Tsabutai went a long way to convincing everyone I was telling the truth.
>My notes helped.
>We were confined to a single room, under strict guard, while they backtracked our investigation. Speaking with those we had spoken too.
>Eventually, they were convinced that we knew nothing of what had transpired.
>Officially, we were duped by Tsabutai. Shameful in the extreme. We were dismissed from our posts as Emerald magistrates. Though none of us was made Ronin, or ordered to commit seppuku.
>Tsabutai's wife and two young children were executed. We all took very great pains to ensure Naomi never learned of that fact.
>With his past scandal, and being the one that allowed Tsabutai into the Phoenix area Isawa Tessai could not be the Master of Earth.
>The council learned that Shoji had adamantly refused to believe he could not crush the Oni with his own magic. Such obstinance is a hallmark of earth, but the overweening pride behind it was unseemly. The Master of Earth should be the master of his own earth, and so Shoji could not be the new Master.
>In the end, the one who had fought bravely to defend his kin, who had persevered in the face of great hardship, and who had brought forth the evidence that exonerated the Phoenix and condemned the real criminal, Isawa Hohiro, became the Master of Earth.
>Naomi was genuinely happy for her brother.
>The rest of us knew just how terribly we were played.
>The days and weeks following our disgrace were horrible.
>Hohiro became the darling of the court, surrounded by courtiers everywhere he went.
>Fans fluttered and tongues wagged as everyone pondered who the Council would appoint as the next Master of Earth.
>Shoji was in a foul mood for the first few days. His ambitions, while not destroyed, had suffered quite a setback.
>But when he saw Hohiro's popularity on the rise, the wily bastard fell in behind his boy.
>I wouldn't be surprised if Shoji himself started the rumors that Hohiro would receive the appointment.
>Some scoffed, Hohiro had suddenly been catapulted into the limelight, true, but his career up until now had been good, but not exceptional.
>Others began tendering offers of marriage.
>Each one offering up a better bride than the last.
>Shoji himself talked Hohiro up as well.
>"Yes, my son lives up to my high expectations."
>"Due to my stern, yet fair, instruction he has become quite a fine Shugenja."
>"Truly, it's only in comparison to me that he falls short. Had he been born another time he would be the best there is!"
>I watched this all happen from the corner where I lurked, my stomach churning in disgust.
>If there was a bright side to all this, at least I didn't have to bother with polite small talk.
>The "what the fuck are you even doing here?" stares were getting on my nerves, however.
>"How awful it must have been for you, Hohiro-san, to hear your own sister accuse your father so!"
>"Indeed, she had stained her honor. Any proper samurai would take their blade up and cleanse their shame."
>"No, no it was not so far fetched a thing! I believe in my sister still! I am certain she had good reason!"
>"But she was still wrong, was she not?"
>"Well, yes, but..."
>"Your loyalty to your sister does you credit, Hohiro-san, but it is misplaced. She is just a Crab now, no longer your family."
>I left before I killed someone.
>I had grown deeply suspicious of Hohiro.
>Of course, I had not one shred of evidence, not one link at all to support this.
>Aside from the fact that it was all too convenient.
>Someone had a grudge against either myself, the Mantis, Kitsuki-san or Naomi. The Shiba had left us, and both the Monkey and Toshiro were later additions.
>That someone had ties to Tsabutai.
>That someone was very likely a Maho-Tsukai.
>They were sneaky enough we called them a Ninja.
>Tsabutai was dead, before we could finish our investigation, to try to find that someone.
>We had been disgraced. Everyone knew that once someone with the power to revoke our status as Emerald Magistrates had a chance to review what happened we would be stripped of our rank.
>Without that commonality, we would likely be split up. Reassigned by our clans somewhere out of the way.
>And there he was. The Golden Boy. Hero of the hour. And now there was talk HE would be the next Master of Earth.
>That, and I hated his guts. At the very least, he never once stood up to defend his little sister from their domineering father. More likely, he followed Shoji's lead and treated Naomi like trash their whole lives.
>The others were unwilling to try anything based on mere conjecture. I couldn't blame them.
>And I couldn't even suggest this to Naomi.
>Her feelings for her father were complex, but she loved the rest of her family unconditionally.
>She was genuinely happy for her brother.
>She was relieved her father was not a criminal.
>There was no way I was going to deliver another emotional blow to her so soon after the last one. She was still recovering.
>I made my way outside, down to the courtyard.
>I was hoping to spar some more and clear out all the clutter inside my head.
>But none of the Crabs would so much as look at me.
>THAT got my attention.
>Of course. We had been the subordinates of a Maho-Tsukai.
>A Crab must remain on alert for possession, shape shifters, skin stealers, and the Taint.
>Any of these things could cause a Crab to become an agent of the enemy, betraying the Clan to its enemies.
>It is expected you will watch your immediate superior for signs of these things, because the more responsibility a Crab has, the more damage they could do if they fell.
>At the very least, to their eyes, I failed to remain vigilant.
>And when dealing with matters of the taint, my Clan's paranoia runs deep.
>More than a few must think me a knowing accomplice. As yet untainted, but clearly a servant of Evil all the same.
>I knew what Crabs did when there was someone they all agreed was a liability, even when they could not officially prove it.
>I would find myself surrounded in a stairwell by bushi wearing mempos one day.
>Or I might lose my footing and fall off the south side of the wall.
>They might even target my friends. Among them, my frail and sickly wife.
>I wracked my brains, searching for any possible way to clear this suspicion off of us.
>I realized, quite quickly, that I would need to do something drastic.
>There is a very simple truth to the mater of failure, shame and dishonor.
>Success needs no explanation, failure allows none.
>To make up for our previous failure, we needed to produce a success of equal or greater value.
>We weren't going to be given any assignments, nor trusted with critical duties, in our current state. We were going to have to MAKE a success happen ourselves.
>But, if we screwed it up again, and compounded failure with more failure, then we would have nothing left but three simple cuts.
>I couldn't risk that for Naomi.
>...
>...
>...but maybe. Maybe.
>I made up my mind.
>For all of our sakes, I would Go Looking for Hida.

Act VI: Searching for Hida[edit]

>Many people know of the Twenty Goblin Winter.
>In times where the Clan is desperate for manpower, the Crab Clan will allow anyone to enter into the Shadowlands. Those that return with the heads of twenty goblins will be allowed to join the Clan, joining a vassal family of the Hida, no questions asked.
>There is another tradition that involves entering the Shadowlands and collecting heads.
>Someone who has been terribly dishonored may go Looking for Hida.
>Hida, you see, never died.
>He simply picked up his Tetsubo one day, and announced that he was going to find Atarasi, Hida's son, and the first Crab Clan Thunder.
>That's where the name comes from anyway. You aren't actually supposed to go find the Crab Clan Kami.
>That would be silly.
>Instead you just have to get the heads of eight measly zombies. Sometimes more, if you've really really screwed up.
>This custom arose as a means to salvage warriors who might still be of use to the Clan, so it's usually only invoked when seppuku is the only other outcome.
>But I'm pretty sure just invoking the custom should be enough to convince the rest of the Crab we really aren't traitors.
>I'll go on our behalf.
>The others were nodding along with my plan.
>Except for Naomi. She was worried about me going alone into danger.
>And Toshiro. His mouth was hanging open.
>Aren't you leaving something out?
>Some tiny detail they should probably all know before you seek their approval for this insanity?
>All eyes turned to Toshiro.
>No, I can't really think of anything else. Just a few minor details.
>So you call going into the Shadowlands, stripped of your daisho, with no jade, food or water, armed with a single masakari and wearing only a white robe MINOR!?
>The others were, of course, less than thrilled that I had left that bit out.
>Toshiro decided to elaborate.
>You're going into the SHADOWLANDS to get those zombies! Collecting the heads is the easy part; it's surviving everything else with no jade or supplies that's hard!
>At this point even the Mantis was against my plan.
>They were all protesting, talking over each other even. Naomi the most vocal of all.
>"SHUT UP ALL OF YOU!"
>I had never bellowed at any of them before.
>"I understand your concerns. But I have thought this through. Thoroughly."
>"The Crab detest Sincerity. Do you know why?"
>"It is because when someone is trying to hard to prove their sincerity it seems, to us, that they are simply lying."
>"An Akodo, when summoned by his lord, will throw himself violently to the floor, and shout his Lord's name so loudly it hurts his own throat. To show his sincere loyalty."
>"Crabs have no patience for that kind of crap. Actions speak louder than words to us."
>"That's what all this is about."
>"Right now we are in a castle full of Samurai who think we were willing agents of a Maho-Tsukai! They'll kill us if they have the chance!"
>"But just invoking the custom proves we were not!"
>"THAT is Crab sincerity."
>"And WHEN I come back, I'll have cleansed our shame as well."
>Toshiro scowled.
>"Getting a bit full of yourself, aren't you?"
>"Even a Hiruma would find it difficult to survive in the Shadowlands without supplies."
>"Difficult, Toshiro. Not impossible. It's a race against time, I know. But it's not the first time I've been alone in the Shadowlands."
>"It's been a long time since your gempukku, Ishigaki. And you had your armor, and jade."
>"But I'm a better tracker now. I can do this."
>Naomi butted in.
>"I am sorry, what did you say Toshiro-san? About Ishigaki-kun's gempukku?"
>"Did you not know? For their Gempukku a Crab goes alone into the Shadowlands and brings back the head of a tainted creature."
>"No. I did not know that. So Daiko will have to do that one day as well?"
>"Yes."
>"... I see."
>Naomi wasn't taking that very well.
>I left before my heart broke, and before anymore protests could arise.
>I had to speak to my Champion.
>My friends all followed me, reluctantly.
>I stormed into the room my Champion was in.
>"I WILL GO LOOKING FOR HIDA."
>Every voice died.
>Every eye turned to me
>My Champions gaze bore down on me, almost crushing me with it's weight.
>What did you say.
>I am sick of the accusing stares following my companions and me. We are NOT traitors, we are NOT servants of evil, and I will prove that to you all! I will go looking for Hida.
>Well, the die is cast.
>Silence.
>Then
>So be it.
>If you return alive then none may question you or your companions again.
>Make yourself ready.
>You leave now.
>Not quite what I hoped for. But it was alright. I really did plan on succeeding. I had just hoped that even if the worst happened my friends would be absolved.
>I was taken into a private chamber. Stripped naked. A Kuni threw water on me, said a prayer to purify my body and soul.
>A pure white robe, the color of death, was placed on me. Belted with a white obi at my waist. I looked for all the world like I was I dressed for my own funeral.
>As I was taken out to the Wall, an impromptu parade formed up around me.
>This was all very exciting for the assembled courtiers.
>A secret custom of the Crab Clan, rarely seen by outsiders.
>The solemn air the rest of the Crab carried served to further impress the court.
>My friends came with, to see me off.
>An audible gasp arose from the throng as we stepped out onto the wall.
>Eyes filled with tears as the fierce wind stung them. Frost formed up on eyelashes almost instantly.
>They hid their excitement behind their sleeves, as a fan would simply be ripped from their hands up here.
>They could SEE the Shadowlands.
>All the Crabs about, especially the Champion, dispelled all sense of personal danger.
>It was like coming very close to a dangerous animal in a cage. Scary enough to excite, but in reality quite safe.
>I stepped up to the lift that would lower me into the Shadowlands.
>Hida-sama held out a masakari.
>I took it.
>I got on the lift.
>A cry arose from behind me.
>I looked back to see Naomi reaching out to me. eyes pleading.
>I lose sight of her as they lower me.
>Forgive me, my love. I must do this. For all our sakes, for our future. For Daiko. I must cleanse this stink of shame off all of us.
>It takes a very long time to get to the bottom. I'm still wet from the purification ritual. And there is nothing to shield me from the harsh winter wind on this lift.
>I do not care. I don't even feel the cold. I am a descendant of the Fortune of Fire and Thunder. This much is nothing.
>I reach the bottom.
> The river of the last stand rushes on before me. There is a boat already here for me. Brought out from the tunnels, no doubt.
>I hop into the boat and get to the other side.
>HIDA
>I need to call Hida's name until I am well away from the wall. I am looking for him, at least ostensibly.
>HIDA.
>That's going to draw some attention. My first real ordeal then.
>Move quickly enough so I can stop letting everything know where I am, then deal with whatever DOES come to see what all this noise is about.
>I break into a run.
>HIDA
>I can just make out the dark shape of all the people up on top of the wall, watching me walk into what they think is certain death.
>I will enjoy the looks on their faces when I come back.
>HIDA
>I attempt to orient myself. I have a plan to find enough zombies quickly. Before the taint gets into me. Or I die of thirst.
>Or worse.
>HIDA
>Finding your way in the Shadowlands is terribly difficult. For a horrifying reason.
>The Shadowlands is a realm of pure taint. There are almost no Kami here. It is known that the most heavily tainted Earth becomes a swampy, soupy mass. And the Taint is constantly pouring into Nigen-do from the wound left by the fall of the Ninth Kami.
>It was Hiruma Furoshoshi who first realized what this means.
>The land moves.
>The earth upon which you walk is but a thin layer, like tea leaves floating in wide bowl. And as more taint seeps into the world, the tea is stirred.
>Fortunately, the drift is slow.
>So long as you know of it, and your knowledge of where things are is fairly recent, you can plan your navigation so that you end up where you intend.
>Most of the time, anyway.
>Oh yeah, one more thing.
>HIDA
>I can still see the wall, better give out one more shout.
>And a shadow falls over me.
>Fuck
>I look up. I'm on a fairly flat, rocky plain right now.
>I look further up.
>I dive to the side in just in time as a great winged thing slams into the ground where I had been,
>A thick body, covered in matted fur. Legs bent backwards like a chicken.
>A tail. With boney spines at the end. Of course.
>And a head like a human infant. Far to large, of course, but the proportions were right, and there was a layer of what could be called nothing else than baby fat on it's face.
>It's too large eyes were pure white.
>It shrieked at me.
>I ran.
>And dove under a tiny bit of rock that made a small shelf.
>It was apparently used to it's food standing and fighting.
>Still, it came after me.
>There was just enough space for me to wedge my thick frame under the shelf.
>The creature had no hands, only wings.
>The shelf made it difficult to claw me, or strike me with it's tail.
>I jabbed at it with my masakari. I could see whatever this was I was going to need jade to truly hurt it.
>So I hunkered down, annoying it occasionally, until it got fed up and went in search of an easier meal.
>I was scraped up more than I would have liked by it's clawing, but I was a damn sight better off than had I tried to kill it.
>I thanked the shelf that save my life and headed deeper into the Shadowlands.
>Seeking out the Fields of Hair.
>I moved as fast as I dared.
>Mostly I kept my ears pricked up for any danger.
>I was no Hiruma Scout, but I knew the basics of moving without detection, and of navigating. I wouldn't have made it back from my gempukku if I couldn't so at least that much.
>Outside of my armor, it was much easier to move silently, and while I was no Kakita or Mirumoto, I was more agile than average.
>So my first day in the realm of evil was spent moving from cover to cover, hiding as mobs of goblins marched past, avoiding the cave where an Ogre clearly lived. and being very, very careful about what I step on.
>I thanked Shiba-san for his teachings. The meditations I learned from him proved invaluable. I did not wish to eat or drink anything native to this place, lest I invite the taint into myself.
>Nor did I wish to sleep. Sleeping would only get me eaten in the night, and any place that looked reasonably safe would assuredly already have a tenant strong enough to avoid being evicted.
>So I meditated, quieting my rumbling belly. Setting aside the dryness in the back of my throat. emptying my mind to rest my body.
>And was not surprised when the goblin warmonger came at me with a rusty katana.
>My eyes snapped open as he came into my reach. I took up my masakari off of my lap and struck.
>His blade bit into my shoulder.
>Mine struck his head from his shoulders.
>I bellowed a challenge at his followers and they scattered, not wishing to fight something so strong.
>I would need to be careful for a while. Goblins were dangerous precisely because they were weak and cowardly. They would set up an ambush for me later.
>I was managing to make it deeper without being wounded severely, but I was also being slowed down by my own caution.
>Without jade, I risked being tainted in a matter of days.
>I continued on.
>Sure enough those little shits tried again.
>Up ahead the land rose sharply, into a mesa. Split on two by a narrow path down the middle.
>Might as well just hang out a sign that says "COME ON IN AND GET EATEN!"
>Nope, not having that.
>So I tore off the top of my robe, fashioned a quick tie around my masakari so I could hang it from my neck, and set to work climbing up the mesa.
>It was tough. I lost my grip twice, and got some nice cuts on my hands. But I made it.
>And there they were. Staring down at the route through the mesa, rocks in hand.
>I fell upon them from behind.
>Panicked they tried to flee.
>I hacked and hewed, shoved one over the side.
>I let them escape only once I was certain I had culled enough they wouldn't try a third time.
>Then moved on. My time was running out.
>Every step I took IN,was one more I would need to take OUT. While still going without food, water, or most importantly, Jade.
>What I wouldn't give to run into a friendly nezumi right about now.
>But I didn't speak their language, nor did I have any baubles with me. So I didn't pin my hopes on that.
>At last I found it. The Fields of Hair.
>The Fields of hair look like a grassy windswept plain.
>In the Shadowlands, looks deceive.
>What, at first glance seems grass is actual hair. Thousands of corpses, buried up to their scalps.
>And of course, in the Shadowlands no corpse in just a corpse for very long.
>They wait, patiently for you to draw near.
>When you disturb their hair, they rise up. This disturbs others. You can get overwhelmed very quickly.
>So I stopped well back. I picked up a small pebble. And I tossed at the very first tuft at the very edge.
>I got a bit more than I bargained for.
>A full dozen of the damn things came up.
>So I ran.
>They gave chase
>I turned and struck the one in the lead, knocked it on it's ass.
>And ran through them.
>As they followed I turned and struck. Stringing them out in a line.
>Forcing them to fight me in small groups.
>By the grace of the fortunes and my own prodigious resilience, I got my zombie heads.
>Now to get out of here.
>I turned to go back along my previous path.
>And I saw a VERY large dark shape moving in the Mesa.
>The size of a house, in fact.
>I decided I wanted nothing to do with that and took off in a third direction. If my navigation was correct, I was now running parallel to the wall, going no further in, but also not getting out.
>The zombie skulls left slimy rot all over my back. I had knotted their hair into the sling I made for my Masakari.
>I was never so glad to have gone so long without eating. If I HAD anything in my stomach, I'm sure the sensation would have brought it all up.
>Being a Crab you have to deal with some seriously gross shit from time to time.
>WHOMPF
>I hope I didn't really hear that.
>WHOMPF
>I hope that isn't what I think it is
>WHOMPF
>I looked over my shoulder
>Yep, it's coming this way.
>Fuck stealth, time to run.
>I run at full speed. jagged rocks tear at my feet.
>I'm covered in shallow cuts, scrapes and bruises. As well as a few decent wounds.
>I had anything to eat or drink for nearly two days now. I've not slept.
>I hurt. My whole body hurts. It's telling me to just lie down. To let go.
>I
>WILL
>NOT
>FAIL
>When something is chasing you there three ways you can get away.
>One is to be faster than something else that it is also chasing.
>I was alone.
>Another way is to be faster than the thing that is chasing you to begin with.
>I looked back.
>It was gaining.
>So that's a no on the second one then.
>The only other option is to go somewhere it cannot or will not follow.
>My eyes scanned the horizon desperate for salvation.
>I saw it.
>A forest.
>The Shadowlands takes great delight in being WRONG.
>In this case the leaves of the trees comprising this forest were all on the ground. Roots, not branches, spread out in a tangle above.
>Praying that the forest was what I thought it was, I ran straight for it.
>WHOMPFWHOMPFWHOMPF
>It was almost upon me.
>The trees at the outer edge were growing very close together.
>No time to find a better way in.
>I dove for an opening I judged I could fit through.
>My shoulders scraped the edges of the trees.
>The roots twitched.
>Then they spat a sticky sap that burned like fire where it landed on me.
>I fell flat on the dirt, desperately used my masakari to scrape off the burning jelly. Took a small bit of skin with it.
>My weapon was smoking now, so I slammed it into the dirt, forcing the sap off it's edged and smothering the fire.
>I could see the legs of the monster that had chased me in here beyond the trunks.
>They were like an elephants, but there were eight.
>It didn't try to come in.
>So I had escaped being trampled to death by getting trapped in a forest where the trees grew upside down and spit burning sap on you if you so much as touched them. And in the process had damaged my weapon.
>Did I mention I am not a smart man?
>Sensei once said 'Scars are proof a man can survive his own stupidity'.
>I had a lot of scars.
>I was very good at surviving my own stupidity, I would survive this as well.
>I began to pick my way through woods. Very. Very slowly, in what I hoped was a northerly direction.
>Eventually, I allowed myself to sleep.
>Few of the larger dangers of the Shadowlands would come into these woods. I thought I could get just a little rest, enough to take some of the pain in my body away.
>I was right.
>I made sure to draw an arrow in the dirt pointing to what I hopped was still north before I slept. There wasn't much I could use within this forest to guess my direction, and I didn't want to shift in my sleep and lose my way.
>I took up my masakari, the edge a bit corroded, my grim belt of zombie heads, and set out north.
>When I emerged from the forest, I could see it.
>The Wall.
>Just a dim grey line on the horizon, but it was there.
>If everything went well, I would be out of the Shadowlands by the end of day three, or was it four?
>I only had to cross quite a few miles of blasted, barren landscape with no cover whatsoever.
>After everything I'd been through, that shouldn't be a problem
>I began picking my way across the rocks.
>A part of me hoped that, this close to the wall, I would get picked up by a Crab patrol.
>Mostly that part was my stomach. And my throat.
>I wasn't sure I could manage a yell loud enough to reach the top of the Wall in my current state.
>Hold on Naomi, Daiko. Daddy is almost home.
>I'm sorry I didn't bring you a present. Next time I pro...
>My eyes snapped open.
>The relief I had felt, so close to my goal, had almost killed me.
>I was walking and falling asleep at the same time.
>I slapped myself to get my adrenaline going again.
>Not yet.
>Not safe yet.
>I will not fail.
>A shadow fell over me.
>Oh you've got to be kidding me.
>I spun and struck with my Maskari before it had finished it's dive.
>I managed to change it's diving assault into a crash.
>Unfortunately, it crashed into me.
>My old friend Oni no Baby Face was back for round two.
>We tumbled, rolling end over end in the dirt from the force of its momentum.
>It rolled past me, I regained my feet first.
>I had managed to hold onto my weapon.
>An invulnerable Oni COULD be killed without magic or the three sacred substances. But this was only accomplished by lots and lots and LOTS of arrows. Some of the more ingenuous, (and cruel) weapons and traps devised by the Kaiu could do it as well. Set a massive Oni on fire and it WILL burn to death. Eventually.
>I had one corroded masakari.
>Could I get close enough to the Wall the Crabs there could kill it, or drive it off?
>It was picking itself up, shaking its head like a dog.
>I looked at the Wall. Too far.
>I looked around. No shelves, no miracles. Nothing I could use.
>It charged at me, I dove to the side, and managed to fend of a swipe of its tail.
>It turned to face me.
>It's foul breath steaming in the winter air as it's sides worked like a bellows.
>No way.
>What are you doing.
>This is insane.
>As it charged again, I leapt up over it.
>And wrapped my arms around its neck.
>It made a gurgling sound and trashed around.
>Somehow I held on.
>It rolled on the ground, scraping up my back.
>I held tighter.
>It couldn't reach me with it's legs.
>It tried with its tail.
>The spines dug deep into me,
>My grip loosened, and it took a breath.
>But I held onto it's back anyway. I had one last desperate thought.
>It swung it's tail again.
>I let go in time.
>The creatures spines stabbed into its own flesh.
>It howled.
>And took off.
>Looking for something to eat that wouldn't put up quite such a fight.
>It was only fact that the thing had the mind of a wild beast that saved me. Had it been smarter, I'd be dead.
>I limped off, heading towards the Wall.
>I reached the edge of the last stand river. I waved my arms, made a sign to alert the Crab that could see me I was a returning Crab, not a monster to be killed.
>I tried to yell but my throat was too dry. So I made the sign again.
>Several Hiruma poured out from the hidden entrances of the tunnels. One got in a boat to come over and get me, the others drew back their bows aimed at me.
>I was brought to the other side. The lift had been lowered.
>Right. If I was in any way compromised it wouldn't do for them to show me a safe path through the tunnels.
>I tried to ask for water. All I did was croak.
>One Hiruma shook her head.
>"Up. First you get tested."
>I nodded wearily.
>I wasn't going to keel over in the next few minutes.
>Up I went.
>A Kuni was there. They took my trophies, and weapon.
>The Kuni prodded me with Jade.
>He brought a sliver of crystal near to my flesh.
>He spoke with kami.
>"THIS MAN IS CLEAN."
>He made sure everyone around heard.
>A ladle with fresh water was pressed into my hand.
>I drank like a pig. Greedier than even my daughter.
>The cool water pained my parched throat.
>I drank more.
>"Enough, Ishigaki-san. Too much water after so long without can hurt you."
>I was surprised he knew my name.
>"A lone man in white, with a masakari and carrying zombie heads? Who else could that be?"
>"By now the entirety of the Wall has heard of your tale."
>He glanced down at my heads.
>"You only needed eight, you know?"
>"I'm an overachiever." I croaked out.
>I had to head several feet down the wall to get back to Kyuden Hida.
>I fully intended to set out immediately, but the Kuni insisted I sit and have my wounds tended.
>"This is one hell of a story! I cannot even think of one person who went looking for Hida that came back!"
>There was a Kaiu there, bringing up some rice balls and water to help me regain my strength.
>She spoke up.
>"That's because going to look for Hida cleanses dishonor. It would be rude to bring it up again after they return, neh?"
>"Hrm, I suppose you're right."
>I woke up.
>Shitwhatwhere
>Oh.
>Safe to say I had abused my body quite thoroughly. I didn't even know when, exactly, I had fallen asleep.
>I looked around.
>I was sitting where I had been when the Kuni was tending me, a blanket thrown over me.
>Resting with her head in my lap was Naomi.
>"We tried to stop her."
>Kitsuki-san.
>"We told her you would come back, once you had a chance to sleep."
>"But we would have had to tie her up to stop her."
>"And then, I think, you would have killed us."
>He might have been right.
>"I... what you did for us... Ishigaki."
>"Stop."
>"I only did my duty."
>"What?"
>"What I've been doing, all this time Kitsuki-san."
>"Being strong so that those weaker than me can take shelter in my strength."
>"That's what it means to be a Crab."
>"I've explained all this already, haven't I?"
>Our official dismissals arrived in the last week of the Winter Court.
>Just a curt letter informing each of us our services were no longer required.
>Hohiro set out to return to the lands of the Phoenix a bit early. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance surrounding the raising of a new Elemental Master, and he wanted to make a good impression on the sitting Council members.
>Shoji went with him.
>In all that time, Shoji never once spoke to his daughter, or tried to see his grandchild. That suited me just fine.
>There was a part of Naomi however, a part that I suspected would never really go away, that still yearned for her father's approval.
>This winter had been an emotional one for her. Honor demands loyalty to her parents, even when they don't deserve it. And as unnatural as Shoji's disdain for his daughter was, it was just as unnatural for a child to NOT seek their parent's love.
>Even though such emotions are not discussed and never admitted too, even the most rigidly honorable of samurai have them.
>But we only acknowledge them in plays, in books and stories.
>Because Desire is a sin. One of the three great sins that gave birth to world.
>The ideal samurai has no emotion. They do not desire things for themselves; a samurai is one who serves. They do not regret; they simply follow the orders of their superiors. They do not fear; death is not failure, and they know they will be reborn again.
>There has never, not once in all the history of Rokugan, existed this ideal samurai. Not even the most blessed of Ancestors dwelling in Yomi have even come close.
>Perfection is NOT for mortals. Only the Divine may be perfect.
>It is through our trials, as we seek this unattainable goal, that we advance along the path towards entering Yomi ourselves.
>Given how badly this life was testing my wife, I was certain she would enter the realm of blessed ancestors.
>I wasn't to sure about myself.
>I had been comforting my wife through this emotional time. Quite frequently.
>So the sting of our dismissal was lessened, for the both of us at least, by Naomi making an announcement.
>"I did not wish to tell you before you left. I did not wish to add to your worries. But now that you have returned I have something to tell you, Ishigaki-kun."
>She snuggled in against me, eyes closed and smiling. "We're going to have another one."
>My mind whirled. It was so soon. Daiko wasn't even weaned yet. And Naomi's health... she had several close calls while carrying Daiko.
>And yet, I couldn't NOT be happy at this news.
>I truly desired a veritable brood of children.
>Crabs. We love big families.
>We were all making ready to return to our own homes, our own Clans, and receive our new assignments.
>At least, after what I had done, we could all count on avoiding being tossed off to some corner and being forgotten.
>Still, our partings were sorrowful. We had no idea when, or even if, our duties would ever bring us together again.
>We needn't have worried.
>Destiny had a plan.
>It was admittedly, a bit long in coming to fruition.
>Toshiro moved in with us for the time being, to see to Naomi's health.
>In the middle of spring, I was surprised by a visit from my Sensei.
>I wanted Naomi to stay in bed and rest, knowing how things had progressed the last time, but she insisted on being a proper host and housewife.
>She even chided me.
>"Ishigaki-kun I am not made of porcelain! Let me out of this bed, I am going mad with boredom! Besides, it is the proper thing to do, neh?"
>From over her shoulder Toshiro smirked at me.
>"Fine, fine, I get it. But if you start coughing you're going right back in that bed!"
>"Hai hai, Ishigaki-kun, whatever you say."
>I met with Sensei, and the person he brought with him, as Naomi served us all tea.
>"Ishigaki-san, this is Hida Kojiro-sama."
>Sama? This guy outranks Sensei?
>I took another look at this Kojiro.
>He wasn't much to look at. Large, like most crabs. In fact you'd have a hard time picking him out in group of Crab. In some of that fancy armor made to look like shells.
>I'm not sure why, but I never really liked that look.
>Then it hit me. If this guy, so easily overlooked, outranked Sensei then he must be possessed of undeniable skill.
>Sensei continued.
>"Kojiro-sama asked me to introduce you to him, and he has questions for you."
>Kojiro-sama looked me in the eyes.
>"Why did you go looking for Hida?"
>"No one was saying it, but everyone was thinking that I was knowing servant of a Maho-Tsukai. I wanted to dispel those illusions before I got cornered in a stairway somewhere."
>"You could have resolved the matter with a duel or two. Only Crabs would have done that, so it's not as though you'd be facing a Kakita in an iaijutsu duel."
>"I'll ask you again. WHY did you go looking for Hida."
>"It wasn't just me, though. All my companions were shamed as well!"
>"Are they not Samurai themselves? Are you saying your friends are so weak they need you to protect them?"
>"Of course they aren't weak! But they all have different strengths!"
>I waved at Toshiro
>"He's the last person I would call weak, but he can't move fast with his injured leg!"
>"I am a bushi! When we are in battle, I stand between him and those who would hurt him! It's my duty!"
>"It was the duty of an Emerald Magistrate to protect other samurai from the consequences of their own failure?"
>"IT IS THE DUTY OF A HUSBAND AND FATHER TO PROTECT HIS FAMILY."
>"Then show me."
>I scowled. "Naomi, come with me please."
>I got into my armor with Naomi's help.
>She looked up at me questioningly.
>I just shook my head. I had no idea what this was all about. I was being tested, that much was obvious. But for what I couldn't guess.
>I went out into the garden, Toshiro handed me my tetsubo.
>Kojiro was there waiting for me.
>We fought.
>Not a spar, a fight. Each of us trying to kill.
>Naomi and Toshiro had been in battle with me many times. The could tell right away I was being serious.
>But Naomi is an Honorable woman. She kept her composure.
>Blow after thunderous blow was struck. Armor buckled and warped. Bones splinted.
>At last Kojiro said Enough.
>I straightened. It was a bit hard to breath. My ribs were cracked.
>"I've seen your skill first hand. I know you have something personal to fight for. And to return alive after going looking for Hida. I know you know well our enemy."
>"I will take you as my student."
>That took me aback.
>My previous Sensei explained from where he had been sitting.
>There was a School that existed only for students who prove themselves part of an elite group. It teaches techniques far above the basic ones of Sunda Mizu.
>Hida Kojiro was a Sensei of that School.
>And I was now a student of it.
>I was a going to be a Defender of the Wall.
>I spent some time away from my home training in my new School.
>I thought I would have an advantage, as the techniques of the Defender built upon those of the Hida bushi.
>However there was a surprisingly great amount of spiritual training as well, something my straightforward training at Sunda Mizu had not prepared for very well.
>My first lesson expanded upon the Mountain does not Move. But rather than simply passing the shock of a blow through my muscles and down into the earth, I was learning to fight back, upsetting the taint in an opponent with the purity of my own earth at the moment of impact.
>This was a very difficult thing to get right.
>To teach me this, Kojiro-sensei enlisted the aid of one of the Damned.
>The man would not give me his name.
>A witch hunter watched us practice. Everyone knew he was there to keep a close eye on the Damned Crab that was my sparring partner.
>It took several weeks of nonstop beatings, but eventually Kojiro-sensei and my nameless sparring partner beat the technique into me.
>As he saw me off so that I could return home to my expectant wife he gave me a rare smile.
>"Now put that to good use, Ishigaki-san."
>"Hai, sensei."
>Time passed, and while Naomi did lose strength, she fared much better then she had when she carried Daiko.
>I was feeding her dinner while she rested in bed.
>She was perfectly capable of feeding herself, of course, but everyone likes to be spoiled from time to time.
>"Toshiro-san must have made some improvements to my medicine; I am feeling much better."
>"No, I don't think that's it."
>"When I was fighting to get back to the Wall, it was you I thought of. You and Daiko."
>"I'm a bushi. A warrior. For my friends, for my duty, I would fight and die without hesitation."
>"But for you Naomi, for you I would live."
>"And I know you're the same way."
>"You've just found a strength you didn't know you had, that's all."
>Naomi threw her arms around my neck.
>"Ishigaki-kun you say the sweetest things."
>"I say the truth."
>The night Naomi gave birth, Osono-Wo rode the clouds over my house.
>Rain lashed against the roof, the wind shook the whole house and lightning struck the ground almost in time with my own faked moans.
>I appreciated my ancestor's help in driving the evil spirits away, though I couldn't help think he was laughing as I wandered about the house with a futonbaby stuffed up under my kimono.
>The cries that arose from my second child seemed to be trying to outdo Osono-Wo for sheer volume.
>I came in to find a tired looking Naomi holding an ugly red blob. This one was red because it was screaming with all it's might.
>I picked it up, took a peek. And now I had a son.
>"Hey, hey you. Knock it off eh? Your poor mother's been through enough already."
>I stuck out my little finger for him, and he seized it immediately.
>"Quite the grip you've got there, little Tetsute."
>Naomi smiled in approval of the name I gave our son.
>It was a year after the birth of my son that Destiny's plan came to fruition.
>In the meantime, I had served my clan by taking a post on the Wall. My new training came in very handy.
>I came home after getting some time off to find Kitsuki-san in my home, bouncing Tetsute in his lap.
>"Not even a letter to let me know you're coming?"
>"How rude."
>I grinned, pleased to see my old friend.
>"I wanted to surprise you with how far I've come, but it looks like you've been quite busy yourself!"
>Tetsute gurgled with delight at the play.
>Daiko came into the room, toddlerunning at full speed.
>She slammed into the table.
>Naomi caught the teacups before they could spill.
>Daiko plopped heavily down onto her rump. Giggled, then stood up and took off running in another direction.
>I managed to get the door open before she went through it.
>Tetsute squirmed and fussed until Kitsuki-san set him down. Tetsute pulled himself up with the edge of the table, took a few wobbly steps, fell, and started crawling after his sister.
>Kitsuki-san's eyebrows climbed up into his hairline. No mean feat considering he wore his hair in the traditional style, with a shaven pate and a topknot.
>"Your children are very...energetic."
>Naomi smiled with open pride.
>"They are both quite strong. They take after their father in that regard."
>"They got some of his bad habits to, it seems."
>Toshiro thumpdraged himself into the room and sat down.
>"You'd best teach them some proper manners Naomi-san, or they'll get themselves into no end of trouble when they grow up."
>"Hey now!"
>"Oh, I will be certain to do so."
>Kitsuki-san sipped his tea.
>"I've missed this."
>"So, you said you had come along way? What was that implying."
>Kitsuki-san grinned, and produced three folded letters.
>"These are requests to your superiors. The Jade Magistrates have need of our assistance."
>"Now, it's not as prestigious as our old posts, I know. And it's only Toshiro and Naomi who would be the Magistrates, we would simply be their Yoriki."
>"However, the Jade Magistrates concern themselves very deeply with rooting out Maho Tsukai."
>He needn't say anything else. Our nameless, faceless foe was a Maho-Tsukai. We were sure of it. We could finally take up the hunt again.
>Daiko and Tetsute were both grown enough that we could leave them with a caretaker while we set off. Neither of us wanted to be away from them for long, but Naomi and I both knew we needed to find out old enemy, or they might one day target our children.
>We took up the letters.

Act VII: An Unusual Request[edit]

>After an exhaustive hunt for just the right nanny, Naomi, Toshiro, Kitsuki-san and I headed north, into the lands of the Crane.
>We met up with Monkey and Mantis in a port city named Suitengu's Blessing.
>The Mantis sported a brand new suit of full O-Yori, with such ornate lacquer work I wondered if it was meant to even be worn in battle.
>Clearly, he had been making lots of money in the time we had been apart.
>Oddly, his kama were the same worn ass peasant weapons he'd carried since the day we met.
>The Monkey had put on some muscle since I saw him last.
>Hey, hey Ishigaki-san! I did it! I'm a father!
>Jaws dropped, then congratulations followed.
>The Mantis snorted.
>How the hell did you pull that off, anyway?
>Do...do you not know how it's done?
>Don't be stupid! Of course I know. I'm asking how you managed to get your Hime-san to go along with it, you twit!
>I didn't.
>She just said she wanted a baby one day.
>She's been nicer to me as well. Especially when mom is around...
>So that was it.
>Monkey's mother had been a Samurai-ko before she settled down and got married.
>I had only met her once, but she seemed to me to be quite strong. Maybe not a great warrior, but one possessed of a deep calm. The kind you feel from someone who is exactly aware of their own strengths and weaknesses.
>Like the quiet you feel deep a bamboo forest.
>I could see her calmly wearing down Hime-san's protestations with pointed logic over the year Monkey was on "pilgrimage"
>Probably taking calm sips of tea, not even bothering to open her eyes.
>I hopped my daughter would turn out like that, instead of an O-Ushi.
>But considering how she was already acting, the later seemed more likely.
>Naomi pressed the Monkey
>And? Boy or girl? What did you name them?
>It's a boy! I named him Tokichiro!
>We stayed at an inn that night, staying up late into the night catching up with one another.
>In the morning as we gathered up our things we were greeted by a very strange sight.
>A woman lurched through the streets, lugging a heavy bucket.
>Her hair was done up in a bun, but tangled strands fell out all over the place.
>Kimono tied in the front, with a shoulder bared.
>Face painted like a geisha but all smeared, as though she had slept with her makeup on.
>She lurched and staggered, and I could tell it was not just the weight of the bucket causing that.
>Liquid slopped over the side. Yellow and brown liquid. There were chunks.
>GoeeeeeeeeMON! yah bashtard! Get out ere!
>Gots a nice gifth for ya!
>It wasn't really our place to stop what appeared to be drunken geisha lugging a pail full of piss and shit from doing...whatever it was she was going to do, but our curiosity got the better of us.
>Kitsuki-san asked a nearby fishmonger who Goemon might be.
>That would be Doji Goeman-sama, great samurai! He is the magistrate of this city.
>The fishmonger pointed at two large wooden doors forming a gate to a nice house.
>He lives right there.
>We arched eyebrows at each other. Now we definitely wanted to see where this was going.
>Um. Should we not do something? She might get herself in trouble!
>I shook my head.
>That woman is already IN trouble, and she doesn't care. Get in her way and we'll just become targets of her anger.
>The woman stormed up the gate
>And threw her bucket all over it.
>THERE!
>YOU THINK WE'RE LESSN SHIT, WELL NOW YOU HAVE TO DEAL WITH SHIT!
>She lost her balance and fell.
>Naomi broke from us at that point and rushed to her side helping her up
>Just as the gates opened and Yoriki swarmed out with yari.
>Well shit.
>I moved to interpose myself between the Yoriki and my wife. Unfortunately it looked like I was also defending the mad geisha.
>MATE!
>The Yoriki lifted the yari at that, and a man with white hair came out of the home.
>That must be Doji Goemon.
>He looked at me first.
>I had taken to wearing my armor and damn the social niceties again.
>Did I miss something? Are the Crab and Crane at war again?
>No, but I wouldn't be a very good Yojimbo if I wasn't ready at all times for danger.
>You suggest that my city is not perfectly safe?
>I suggest it's much harder to be surprised if you are always ready.
>He narrowed his eyes at me.
>Besides which, it's just polite to wear my armor.
>And I took off my mempo.
>He flinched.
>I see.
>I tied my mempo back on and smirked.
>While I had been distracting him, Naomi had spoken quietly to the geisha.
>Then he looked over at Naomi and the geisha.
>And you? What do you have to say for yourselves?
>Naomi produced the chop that was her badge of office.
>I am a Jade Magistrate. Is it true you have been not been investigating the disappearance of several geisha in this city?
>What business is it of yours how I conduct my affairs? How do a few geisha going missing have anything to do with the spiritual purity of the Empire?!
>I would not sear you delicate ears with knowledge of unclean things. Suffice to say the servants of Evil have their ways.
>If you will not investigate this matter, then I will.
>I grinned behind my mask. Naomi may seem soft, but she had a core of fine Kaiu steel.
>Her compassion could bring forth some righteous anger on behalf of those who are wronged.
>And it seemed like we had, quite unexpectedly, gotten our first case as Jade Magistrates.
>I leaned in close to Naomi and whispered in her ear
>You do realize that the cause of these disappearances ACTUALLY falls under our mandate, right?
>I do not care. If it is not within our mandate, then we will turn over what evidence we collect to the magistrate. He will HAVE to act then, if we do his job for him.
>Fair enough.
>We did have a right to go poking around, but we were definitely stepping on toes doing so.
>I didn't mind stepping on toes.
>Especially blue and white toes that smelled like expensive perfume.
>The Doji simmered for a moment as he reached the same conclusion.
>Do as you wish then.
>The geisha looked up at us both, eyes wide.
>She bowed.
>Thank you. Please, put an end to this!
>Naomi knelt down beside her.
>We will, I promise
>Enough.
>The magistrate gestured and his Yoriki butted in, grabbing the geisha.
>I grabbed Naomi.
>I knew what was coming. No honorable samurai could allow an insult from one beneath their station to pass.
>Leggo! I can walk on my own dammit!
>She straightened up her Kimono as best she could and walked over in front of the Magistrate.
>My name was Satsume she said, without looking back.
>Say a prayer for me, please?
>Doji Goemon didn't say anything. He looked at the mess on his door, with a wrinkled up nose, then back at her.
>She knelt.
>And he drew his blade in an iai and cut her head off.
>A Yoriki handed him a handful of rice paper squares to wipe his blade.
>Someone clean all this filth up.
>All of it.
>Naomi gave me a quick nod once she had steadied herself.
>Mantis gave us an over hear head jerk
>We followed him.
>What is it?
>While you were busy antagonizing the magistrate and finding us work, I asked around the street. I know where ...Satsume, was it? I know where she worked.
>Lead on then.
>The madame bowed deeply as we entered, at first assuming we were all customers.
>But then I walked in.
>With Toshiro right behind me.
>Ah, what is the matter great Samurai?
>Kitsuki-san spoke up, his tone gentle to put the madame at ease
>You had a girl by the name of Satsume, did you not?
>She stiffened at the word 'had'
>What did she do?
>Kitsuki-san related the story of this morning to the madame.
>Oh that fool! Goemon-sama does not care about the plight of a few geisha! What was she thinking?!
>Toshiro spoke up.
>She was hoping someone would notice, and investigate. She was right.
>He set his magistrate's chop down in front of her.
>We're going to look into this matter. We will need to speak with you and your girls, in order to get to the bottom of this.
>Hai.
>The madame clapped her hands.
>Girls, girls come out here
>Please, great Samurai, sit. Relax.
>We did and a girl paired off with each of us.
>They had sake, but only the Mantis drank. The rest of us asked for tea instead.
>I was on duty, no sake for a Crab on duty.
>The madame spoke first, informing the girls what had transpired.
>Tch. Stupid little bitch. Getting herself killed and bringing attention down on us like that!
>TATSUKI! Satsume gave her LIFE to protect us!
>Tch.
>Forgive her outburst, please. She is still in training. I will speak with her later.
>Tatsuki wilted a bit at that.
>Naomi, Kitsuki-san and Toshiro took turns asking questions, getting all the details of the events in question.
>Two months ago, the first girl went missing.
>I do not believe I am overly harsh with my girls, but some simply cannot adapt to this life. So I thought her just a runaway.
>But a week later another one vanished.
>Like clockwork. One a week.
>For two months.
>We asked after suspicious customers, but there were none.
>Or, at least none of the women were inclined to speak of the Samurai that came to visit them.
>With eight girls gone there wasn't a single customer that they had all been entertaining either.
>Monkey suggested a local peasant. Someone who could not afford to come.
>They DID have a few of those. Three brothers, Isaku, Nisaku, and Sansaku.
>Our first lead.
>The three little saku's were all fishermen, so we went down to the docks to wait for them to come in with their day's catch.
>Following the adage of “a net cast wide catches more fish”, the Mantis spoke to yet more peasants, seeing if anyone had anything else to say about the disappearances of the Geisha.
>They did not.
>However, one old man, his back bent with age, mending a net mentioned that other people had vanished without a trace BEFORE the geisha.
>For nearly a year.
>Before the geisha, it was fishermen. And it was 'only' one a month.
>A younger fellow salting fish and setting them out to dry pipped up.
>Don't listen to old Kisuke there, people fall from their boats and drown all the time.
>It's no great mystery what happened.
>Hrm. I wondered about that.
>The three little Saku's came ashore nets full to bursting.
>They looked horrifying similar. Bulbous noses and thick fat bodies. I realized I would have a hard time telling them apart.
>Kitsuki-san addressed them. Isaku, Nisaku, Sansaku?
>They looked surprised, then bowed.
>Hai, great samurai!
>We split them up and began to question them.
>Kitsuki-san gave us all a script to work with, basic things about their lives and daily activities.
>I played bad magistrate to Naomi's good magistrate, the Mantis and Toshiro took another one, and Kitsuki-san questioned the third with the Monkey.
>None of the questions would yield anything of note to the investigation. The point of the first round was to see who might be lying..
>After we had read off our scripts we met back up to compare notes.
>So far, all three answered the questions in the same way.
>Kitsuki-san scowled. are these the EXACT things they said?
>Toshiro had taken notes, he nodded.
>So had I.
>He scowled. Their responses are identical.
>Hah?
>When asked a question, each responded in the exact same way.
>Three brothers. Unmarried. Living together. And they took great pains to make it as difficult to tell one apart from the other as possible.
>Kitsuki-san, the Mantis, and I searched their house. Naomi checked with magic.
>Toshiro and the Monkey kept an eye on them as the bowed, waiting for us to finish.
>Nothing.
>We tested them with jade.
>Nope.
>Of course it wouldn't be that easy.
>So we spoke to their neighbors, and those around town.
>We had asked about their daily activities over the last few months, if we could catch them in a lie...
>But no. All we learned was that they had an unsavory reputation.
>When pressed as to the nature of this, it was nothing in specific. They were just...odd.
>Aside from the fact that no one was sure which one they were dealing with, they largely kept to themselves. Speaking only to sell their fish, or when spoken to.
>We set the Monkey on our three little Saku's, tailing them and observing.
>The rest of us ate, I decided to grab a bath.
>While the Monkey tailed the Saku brothers, I decided to stay up all night and keep watch over the Geisha house. Discreetly. Kitsuki-san had wondered if they were all in on it, or just one, since they were so hard to tell apart.
>He assured us he could though.
>There are small mannerisms unique to each. They are very subtle, though.
>So there was no easy way. You'd have to look closely when the right situation presented itself, to see their individual tics.
>This was proving to be quite difficult.
>I treated myself to a couple sticks of dango after my bath.
>In keeping with my tradition of attempting long shots on the off chance they pay off, I asked the owner of the bath house about the Saku brothers.
>Hrm. Them.
>I only allow them to come here because the smell would drive us all mad otherwise.
>Ohho.
>Seems this shot in the dark had hit something.
>So I asked him how they had managed to get under his skin.
>I've caught them peeping on the women's bath several times.
>All three?
>No, one at a time. That way they can cover for each other by all denying it! Twins are born sharing a soul, but triplets? Eh, I think maybe there is not enough soul to go around for three.
>Pleased with myself for finding something new, I got one more stick of dango and headed back to the inn to let everyone know what I had learned.
>And got stabbed in the back.
>As I turned down an alleyway to head for the inn, a peasant pulled a tanto from their robe and rushed me.
>I heard the draw, but spun too late.
>Fortunately I'm a thick Crab, and the tanto didn't penetrate very deep.
>I spun and jabbed the peasant in the neck with my dango skewer.
>He was wearing a mask around his face. I could tell by his build he wasn't one of the Saku's.
>What in the fuck is going on here?
>He tried to lunge again, but this time I pushed aside his wrist, grabbed it and wrenched his arm.
>I snatched off his mask with my free hand.
>I recognized him. One of the Yoriki.
>No seriously, what in the fuck!?
>He elbowed me in the stomach, hard, and I lost my grip.
>Didn't expect him to be THAT strong.
>He took off, my dango skewer still in his neck.
>I gave chase.
>But outside the alleyway there were still crowds moving about, even though the sun had set.
>Too many people got in my way, and I lost sight of my would be assassin.
>Chikusho.
>I made my way back to the inn.
>Naomi was a bit distressed at my injury.
>Kitsuki-san was more surprised I got hurt at all.
>I was just careless, that's all. Didn't notice him till I heard the sound of the blade being drawn.
>As Naomi eased life into me and healed my wound I let them know it was one of Goemon's Yoriki that stabbed me.
>Great. Now that Doji is trying to kill us?
>Kitsuki-san shook his head.
>We do not know if the Yoriki was acting on Goemon-sama's orders, Mantis-san.
>Bullshit. Even if he never gave explicit orders, that Yoriki was acting on Goemon's behalf.
>And the neck wound will prove that's the one that tried to kill Ishigaki-san. I say we confront the bastard with that.
>Toshiro objected.
>We've only got the word of the Yojimbo to a Jade Magistrate. And we'd be accusing a Crane.
>How's your Iaijutsu technique, Mantis-san?
>The Mantis grunted at that.
>Fine then. I'll go keep an eye on them.
>Mantis-san...
>I know. Be discrete. I can take care of myself.
>After the Mantis left, I mentioned my thought to keep watch on the Geisha.
>But with the Mantis and the Monkey both spying on people, maybe I should stay here with all of you.
>But the others assured me they would be fine.
>Toshiro spoke up. Naomi and I can set up symbols. We'll just stay in one room. We'll be safe.
>Be careful, Ishigaki-kun.
>I will.
>Since I was intending to be sneaky, that meant leaving my armor behind.
>My intent wasn't to scare off the cause of the disappearances, should it show itself. But to catch it in the act and dispense with all this running around chasing smoke.
>I found a wagon stacked with crates to hide behind, and settled in to watch the geisha house.
>Samurai entered, Samurai left, and soft music wafted out into the night.
>Of course the Samurai all wore masks.
>Love is a thing for poems and plays. A Fantasy.
>Whether engaging in an affair during the winter court, or visiting a geisha whose contract you want to buy, you're supposed to be discreet about it.

Act VIII: Yasha[edit]

>The night wore on. The people in the street thinned, then vanished.
>The last Samurai left the geisha house, weaving drunkenly.
>And then, two shadowy figures emerged from a side door in the geisha house and headed away.
>I followed.
>I caught a whiff of opium, so I was able to keep after them without exposing myself much.
>They stopped in a deserted alleyway.
>The coal from a pipe lit up one of the figures faces.
>Tatsuki.
>What did you want, anyway?
>Tatsuki san, you were so cruel to Satsume today.
>So? Samurai are nothing but trouble! Get em drunk, do a dance, take their money, that's it.
>Anyone hoping some rich pretty boy will buy their contract is a fool, and anyone who goes out of their way to get their attention even more so.
>They'll kill you for looking at them sideways!
>I can't say you're wrong, Tatsuki. But, you shouldn't have spoken up when you did.
>Those jade magistrates might just wonder if you had some connection to the murders.
>What d'ya mean, murders? They just went missing, it's not like we know they're dead or anything.
>I was already moving at that point.
>Oh but I do know.
>I got between the two just as the knife flashed.
>It scraped me, and I returned the favor with my tetsubo.
>Catching the Geisha in the side, I pulled my blow so I wouldn't kill her. I just wanted to take her off her feet. I had questions.
>To my surprise, she not only seemed untroubled by my attack, she kept her feet.
>Okay, that's just not right.
>Tatsuki. Run to the inn. Get my companions and bring them here.
>Tatsuki just stared, slack jawed. Her pipe fallen to ground.
>MOVE PEASANT!
>She ran.
>The not really a geisha moved to give chase, but I blocked her path.
>Your fight is with me.
>In the dim light of the red paper lanterns, I could just make out the dark stain spreading across her side.
>So I did hurt her.
>As I advanced, preparing to strike again, she swung her knife. Not at me, but at the string of lanterns.
>Most fell harmlessly into the road, but enough did drift into the outer walls of the nearby buildings that I had to rush over and put them out, lest they start a fire.
>She used those precious few seconds to break from me and run.
>I finished stomping out the lanterns and stood there cursing until Tatsuki came back with my friends. Mantis and Monkey weren't with them of course, still investigating.
>Damn bitch is tough. More than simple geisha!
>I wounded her though, think you can follow a blood trail this late at night, Kitsuki-san?
>Ishigaki.
>Toshiro had knelt to examine the blood.
>This blood, it's far too dark.
>Kitsuki-san leaned in, brought his lantern in closer.
>You're right.
>Humans breathe in Air, it mixes with our Water, making our blood bright red. As our water passes it's strength on to our Earth, our bodies, it becomes darker.
>This blood is black.
>Toshiro looked up at me.
>Just like a corpse that has not taken in any Air for a long time.
>Bog Hag?!
>I think so, yes.
>Kitsuki-san blinked.
>I thought you said your technique disrupted the taint of your enemies?
>It does, but it's a reflex. I use it when I am struck; it's not as if I would know it's working. Only my opponent would know... ah.
>No wonder it was not eager to fight you.
>Toshiro and I locked eyes, the same thought running through our heads.
>You three go find the Mantis! I'll get the Monkey!
>Protocol!
>I'll be fine, Toshiro! You're slow, Naomi is sick, and Kitsuki-san isn't much of a Yojimbo!
>You three NEED to stay in a larger group!
>I was already running, before any more protests could come up.
>As I neared the docks I heard the sound of retching. Turning towards it, I found the Monkey.
>He was leaning against a building, clutching the side of his neck. I could see him panting. As I came closer he leaned over and puked.
>He saw me.
>Ishigaki-san? I... I don't feel so good.
>I picked him up. His skin was on fire with fever.
>Some crazy bitch... She was clutching her side, I asked her what was wrong and as I got close she clawed the shit out of my neck!
>Bog Hag talons carried disease in them. She had used the tanto on me because she did not wish to extend her claws through her fake skin.
>I had no idea how severe the disease was, or how long it normally took to work, but obviously THIS one was working very, very fast.
>I slung the Monkey over my shoulders and ran.
>He didn't complain.
>I got back to the Inn and stomped heavily as I ran up to our room,
>I threw open the door.
>Toshiro said hello by blasting both myself and the Monkey with a Jade Strike.
>As the energy washed harmlessly over the two of us I set down the Monkey.
>Hag got him. With her claws.
>Shit.
>Toshiro fished out a prayer to Jurojin. As I explained what that meant to the others.
>Naomi added her own magic, and between the two the Monkey was saved.
>Everyone was quickly brought up to speed.
>The Mantis confirmed for us that the Yoriki I had encountered early that day was also the Bog Hag, as his failure to report in had caused a bit of shouting at the magistrate's.
>Okay, now that we know what we're looking for, we only need to find one creature in a city of thousands that could change its appearance almost at will.
>There was a reason Bog Hags were able to live in Rokugan for a long time should they just make it past the wall.
>Hey, uh Toshiro-san?
>I'm grateful and all for the magic healing... but why did you blast us both?
>Won't hurt you if you aren't tainted. If it did hurt you I'd have blasted you again till you stopped twitching.
>Oh.
>I chuckled. Hitting one another in the face with that spell is a perfectly fine way to say hello among the Kuni. It has advantages, since a normal Jade test requires you to get close enough to poke someone first.
>Couldn't you just hold up your own Jade?
>Toshiro took that one.
>Greenstone.
>There's a mineral that is similar in appearance to Jade, but it's not. Hard to tell the difference at a distance.
>Some fools have, from time to time, tried to pass it off as Jade to our Clan when our own stores were low.
>Okay.
>Now, how do we go about finding this monster?
>Check the geisha. The madame, in particular.
>It was the Mantis.
>That Yoriki not reporting in for duty was a big deal. If the Hag was stepping into their daily lives, then there's an issue.
>Geisha live in their house. They really aren't supposed to leave unless called out by a client, or to run errands.
>Keeping up a double life like that would be hard.
>What? don't judge me! You're the weird ones, being all lovey dovey.
>Before we left we ground up jade and prepared powder. Bog hags were invulnerable. The blood was not the hag's, but from the skin she had been wearing.
>It was unusual, but not unheard of for older, stronger and more cunning hags to be able to take more than just the surface skin.
>This made the disguise even MORE difficult to spot.
>Some even learned maho spells to preserve their skins.
>We returned to the geisha house as dawn was nearing.
>Toshiro placed a ward of flame upon the frame of the door.
>We entered.
>Tatsuki greeted us.
>Oka-san is resting right now, should I go get her?
>Please.
>As the madame shuffled out, she greeted us warmly.
>Hello great Samurai! I cannot thank you enough for what you did for our Tatsuki last night!
>How may I help you?
>I walked up to her, and held out the finger of Jade I wore.
>Hold this a moment.
>Oh great Samurai, this one is unworthy of such of a gift.
>She was misunderstanding, going through the three refusals.
>I heard the Monkey snicker.
>No, I'm not giving this to you, I just want you to touch it.
>Whatever for great samurai?
>Some of the other girls had come out of their rooms to see us.
>We just want to be sure.
>The door to the front slid open.
>Oka-san, I'm home! I have the-
>As soon as the Geisha stepped across the threshold, she burst into flames.
>Oh shit, which one was that?
>Dammit, THEY KNOW!
>Uh...
>Oh dear, this is going to cause quite the ruckus.
>We will have to leave this city now, no matter what happens.
>Girls, listen up. The one who kills the big one gets the little girl's pretty skin.
>All around us, geisha ripped their flesh off and revealed themselves to be Bog Hags.
>Tatsuki fell to her knees, unable to comprehend her entire world shattering in an instant.
>Including the madame, and the burned one, I counted six.
>I once mentioned we Crabs had a code word for when the teahouse we're in is staffed by demons in disguise, they didn't know they'd been found out, and everyone should grab their weapons and meet out front.
>We also had one that meant the same thing, expect that the demons know they've been found out, and you should fight way out.
>Yasha.
>Toshiro threw Jade fire as we powdered our weapons.
>Energy rushed through my limbs as Naomi blessed me.
>I was worried, there were a lot of Hags here, Toshiro and Naomi had both used magic earlier, and we were relying primarily on powder to injure them.
>The burned one leapt onto Toshiro's back, clawing him
>One went for the Mantis, one the Monkey. Two came at me.
>The Mantis and Monkey both defended themselves, and I knocked aside the first to reach me, the second one got a claw in under my arm as I raised by tetsubo to block.
>She cried out as she struck me, confused.
>WHAT WAS THAT HUMAN WHAT DID YOU DO TO ME.
>Calm down, that's why I told you to work together on him.
>I know what he is doing; it won't harm you.
>As the Geishags eyed me hatefully, Troka-san reached inside her kimono, and pulled out a scroll.
>Oh shit.
>She then clawed herself, quite deeply.
>Oh that's a lot of blood...
>And my chest burned. I fell to my knees hacking and coughing. Blood poured up from nose and mouth. My lungs ached.
>So this is what it's like, to be Naomi...
>I had to end that bitch, and I had to do it, now. Before she cast that spell again.
>With the strength Naomi gave me, I slammed the haft of my tetsubo into the geishag that had clawed into me, knocking it down, while preserving my powder.
>Then I rushed over it and attacked the head of this hag coven.
>I saw surprise and fear in the creatures eyes, it had hopped that spell would slow me down much more than it had.
>I spun my tetsubo, two overhead strikes, sliding my hand down the haft to let the full momentum strike her.
>She was still standing, but swaying about drunkenly.
>I suspected she had overtaxed herself with that maho.
>Behind me the Mantis, Monkey and Kitsuki all worked together. As the Kitsuki shoved his blade into one's stomach, the Monkey struck at the back of her neck.
>Then the Mantis buried his kama into the top of her head.
>The hag made a almost comical gurgle as it fell over, dead.
>Toshiro was praying, hard. Another big one. then.
>Naomi whispered another prayer and touched the Mantis.
>Who then spun and struck the burning hag.
>The other hags howled in fury and lunged at the Mantis, taken by surprise at the three on one, he went down under their claws.
>Kitsuki-san grabbed the Mantis and dragged him back to Naomi.
>She didn't waste any time, not even bothering with a scroll.
>As the Mantis groggily got to his feet, Naomi teetered, sweating and panting hard.
>For that matter, so was I.
>I was still sucking in Air, a terrible panic rising in me at the feeling of not being able to breathe.
>I crushed it ruthlessly. I knew I COULD breathe, even though my body was screaming I needed more.
>Still, my vision was going dark at the edges.
>What the hell did that monster do to me?
>It lashed out with a claw, unable or unwilling to spill more of its own blood to work any more magic.
>It's talons punched through my chest piece but only the very tips found my flesh.
>And before she could draw back, I brought my tetsubo down on her head for a third time.
>This time the thing's skull cracked open. Brains and fluid spattered to the floor. It stood there, head still bent from the impact of my strike, almost as if it was bowing before me.
>Then it crumpled.
>I turned. I needed to repowder my weapon.
>Naomi was spent, or close to it.
>Toshiro was was praying, scroll in one hand, with his tetsubo held out in a warding stance. With that one hand grip he could not defend himself well.
>Mantis was badly hurt, near death. Not even Naomi could heal someone so wounded that quickly.
>And there were still four of the damn things standing. One hadn't even been hurt yet.
>Well let's fix that.
>Panting like a horse in heat (even killing the fucking thing hadn't fixed my lungs... was I going to be like this forever?) I charged at the unwounded Hag.
>And into her.
>She bit at my helmet and clawed at my back as I continued to run, taking her with me
>And out the front door.
>Through the ward.
>When a bleeding Crab in full armor comes crashing through the door of a Geisha house, bearing with him a Bog Hag that is also on fire, people have a tendency to take notice.
>One may then assume that, once their brains can fully register what their eyes have told them, they will scream and run about like chickens with their heads cut off.
>The people in the streets lived up to my expectations. Spectacularly.
>Good, that should bring some more bodies. If we have to we'll just pin them down with sheer numbers until we can bring up enough powder to bring them all down.
>The Monkey lashed out at one of the hags, keeping the thing from attacking the Mantis.
>The Kitsuki took a stance from the Dojo. I had seen the Shiba do that once, long ago.
>The Mantis spun around slipping to one knee he scythed his blades through the legs of two of the hags, causing them both to fall.
>Naomi drew another scroll from her satchel
>And then Toshiro finished his spell.
>The spell was an old one, in use for centuries.
>It turned wrathful Earth Kami upon those it targeted, disrupting their own earth, weakening them considerably.
>The Earth Kami were particularly incensed should they detect the presence of taint.
>The spell had been made famous by one of the sons of the Emperor Toturi the First.
>It was, in these days, known as the Wolf's Mercy.
>Toshiro managed to get all four of the hags.
>The wounded three died on the spot, their weakened bodies succumbing to the severe wounds they already bore.
>Only the burning one was still alive.
>Kitsuki-san struck it hard.
>It trashed in my grip, but I managed to hold on, barely. The Mantis and then the Monkey were finally able to still the beast.
>I felt life rush into me, and the pain in my chest eased up at last.
>Just as Naomi began to cough once more. I caught her before she fell, and set her down gently.
>Tatsuki. TATSUKI! My wife needs her medicine, we need a teapot, water, and a fire. QUICKLY!
>My shouts galvanized her, and Tatsuki moved to comply.
>Kitsuki-san saw to preparing her medicine.
>Toshiro, panting hard looked at me and the Mantis.
>Neither of you better get sick from those wounds. I've got nothing left.
>And, far too late to be useful, the Crane showed up, Yoriki in tow.
>Doji Goemon looked about with disgust, and more than a little fear.
>What has happened here?
>Naomi was panting hard, still giving little coughs.
>She looked at me. Though her eyes were tight with pain, she gave me a nod to reassure me she would be alright soon enough.
>So Toshiro, as the only other full fledged Jade Magistrate in our group, had to explain the scene to the Magistrate's satisfaction.
>You had a Bog Hag problem.
>We took care of it for you.
>You're welcome.
>Bye.
>Atta boy, Toshiro.
>That won't cause any problems, I'm sure.
>He then turned and began throwing salt all over.
>Wait, just a minute!
>No.
>WHAT?
>Toshiro spun and glared at the Doji.
>I had watched Toshiro apply his face paint several times. He started out pure white. Black, all around his eyes, making them tiny pools of light in deep sea. Then, almost haphazardly dipped his four fingers into red, and pulled them across his face.
>The visage he created looked like a man with deep black eyes that were far too large, and had been clawed from temple to chin by some great beast.
>In other words, pretty damn scary.
>And he used it to full effect as he glared at the Doji.
>Bog Hags are tainted. They've been hiding in this geisha house for months. People have probably already been tainted. There might be infections even now.
>And I HAVE to deal with that.
>It's what Jade Magistrates do.
>The first step is to Purify this place.
>So shut up and let me do my job!
>Or do you want to explain to your lord why half this city had to be burned down when the taint gets too deep?
>He was bluffing. It was true there were probably people with the taint unknowingly spreading it around, but one geisha house? No way had it become such a crisis.
>Toshiro just didn't want to deal with the Crane, and was using the fact that such knowledge was considered shameful in the rest of Rokugan to deceive him.
>It worked.
>The Doji salvaged his wounded pride by berating his Yoriki.
>Don't just stand there! Get some monks, shugenja! And ETA!
>The Mantis, meanwhile, discreetly moved Tatsuki out the back, we all knew from the attempt on her life she was innocent of any wrongdoing.
>But we doubted Goemon would see it that way.
>Several Monks, a small swarm of Eta, and even an Asahina showed up to help with the cleansing.
>And all protests from Goemon stopped as the Eta began to bring up human skins from a secret basement Kitsuki-san found.
>There were thirty two.
>As well as a very large pile of bones. There was no telling how many people were there. There were only three skulls. Not nearly enough for all the bones.
>I explained to Goemon.
>Bog Hags don't kill just for skins.
>They eat people.
>Especially pretty women and children.
>He excused himself, and hurried off.
>I could hear him vomit.
>I doubted it was compassion for the victims. Rather I suspected it was fear that such a thing had gone on for so long right under his nose.
>I had no doubt he would have much explaining to do when his lord heard of this incident.
>I didn't embarrass him further by looking.
>Hey, Naomi?
>Ha...hai Ishigaki-san?
>Still a little sore.
>Is he doing that right?
>I jerked my head to Toshiro. He had just thrown a second handful of salt at a wall that particularly offended him.
>It always seemed... messy to me, when Toshiro purified things.
>Naomi nodded. sipped some water.
>He lacks grace, I admit but it is fine the way he does it.
>Huh.
>Naomi advised Goemon on the Jade test, and the Monk in charge of the local Shrine assured us that, should anyone be found with the taint, he could guide them to a temple that specialized in treating those so afflicted.
>Toshiro pressed him on the details, but was satisfied the temple in question wasn't one that took mercy too far.
>We left, to chase after possible clients with the taint.
>We were joined, of all people, by Tatsuki.
>"What the fuck is this?" I asked to no one in particular, pointing at her.
>Mine. Hands off.
>I stared at the Mantis.
>He pulled his clothes and produced a piece of paper.
>I bought her contract.
>From a dead bog hag?!
>Yeah. Got a great price.
>You just took that!
>Look, I know you don't know shit about Geisha, loving your wife as much as you do (Naomi blushed), but the contract is the only thing separating a Geisha from a whore.
>I had no idea if that was true or not.
>Naomi, of course, wanted to know what the half-person thought of all this.
>Naomi's Compassion could really get in the way of her sense of propriety at times.
>I don't have any traveling papers, I can't stay there and I sure as hell didn't want to show my face to the magistrate to try and get some papers....
>So this works. I mean, I could be a lot worse off right now, and you did save my life...several times over in fact.
>Huh. That's very upfront. I wondered what is was that she sensed in us to put her so at ease.
>And that's how the Mantis got a Geisha.
>So, you gonna marry her?
>Monkey, of course.
>Naomi hid her smile behind her sleve and tittered.
>The Mantis just glowered at the Monkey, but Tatsuki actually fidgeted a bit.
>I shared a glance with Kitsuki-san and Naomi as we noted that.
>And we headed out for the nearest town.
>For a few weeks we spread word of a possible taint outbreak. Discreetly, to local lords. We told them how to check, got them in touch with temples to handle anyone found with the taint.
>Naomi went through paper and ink quite quickly, writing letters back home.
>I don't think either of them can read yet, Naomi.
>The nanny will read the letters TO them Ishigaki-kun. Until we got home to see them again.
>I understood. Not a day passed while I was standing on my post on the Wall that I didn't think of home.
>When we arrived at the third city, the guard who checked our papers became very excited.

Act IX: A Little Crane[edit]

>He ran off, and came back with a Crane wearing heavy armor. Very elaborate ornamentation, high quality lacquer work.
>Ceremonial Armor, made for show.
>But I recognized Kaiu made armor when I saw it. So despite it's ostentatious frippery, it would serve well in real battle.
>The Crane introduced himself as Daidoji Hideo, the magistrate.
>He asked us to come and see his lord.
>He said all would be made clear once we spoke with his lord.
>Oookay. Can't really turn down this invite without being rude, and we were pretty sure we had used up our rudeness allotment for the month already.
>We entered into the Lord's chamber and knelt, awaiting his arrival.
>And were quite stunned when a boy who looked too young to have taken his Gempukku came out to greet us.
>I am Kakita Ren. Welcome, honorable Jade Magistrates, to my city.
>Two others were with him. An older woman who sat out of the way, and a man clearly nearing retirement age.
>This is my mother, Kakita Himeko, and Karo Doji Tenkai.
>I have asked you here because I wish for you to explain why my father rose up at his own funeral and killed my elder brother.
>And THIS shit right here, is why Crabs behead their dead.
>Of course we will do all that we can to see to this matter, Kakita Ren-sama.
>Naomi was much better at speaking formally than Toshiro.
>I take your honorable Lord Father has already been put to rest?
>Hai.
>Toshiro took over at this point.
>Then we will need to speak with everyone who was in the palace at the time of his passing. Before his funeral.
>Toshiro was putting forth his best effort, but was still a bit rough around the edges.
>So I decided to elaborate a bit.
>It is possible a Maho-Tsukai used forbidden magic to defile your father's body, your lordship. We will need to investigate to determine who may have been able to do so.
>Of course, you would know best in such matters. I leave it in your hands.
>Tenkai-san, prepare rooms for them, and see to it they have all they require to conduct their investigation.
>As you wish, my Lord.
>Tenkai bowed deeply.
>Once we were shown to our rooms we began to discuss what we were going to do.
>So, look for the zombie making Maho-Tsukai, then?
>I doubt it.
>HUH? But you said...
>Ishigaki-san only told the lord a comforting lie.
>Hey, I wasn't lying Toshiro!
>Fine. Ishigaki-san told the Lord the least likely reason because it was kinder than the most likely.
>Alright, so then what's most likely?
>That the Lord was tainted and the taint reanimated his corpse after his death.
>Oh.
>Even Monkey knew we couldn't very well raise such a possibility lightly.
>So, we would need to poke around quietly, looking for answers.
>I can do it.
>Mantis spoke.
>If I get caught, I can bluff my way out.
>If the Monkey gets caught, he'll just make it worse for all of us.
>HEY!
>Naomi nodded and produced a scroll. come here, Mantis-san.
>This spell will allow you to read quite quickly, and you will be able to remember everything you've read.
>That'll come in handy.
>He took off.
>The rest of us began to interview people, building a rough idea of what happened following the Lord's death.
>As we began our interviews, the Karo spoke to us.
>Of course, you see the need for discretion in this matter, yes? If word got out that the previous Lord became a Zombie...!
>Toshiro grunted
>The Karo smiled.
>I am pleased you understand
>Toshiro arched an eyebrow at me.
>He just doesn't understand you like I do.
>I clapped him on the back.
>C'mon. Let's go listen to Kitsuki-san and Naomi talk. You can have the first glower.
>Kitsuki-san and Naomi spoke to the interviewees. Toshiro glared. I loomed.
>The Monkey looked bored.
>We managed to get a rough history of what had transpired.
>Four days ago, the previous Lord, Kakita Hosokawa, died choking on a sushi roll.
>Or, more precisely, the bone still in the fish that the cook had accidentally left in.
>Hosokawa's eldest son became the Lord.
>His first order was to have the cook executed.
>Improperly filleting a fish so badly you leave a bone in big enough to choke on, and failing to notice as you make the roll, was quite the crime.
>I didn't know if it warranted being tied to a post and stabbed with a half dozen yari simultaneously though.
>At Hosokawa's funeral the next day, as they were preparing to light the pyre, his corpse stood up, shambled over to his eldest son, and quite literally bit his face off.
>The guards were able to stab Hosokawa zombie, and held it in the pyre with their yari as it burned to ash.
>Now here WE were, trying to figure out why that happened.
>Maybe it really WAS a Maho-Tsukai, maybe someone related to the cook? Getting revenge?
>The Monkey had a point.
>The MONKEY had a point.
>The Mantis came back.
>He looked troubled.
>We need to speak. In private.
>Okay, what?
>He pulled a scroll from his kimono.
>I can't read this.
>We unrolled it.
>Toshiro and Naomi both frowned.
>It's in a cipher, of some sort. I can't read it though.
>Naomi pulled a scroll from her own satchel and cast a spell.
>Oh no.
>What is it.
>It's a maho spell.
>Kitsuki-san looked at the Mantis.
>You suspected as much?
>Yeah. His journals spoke of secret meetings. A group he'd meet with once a month.
>He'd bitch in his journals about this or that edict his group would want him to make, talking about how "to much of that might expose me."
>He avoided specifics, no names, no numbers.
>Oh. So the Lord was a Maho-Tsukai,whose taint had raised him as a zombie before he could be cremated.
>And was part of a group of Maho-Tsukai.
>This all seemed like a bad comedy.
>But there it was.
>So um. How exactly are we going to broach this subject to Kakita Ren-sama?
>I get the feeling more tact will be required than just 'Bad news, buddy. Yer dad was a blood sorcerer.'
>Toshiro disagreed with me.
>We have proof, as Jade Magistrates it's our duty to pursue this.
>Kitsuki-san, any ideas?
>I think we should pursue this group of Maho-Tsukai first. We may have stumbled onto a bloodspeaker cell.
>You really think they're still around.
>They're ALWAYS around, they just lay low most of the time. This one was too, until the Lord died.
>Toshiro clapped his hands twice in prayer.
>What are you doing?
>Saying a prayer for the poor fish that gave it's life so we could find this hidden evil.
>Naomi looked shocked.
>What about the cook?
>Toshiro opened one eye.
>He was a terrible cook.
>The journal gave us a time for the next meeting, but not a place.
>Three days from now, Hour of Hida.
>I was deeply offended that a group of blood sorcerers would meet in the hour named after my ancestor.
>I vowed to Hida that I would be the instrument through which he could make his displeasure known to them.
>Now to find the place, to go with this time.
>Mantis proposed we simply bring the time up in normal conversation. Maybe stage a talk between two of us and speak loudly.
>Kitsuki-san can read people so easily it's scary. When one flinches, we'll have our link.
>Kitsuki-san considered.
>If we must. I don't like it though. We will know, but they will know we know. And if the one who flinches is highly ranked enough we won't be able to question them further on the matter.
>Well anyone else got any ideas?
>Tatsuki refilled the Mantis' sake.
>The Monkey passed Toshiro some shrimp.
>I was taking great pains to get just the right amount of wasabi on my sushi roll.
>HOW.
>Everyone jumped.
>I held up my sushi.
>How in the hell does THIS kill someone?!
>I popped it in my mouth and chewed to make my point.
>We all stared at the sushi rolls.
>That is an excellent point, Ishigaki-kun.
>Great.
>Now we all felt bad about making fun of the cook.
>Mantis-san, do you think you could reproduce a page from the journal, recreate the handwriting?
>Uh...
>I think I have a spell that can help with that.
>Okay. I'll give it a shot.
>So the Mantis, after a few tries, made a page he said was 'pretty damn close to how it is in my memory'.
>Kitsuki-san and went to meet with Kakita Ren-sama.
>Kitsuki-san then explained that he wished to see an edict penned by the former Lord Hosokawa-sama
>I should like to ask what for, Kitsuki-san?
>Ren-sama's mother sat behind him, fluttering her fan.Her eyes were hard.
>Ordinarily, someone glaring at me like that would have seemed suspicious.
>But given that she had lost husband and son so soon, I wasn't about to jump to conclusions.
>Kitsuki-san was ready, of course.
>It may be there was someone attempting to usurp your father's authority, and pass around false edicts in his name. I wish to compare the handwriting to be sure.
>Such a thing can be done?
>Oh yes, Kakita Ren-sama. My family has developed many techniques for gather evidence outside of testimony.
>FLUTTERING INTENSIFIES.
>Ah, forgive me. I misspoke. Such things are not truly "evidence" but they often lead us to the ones whose testimony will prove most useful in solving a case.
>My slip of the tongue was due to my family calling it evidence as a means of shorthand. Forgive my crude language, please.
>Fluttering calms down.
>Oh, it is alright. I would like to hear more of these techniques one day, if you have the time.
>If I do not, I am certain there are many who would gladly fulfill your wishes, Kakita Ren-sama.
>It is a wise lord that seeks to learn much about the world. I am certain your rule will be a prosperous one. Your parents have raised you well.
>I have no idea what forbidden magics she employed to do this, but Kakita Himeko somehow made her fan fluttering convey pleasure at the indirect compliment.
>Thank you for your kind words, of course you may have an old edict to study. Please, just find out what happened to my father. Cleanse him of this shame.
>At those last few words, the illusion shattered, and the surprisingly Lordly boy was just a boy again. Grieving the loss of his father and brother and trying to understand "why?"
>I thought of Daiko and Tetsute in that moment.
>I promised them that while daddy might leave for a time, he would always come home.
>A servant came in then, and began to whisper to the Lord.
>Before the young Lord could reply, a Lion stormed into the room.
>Oh now what?
>He glanced at Kitsuki-san and myself, surprised, then spoke to the Lord without waiting to be addressed.
>Kakita Ren! I am Matsu Roku! I am here on behalf of my Lord Matsu Banjaku!
>You have already been informed, the Lion is retaking this city that once belonged to them!
>Because our Clan is Compassionate, and my Lord is fair, you have two days to leave this city.
>After which my army will enter. Any Samurai that is not Lion within the city at that time will die.
>I will have your answer, now! Do you choose to leave, and have peace? Or do you wish for war?
>Wait...did he say TWO days?
>The meeting is in THREE!
>Kitsuki-san and I exchanged horrified glances.
>Of all the times...
>Fuck it. Someone needed to break protocol here, and the Mantis wasn't around.
>Oi, Oi, Matsu-san
>And who are you, to adress me so?
>I'm Hida Ishigaki I'm a Yojimbo to a Jade Magistrate, and that's Kitsuki-san, one of the Magistrates Yoriki.
>He didn't say anything. Just gave me slow 'go on' nod.
>Look, we're investigating a matter right now so you're going to half to hold off until we're done.
>I cannot. My Lord's orders are absolute. In two days time, every Samurai in this city not a Lion will die.
>Oh.
>Shit.
>He wasn't being poetic.
>Those were his exact orders. And he fully intended to follow them to the letter.
>I found myself wondering if, had their lord forgotten the 'not a Lion' bit, an entire army of Lion would enter a city and then fall on their own swords as soon as they did so.
>Ren spoke up.
>Matsu-san! My father's corpse was defiled by dark magic! You must give the Jade magistrates time to finish their investigation!
>The Matsu's eyebrows twitched.
>Then he chuckled. Maho-Tsukai would never have plagued this land were it still under Lion rule. I promise I will root out the corruption in my Lord's name once we have this city. Tell your father for me, when you see him.
>The lion spun on his heel.
>He paused at the door.
>Two days. Every Samurai.
>He left.
>Kitsuki-san and I raced back to our rooms, edict in hand
>All around us the palace was in an uproar as they prepared for battle.
>I caught sight of the Daidoji directing things. His fancy armor made him easy to spot.
>So. Magistrate was just his day job. His true calling was warrior.
>Like me.
>Our eyes met. We exchanged nods.
>Good luck in your battle, Iron Crane.
>Centuries ago, the Daidoji family Daimyo gave his life stopping the forces of Oni no Kinjiro at the Battle of the Tidal Landbridge.
>The Daidoji family, unique among the Crane, had earned the undying respect of the Hida that day.
>What is it? What's going on out there?
>We let everyone know we were going to have to find the Tsukai sooner than just ambushing them at their meeting, abandon our investigation, or be ready to fight in a summer war between the Crane and the Lion.
>The Mantis said it best.
>FUCK!
>Toshiro growled. Those idiots aren't getting between me and those Tsukai.
>You are not seriously proposing we join in this war, are you Toshiro-san?
>The Mantis answered for him
>Every Samurai. He made us a part of this war whether we want to be or not.
>But only if we do not leave in time!
>Toshiro grunted.
>The Monkey piped up. Well Kitsuki-san? Can you find them?
>Hold on, hold on. Let me see that journal page.
>Kitsuki-san placed the edict next to the journal page and compared the two.
>Ah. I see why you had such a hard time copying this page, Mantis-san.
>Oh?
>Yes, the person who wrote this journal was left handed. I'm sure of it now. And the lord was not.
>Well well well.
>So, someone who had access to the Lord's body, and room, and was left handed. We'd had less to go on, at times.
>However, the chaos in the castle impeded our investigation. We found several suspects, but eliminated them just as quickly as we could identify them.
>Time slipped away from us.
>In the morning, there would be a battle.
>The castle was naturally built in the maze style.
>Since the Crane maintained the smallest standing army of any of the great Clans, they used tactics that took great advantage of the maze style, breaking up large armies, engaging and withdrawing.
>Should the Crane find themselves in a war, they attempted to bleed out the enemy army with One Thousand Cuts.
>The Lion, on the other hand, maintained the Largest standing army.
>It was never a question of would the Lion outnumber their foe, but only how badly they did so.
>In war, the Lion would wear their enemy down as the waves wore down the mountains. The youngest and weakest troops would go first, and any place the enemy faltered would be hit with more seasoned forces. Finally, once a breach in the enemy line had been opened, the elite of the Lion army would deliver the final devastating blow.
>I could not predict the outcome of this battle. Too much relied on the personality of the Matsu General, of reinforcements arriving in time to lift the siege. Of the Cranes allies in court.
>No, perhaps not. The young Lord had unwittingly given the Lion the perfect weapon to wield against him in THAT arena. With news of his father's defilement, of Maho-Tsukai in his city, his allies would distance themselves.
>So, perhaps the Lion held the advantage after all.
>Or perhaps I only came to that conclusion because my wife wished for us to leave.
>The Karo, Doji Tenkai, came to see us that evening.
>"I am here to convey the Lord's gratitude for all your hard work. Ren-sama has no desire for you to be caught up in the matter however. I have brought you new traveling papers, bearing the Lord's seal, so that you may leave this place in peace."
>He set down the papers.
>"Please, look them over to make sure they are all in order."
>We did so.
>"Kitsuki-san complimented him on his fine calligraphy."
>"Why thank you, Kitsuki-san."
>The Karo left.
>Kitsuki-san was shaking.
>With rage.
>"He is left handed."

Act X: The Lion and the Crane[edit]

>We all stared at him.
>"The Karo is left handed," he said again.
>I had, on a few occasions, been close to committing murder in my life.
>So I knew exactly what that looked like.
>I grabbed hold of Kitsuki-san's obi before he could do something stupid.
>There are times in every person's life when you must do things you never thought you would have to.
>"You don't understand! He HAS to die!"
>"'Not a Lion!'"
>"This has been the plan ALL along!"
>Kitsuki-san had avoided jumping to conclusions since the incident with his Sensei, but it seemed he was in full swing once more.
>"Slow down, spell it out for us. Some of us are just dumb."
>"Tenkai leads the tsukai! They probably are a Bloodspeaker cell!"
>"He arranged to betray the Lord of the Castle in secret, in exchange he would swear fealty to the Lion and be allowed to govern the City!"
>"He could then protect his cell with his authority, allowing them to move much more freely!"
>"He had the cook poison Hosokawa, then he or one of his cell raised Hosokawa as a zombie!"
>"THAT cut off the new Lord's political allies, so that the Lion are not forced to give the city back during Court this winter!"
>"A plan this deep, this far reaching... it HAS to be THEM!"
>Whoa, you had me right up until that part.
>"Don't you see? We were never the goal, just an obstacle! Not the King, but a piece that had to be removed!"
>"Uh, why?"
>"One of us must already know THEM. Without realizing it, we have the ability to expose THEM. Or perhaps they simply feared we might be able to do so. "
>"So they tried to get us out of the way first, before they began their plan to gain political power throughout the Empire!"
>So let me see if I'm understanding you.
>The Bloodspeaker cult has begun to move again, and they're trying to insert members of cells into positions of political power throughout the Empire.
>And one of us knows a high ranked member of the Bloodspeaker cult, without realizing it?
>"Yes, yes!"
>I was glad I was sitting down.
>Because that was some heavy shit.
>"You think that Lion Clan Lord, what was his name?"
>"Matsu Banjaku."
>"You think Banjaku is part of the cult as well."
>"Possibly, yes."
>"I dunno."
>We all looked at the Monkey.
>"We had Banjaku over for dinner once, and he seemed a bit thickheaded to me. I don't think he could hide being a bloodspeaker very well."
>"What, why did you have him over?"
>"Hime-san has some business deal or other with him, I don't know the details."
>"Why didn't you mention you knew him before!?"
>"First time I heard his name mentioned."
>My temples began to throb painfully.
>I stood up.
>"I'm going to get the Daidoji."
>"Huh?"
>"Don't get me wrong, I think you're right Kitsuki-san. But we don't have enough evidence to bring down the Karo, and not enough time to find any."
>"You have an idea?"
>"Yeah. We tell the Daidoji our suspicions. He's going to be the one leading the Battle, I'm sure of it. So he watches out for signs of the Karo's betrayal."
>"When he spots that, we'll have that piece of shit by the balls then."
>"And we'll make him tell us everything."
>Everyone nodded.
>Even Naomi.
>"I do not like war. I do not wish to see any of you in battle like this. But there is a very young boy who will die if we do not act."
>"Promise me you will all be careful tomorrow."
>"We will."
>I went and spoke to Daidoji Hideo.
>When I was finished, he sat still and looked at nothing for a very long time.
>Finally he spoke.
>"I will look for Tenkai-sama's betrayal."
>"If I do not see it, and we both live until the end until the end of the first day, I will have satisfaction for your accusation."
>"Fine."
>"You are so certain?"
>"I am."
>"Of your skill with a blade, or the Karo's guilt?"
>I took a page out Toshiro's book and shrugged.
>"Both."
>The Daidoji chuckled at that.
>That night, I slept in my armor.
>As dawn broke, light glittered off the armor of the Lion army.
>They raised a mighty cry that seemed to shake the very walls.
>And charged.
>I was right where I should be, front and center of the Vanguard.
>The Mantis and the Monkey were in the second ranks. Toshiro was there as well, Tetsubo in hand.
>Naomi was at the gates of the palace, ready to heal the injured. Kitsuki-san was with her.
>The Lion didn't pause to wonder why there was a Crab in the very first gate they assaulted.
>Some tried to rush past me, but I shifted my armored bulk from side to side, knocking them off balance, impeding their advance.
>Three decided to get me out of the way.
>Matsu, all of them. They rushed me with their Katana, screaming fiercely, attacking with wild abandon.
>I expected as much, so I had prepared myself.
>I spun my tetsubo, knocking aside one blade, into another.
>I shifted my arms and caught the third one on my Sode. It slid off harmlessly
>Having left themselves wide open, thinking they would overwhelm and kill me, I struck back.
>My tetsubo tore through their light armor as though it were rice paper, and I left two of them wounded and bleeding.
>Slowed by their wounds they failed to get past my armor. The third one, however, managed to bury the point of his katana in my thigh.
>I grabbed his wrist before he could withdraw his blade and backhanded my tetsubo across his face. As he reeled I swung from the side with full force.
>I struck him in the chest, and he staggered back a half dozen feet falling onto his back. He did not rise.
>The other two came in again, one swinging low at my legs, the other aiming an overhead strike at my head.
>I deflected the overhead, but couldn't get out of the way in time of the second. She cut me across the back of my calf.
>These Matsu fought fiercely, but they seemed to have no sense of self preservation. I endured their assault and retaliated, leaving both of them on the ground, dead or unconscious.
>I held the line where I was, but there were several gates into the city.
>Behind me I heard the cries of battle.
>The fighting had not yet reached the palace, that I could see.
>HO! HO! HAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!
>I think that cheer came up from where the Mantis was.
>I wonder what he did.
>A red orb blazed past me and exploded among the Lion trying to get past my gate.
>Toshiro limped up to join me, batting aside an Ashigaru with his own tetsubo as he did so.
>Looks like you're having fun here.
>I want some.
>I grinned as we readied ourselves for the next wave.
>I waved Toshiro back as I was quickly surrounded. I hacked and swung, the bodies so tightly packed I couldn't miss if I tried. I felt several wounds open on me, though in the press I had no idea who or what had injured me.
>And then I saw a Lion bushi challenge Toshiro to a duel.
>Ah, Toshiro was swinging around his tetsubo, maybe the Lion didn't realize...
>Toshiro looked at him.
>"Hmmmm."
>"No."
>And tossed a pair of burning orbs at the Lion.
>The Lion fell in a charred heap.
>I heard a horn sound out. From within the palace.
>The signal from the Daidoji.
>It had happened.
>Toshiro and I were in the thick of it, unable to draw back without exposing ourselves.
>The others would have to handle it.
>I trusted them.
>Toshiro and I fought on, side by side.
>We were both covered in wounds, but we were Crab. We were the Mountain, the Lion were the Waves. The Waves would win, in the end. But many many waves would break upon us before that happened.
>And then the second Horn.
>The banner of the Crane flew high on the walls of the palace still.
>And I could just make out the Daidoji, holding up a golden and tufted helm.
>Ah. The Karo must have opened the rear gate to the Lion.
>And the Daidoji had been waiting for it.
>The Lion around us hesitated, seeing that.
>"Make way, MAKE WAY!"
>It was Matsu Roku.
>He looked up at the palace where the Daidoji waved the Helm.
>He nodded.
>"Susume was a fine officer."
>"I see I sent her into a trap."
>He looked at me.
>"Your doing?"
>"Our investigation revealed the Karo's plot."
>"I see."
>He looked me in the eyes, sheathed his blade, and took a stance.
>I guess he would rather be killed in battle than admit his defeat.
>I could humor him.
>His technique was better than mine.
>But only just.
>I survived his first strike.
>I made certain he did not get a second.
>As the Lion withdrew Toshiro and I went and found the others.
>We found them staging an impromptu Shibari session, with the Karo as the star of the show.
>Kitsuki-san was just requesting the use of a few very specific Eta.
>Ren was there.
>There was something almost comical about the boy wearing a full suit of armor.
>Ceremonial, of course. No way the Crane Lord would actually fight.
>But I could see that it would indeed keep him fairly safe from stray arrows.
>My respect for Kakita Ren shot up several notches. It's not often a pampered lord, born into the Kuge, knows how much his mere presence on the field can bolster the morale of his troops.
>"Why Tenkai? Why did you betray father like that? Betray me?"
>Tenkai just sat there, tied up in the manner befitting the worst sort of criminal, rather than a Karo.
>Ren stared for a moment.
>Then composed himself, donning once again the mantle of Lordship.
>"You mean that you will need the torturers, Kitsuki-san, yes? You will have them."
>"Just remember, I must have his confession on what he did to Father."
>"You will, my Lord. I promise."
>"Take him away."
>In Rokugan once enough testimony has been gathered to ascertain a person's guilt, they must then confess to their crime before they can be punished.
>Any means may be taken to elicit the confession.
>We already know they are guilty, after all.
>Samurai, however, do not conduct the torture themselves. It is an unclean business.
>So the Eta handle the actual application of pain until the guilty party admits their crime.
>I knelt down next to Tenkai, and looked him in the eyes.
>"You see that elegant looking gentleman over there?"
>I nodded to Toshiro.
>"You know he's a Shugenja? He's got some magic that I've seen him use to bring back from the brink of death."
>"You're gonna have a good time."
>Toshiro grinned.
>"I'll get the rats."
>I grinned as well.
>"So I have to get the wasabi this time?"
>"Yeah."
>We were bluffing.
>Naomi was a much, much better healer than Toshiro.
>And didn't I just say Samurai do not commit torture themselves?
>But Crab do a lot of things Samurai aren't supposed to.
>We were betting on the false perceptions of Crabs being brutes no better than the Ogres they fought to lend credence to our little game.
>Neither Toshiro, nor myself, had any idea how you might torture someone with rats and wasabi.
>But neither did the Crane.
>His imagination did the work for us.
>He broke down then and there, blubbering like a little girl.
>I found it much more satisfying to break him with a few well placed words, then to allow him to stoically endure the torture of a few Eta for a bit.
>And besides, we needed information of the rest of his cell; every second we wasted with him was another they had to attempt to escape us.
>He coughed it all up.
>Tenkai was the only Samurai in the cell in this city.
>He had several peasant servants as his subordinates, they doubled as a spy network.
>Nothing occurred in the palace, or city for that matter, that he did not know about.
>The former Lord Kakita Hosokawa had grown suspicious of his Karo of late.
>Hosokawa had realized the implications of some of the edicts that Tenkai had proposed.
>Tenkai decided to kill him before Hosokawa learned the truth.
>Tenkai WAS a bloodspeaker.
>And he did have monthly meetings with other bloodspeakers from the surrounding areas.
>They were Samurai, he knew that much.
>But not who they were, where they lived.
>Everyone wore masks and used fake names.
>These meetings were run by one man everyone knew not to cross. It was he that set up the meeting between Tenkai and Matsu Banjaku.
>As far as Tenkai knew, Matsu Banjaku was just a tool they had made use of. Banjaku had no idea the nest of vipers he had fallen in with.
>We were able to round up the servants easily enough. Including the Eta Tenkai had used to reanimate Hosokawa's body.
>Oh, and the cook himself added the poison to the Lord's sushi.
>Though the cook was just a patsy. Bribed with large sum of money.
>Which the Karo simply took back once the cook was executed (on his suggestion, of course)
>We ransacked Tenkai's room, finding his maho scrolls. We burned them all.
>Tenkai and all his followers were all executed
>Crimes as heinous as his did not allow for the option of Seppuku.
>Tenkai screamed and pleaded as they lashed him to the cross.
>It was quite pathetic.
>Naomi could not bear this part of her duty as a Jade Magistrate, so Toshiro oversaw it all in her stead.
>The rest of us made polite excuses about her health.
>No one questioned it.
>As we made ready to leave, the Daidoji came to see us off.
>The young Lord is quite busy, and so unable to see you off himself
>But he wishes to convey his gratitude to you for all that you have done for us.
>I do as well. You did not have to stay when the Lion attacked. If not for your actions, Tenkai's plot would have succeeded.
>Know that should you ever require anything, the Lord will do all in his power to see that you get it.
>We all exchanged surprised glances
>The favor of one so highly placed could go a very long way indeed. We would need to be careful not to squander it.
>We set off, still in pursuit of any customers who had possibly been tainted by the bog hags, but now knowing we had to be on the lookout for bloodspeaker cells all over the area.
>The Mantis spoke up about that.
>Anyone else find it odd that we went years without dealing with tainted things and maho, and now suddenly they're crawling out of the woodwork.
>The Monkey rolled over a stone on the side of the path.
>Grubs swarmed underneath it.
>You'd be amazed what you can find if you just look under a few rocks.
>I closed my eyes and refused to believe the Monkey had just been wise on purpose.

Act XI: The Realm of Desire[edit]

>We next arrived at a town called Sweet Sake Village.
>And were treated to quite a scene as soon as we entered.
>An eta was pulling a cart with a half dozen bodies wrapped in straw mats.
>Ashigaru escorted him.
>Not yoriki, but full blow peasant soldiers in armor.
>The Monkey asked a nearby ricecake monger what was going on.
>"More people killed in the pillow district."
>The Monkey had a knack for putting peasants at ease. They often spoke to him quite plainly.
>"Pillow district?"
>"Yeah, you know. Pillow district."
>The ricecake monger made a lewd gesture.
>"Ah."
>"Three days now, a few die every night."
>"The magistrate is tearing her hair out in frustration!"
>"You can see she's called in Ashigaru from the Lord to help patrol the streets."
>"I see. Thanks. Two please."
>"HAI! Right away great samurai!"
>Naomi shook her head sadly, then clapped her hands in prayer.
>When she had finished she explained.
>"I was praying that our first clues that something is amiss stop being bodies."
>I said a little prayer of my own, that my Hana-chan's heart never grow accustomed to death.
>We headed to the local Magistrate's office.
>Another Doji, she looked at us in surprise.
>Naomi spoke up.
>"I am Hida Naomi, this is Kuni Toshiro, and our Yojimbo and Yoriki."
>She and Toshiro showed their chops
>"We are Jade Magistrates."
>"I am Doji Megumi, What business do Jade Magistrates have with me?"
>"This is a... delicate subject. May we speak privately?"
>"Of course."
>Tatsuki poured tea while Naomi explained why we were there.
>"We uncovered a coven of Bog Hags not far from here."
>"BOG HAGS?!"
>"They are real?"
>"Hai, very."
>"These Bog Hags had taken the skins of several geisha."
>The Doji's eyes said she did not like where this was going.
>"They were, in fact running a Geisha house."
>"It may be possible, then, that they spread the taint to some of their unknowing customers."
>"So we're traveling to warn nearby towns and cities to be on the lookout for possibly tainted individuals coming in."
>"Naomi-san, you said these people would not know they had been tainted yet?"
>"Hai. So you may speak with the monks of the area. They have already been made aware of the situation and are prepared to receive those who may have been tainted."
>Toshiro spoke up.
>"There is a simple test to discover taint. Simply touch a piece of jade to the bare skin of a person. Jade will burn those who have been corrupted by Jigoku."
>The Doji nodded.
>"I see. I will make arrangements at once. An outbreak of taint is the last thing I need."
>Toshiro spoke again.
>"About that."
>"The deaths are occurring in the 'pillow district'?"
>The Doji looked up sharply, then nodded again.
>"We think your problem there may be related to ours."
>"What do you mean, Kuni Toshiro-san?"
>Toshiro coughed.
>"To be blunt: A samurai contracts the taint visiting geisha in one city, enters another city and succumbs to it while visiting other geisha... or engaging in lower pursuits."
>The Doji pursed her lips and considered Toshiro's words.
>"Then you intend to investigate these killings?"
>"We do."
>"You have been blunt. Allow me to do the same."
>"Thank you. I will take all the help I can at this point. I have been unable to find any witnesses. It seems everyone who sees the killer dies."
>"I sent Yoriki to patrol the district the second night. 5 of them died."
>"I was forced to ask for Ashigaru."
>"I do not like having armed soldiers patrolling the streets of my city."
>Naomi nodded.
>"I understand Doji Megumi-san. Rest assured, my Yoriki here is quite talented."
>Naomi indicated Kitsuki-san.
>"Even if this matter turns out to be unrelated to our mandate as Jade Magistrates, I have no doubt we will find something of use to you."
>"Now, can you recommend an inn?"
>We got settled into our rooms then sat down to discuss our course of action.
>I started it.
>"The simplest plan would be to join in the patrols at night, don't you think?"
>The Mantis objected.
>"Would rather not take on that killer without knowing anything about it."
>The Monkey spoke up.
">What's one tainted letch gonna be able to do to us anyway?"
>Toshiro answered him.
>"It may be more than one."
>"I thought the taint spread slowly?"
>"On it's own yes. But the weak willed or foolish may choose to use the power of Jigoku, speeding the process up quite rapidly."
>I knew what Toshiro was thinking.
>The Shadowlands Madmen.
>When most people think of those consumed by the taint, if they think of them at all, they imagine monstrous warriors and impossibly beautiful courtiers.
>But for every person who gains great power from the taint, many more are reduced to little more than slavering beasts.
>They wander in packs, attacking anything that moves, heading towards the Shadowlands until they are destroyed.
>Those that make it to the Shadowlands often become food for the larger and more powerful denizens of that place.
>We hadn't reached that point, just yet though.
>A pack of madmen would have been found and destroyed already.
>But it was well within the realm of possibility.
>The Monkey spoke again.
>"But Megumi-sama already investigated. No witnesses, no clues."
>Toshiro and I exchanged glances.
>He nodded.
>We stood.
>"We're going to go look into something."
>"Wait here until we get back."
>"Ishigaki-kun?"
>"Don't ask. Please."
>We went to the magistrate's.
>I approached Doji Megumi.
>"We just thought of something we need to check. Do you have someplace where you keep the bodies until their families come to claim them?"
>Megumi betrayed no distaste at the subject.
>"Yes."
>She was also unwilling to speak about it more than absolutely necessary.
>Good.
>"It is possible for the taint to enter a body through wounds. We would like to make sure this has not happened."
>Doji Megumi nodded and pointed to where the bodies were kept.
>Toshiro and I entered the small building.
>The bodies were there, wrapped up in tatami.
>I closed the door and turned my back. Watching for anyone coming, and giving Toshiro his privacy.
>He got out his tools.
>Dead flesh is taboo in Rokugan.
>Touching it, even accidentally, taints ones soul.
>You must then undergo ritual purification as quickly as possible. If you die unclean, you will be reborn as an Eta.
>A warrior covered head to toe in the blood of their enemies is not tainted, per se.
>Though you must cleanse yourself after the battle, you have covered yourself in glory, and Samurai are warriors, after all.
>In their effort to understand the nature of our Clan's eternal foe, the Kuni have developed some unsavory techniques.
>They have learned how to investigate dead bodies, to see how they work, and to learn what killed them. In this way they help the Kaiu prepare more effective weapons, and the rest of us to develop techniques to kill quickly and efficiently.
>They call it "Autopsy".
>There are no secrets among the Crab. Secrets are for Scorpion and Oni.
>But there are some things even we will not speak openly about.
>Ever.
>Toshiro performed his autopsy.
>He returned the body to its resting place.
>I accompanied him to a temple where he purified himself, then a bathhouse without saying a word.
>Once we had finished bathing he spoke.
>"They were torn with claws, not weapons."
>"But none of those wounds were tainted."
>"In fact, the claw wounds were not fatal."
>"I'm not certain what killed them."
>As we made our way back to the inn, the streets cleared for us.
>Since he had bathed, Toshiro's face was on full display.
>I had a nasty scar on my face, in the shape of an X. The lines met above my nose, between my eyes.
>Toshiro's face was a twisted mess, almost a lump of raw meat. The Oni that did that to him spit acid.
>I scowled at the disrespect shown to my friend as people hurried away from him.
>We returned to the inn so he could reapply his face paint.
>Because Toshiro was nothing if not polite.
>We returned to the others. Toshiro told them what he knew
>"The victims were killed with claws, not blades. However none of their injuries should have been fatal so the killer, or killers claws must have some dark power. Be mindful of this when we confront them."
>The Mantis coked his head.
>"How did you figure that out?"
>Toshiro ignored him.
>"Hey, I asked you how you know that!"
>I looked at the Mantis and shook my head.
>He glanced back and forth between me and Toshiro, then looked at Naomi. But when he saw she was just as confused he let it drop.
>No, I could not tell even Naomi.
>In the first place, it was not my place to speak of it. It was Toshiro's.
>In the second, Naomi had not been born a Crab. She could never understand just how far we would go to succeed.
>To a proper Samurai, failure is unacceptable. Most Samurai who fail in some important task will commit seppuku in shame.
>To a proper samurai, death and failure are not the same thing, however.
>While Matsu Roku had failed to take the Crane palace, all the Lion samurai who died did so with honor. They went before their ancestors in glory, not shame.
>Crabs cannot afford to think like that.
>We have no choice BUT to succeed.
>The consequences should we fail are too dire.
>All else must be sacrificed in the name of victory, so that the empire may know peace for just one more day.
>This is why I was actually quite pleased we had become Jade Magistrates.
>We would have many opportunities to address the things that might have managed slip past my Clan.
>Kitsuki-san coughed to clear the tension from the air.
>"Very well then. You said you do not for certain what killed them Toshiro-sama, but do you have some suspicion as to the nature of the power?"
>"Perhaps some measures we can take to safeguard ourselves?"
>Toshiro considered this.
>"They did seem low on blood, but that could just be from the wounds leaking as the bodies were handled. I can't say for certain if that's what happened."
>The Monkey ticked off the list on his fingers.
>"Sneaky fucks."
>"Claws."
>"Maybe drains blood?"
>"Anything else?"
>Toshiro shook his head.
>Tatsuki surprised us by speaking up.
>"You guys do this sort of thing all the time? Fighting monsters like this?"
>"Uh, great samurai."
>Fortunately for her, Kitsuki-san was the only one who might have objected to her addressing samurai out of turn. Toshiro and I were not ones to stand on propriety to begin with, Naomi too kind, the Monkey was just oblivious to the difference in station, and the Mantis seemed to truly enjoy her company.
>So Kitsuki-san ignored the breach of etiquette as the Mantis answered.
>"Yeah. We're samurai, after all. We're supposed to make sure our farmers can grow our food in peace."
>Tatsuki stared. I think it was safe to say she saw samurai in a new light.
>We all made ready to go out on patrol that evening.
>Kitsuki-san suggested we look around the pillow district first, to get familiar with the streets, so we could respond quickly no matter where the killer struck.
>I worried about taking Naomi to such a place, but she insisted she would be fine.
>So we took off to look around then.
>The pillow district was, as far as red lantern areas go, very low class.
>Opium addicts and drunkards lay sprawled about openly and without shame.
>Women and men, some terribly unattractive, hawked their bodies to everyone who passed by.
>These were common whores, not geisha.
>And everywhere you cared to look street thugs stood about in groups or sauntered down the street, getting a wide berth from the others.
>As expected from the lands of the Crane, Sweet Sake Village had a real problem with vice and people of low character.
>It seemed the best Doji Megumi could manage was to keep it contained to a single district.
>The thugs who had previously owned the street made way for us however.
>Though I could feel hostile stares from the side streets and alleyways.
>So they would not pick a fight openly with samurai.
>Wise.
>If they did that, there would no doubt be swift and harsh retribution.
>However, the prickling between my shoulders warned me that if they thought they could kill us without being being seen, they would.
>"We shouldn't move alone in this place. I can feel their killing intent."
>Kitsuki-san agreed.
>"I had noticed that myself. The people here seem quite resentful of Samurai."
>The Monkey looked around.
>"I wonder why? I'll try and find out."
>He approached a random whore.
>Who gave a scared yelp and retreated inside her whorehouse before he could so much as open his mouth.
>So even the Monkey's relaxed attitude that I had seen put many peasants at ease did not work here.
>Toshiro's eyes narrowed.
>"This animosity is not natural."
>He was right. While we, as samurai, understood that one did not go about wasting one's Lords resources without good reason most peasants knew only that Samurai were to be obeyed without question. If a Samurai were to forget the possible consequences of his actions, or if he should find some reason he deemed suitable, he could go so far as to kill them and there was nothing they could do to stop him.
>Hence the excessive bowing and scraping most samurai got whenever they had need to address a peasant.
>This situation could, form time to time lead to animosity and even open rebellion from the lower classes.
>Since this was the case, attitudes like we were seeing here should have been punished harshly until proper conduct was restored.
>What had happened here?
>Naomi stopped abruptly.
>"Toshiro-san, do you feel that?"
>Toshiro stopped, cocked his head.
>He grunted.
>The two of them produced scrolls and began to pray.
>We looked on, puzzled.
>They finished their prayers, looked at one another and nodded.
>"There is a spiritual imbalance here."
>I blinked.
>"So what does that mean?"
>"Another realm is exerting influence on Ningen-do. One that normally should not."
>Toshiro spoke up.
>"It is NOT Jigoku, I am certain of that."
>"But beyond that..."
>Naomi spoke quietly.
>"I would not be surprised if it is Toshigoku, given the bloodlust in the air."
>I looked at her in surprise. Naomi was no bushi, the killing intent that permeated battlefields would be utterly alien to her.
>"Hai, even I can sense it."
>"Water is the element of clarity, after all."
>The Mantis spoke up.
>"What about Gaki-do?"
>Toshiro answered.
>"Gaki-do is the realm of the Hungry dead."
>"Desire, not bloodlust, rules that place."
>"Okay."
>We finished our scouting and returned to the inn to eat before our nighttime patrol.
>"I believe we should split up on our patrol."
>Kitsuki-san sipped his tea as everyone considered his suggestion.
>I didn't like the idea, and I said as much.
>"I don't know if that's a good idea. We all saw it, how those peasants wanted to kill us. If we split up they might even try it."
>"I am aware Ishigaki-san. However, moving in one large group decreases the odds of finding the killer, or killers."
>Toshiro voiced agreement with Kitsuki-san.
>He simply patted his twisted leg.
>"Pillow district is a bit big."
>I looked to, of all people, the Mantis for some support.
>He was never fond of great risks.
>"Kitsuki-san has a point. And it's just peasants. Even if they tried something, how big a threat could they be?"
>"Naomi?"
>"Everyone please bear in mind the spiritual imbalance. I believe that those peasants are not like that normally."
>I had thought she would be against splitting up because the peasants may try something. Naomi hated killing. But in the end she chose to trust everyone would show restraint.
>Well that's it then. I was the lone dissenter.
>Monkey and Mantis formed one group. They were the stealthiest in our party.
>I was worried about the Mantis being able to stay quiet in that heavy armor, but he assured us he could manage it.
>Toshiro said he would pair off with Kitsuki-san.
>Naomi and I made our way along the eastern part of the Pillow district, Toshiro and Kitsuki-san took the center, with the Mantis and Monkey in the west.
>The Ashigaru were also sent in.
>Everyone had Yumi with them, and humming bulb arrows.
>At night, the pillow district was even worse.
>The light from the red lanterns made everyone's face seem distorted, evil.
>I saw more than few faces leering at Naomi hungrily.
>She put a hand on my arm.
>"It is the imbalance. It has grown stronger now, even you can see the effects."
>I glanced at her.
>While I had gotten a bit jumpy, wondering which threat to address first, Naomi was absolutely calm.
>"Hey, can this imbalance affect US?"
>"If we are exposed for too long, yes. But I do not believe we will need to worry about that."
>"It is different for these people; they live and work here."
>Another thought struck me.
>"Hey, the taint of Jigoku is permanent..."
>"Some may bear this mark forever, yes. But I am certain its effects will weaken if we address it."
>"Address it? We aren't even sure which realm it is we're dealing with yet."
>"It is related to the unnatural attitudes in this place though. I suspect it is the true cause of the killings."
>"Couldn't it be the other way around? The killing bringing the imbalance into being?"
>"We have seen many killings, dealt with many murderers in the past Ishigaki-kun. How many imbalances have we seen like this?"
>I nodded. "Okay."
>We were Jade Magistrates. Our mandate was to see to the spiritual well being of Rokugan.
>Most times that meant hunting maho-tsukai and tainted creatures.
>But this was another aspect of our duty.
>Lustful moans and carnal noises wafted out from the building we were walking past.
>Lewd shadows danced on the rice paper.
>Naomi gripped my arm a little tighter.
>I knew her well enough to know she was blushing at that, though the red light made it harder to see.
>FWWWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEHHHHHHHHH
>A humming bulb shot into the sky.
>From the west.
>Naomi got out a scroll, said a quick prayer.
>The two of us moved, sped along by the Water Kami.
>We overtook Toshiro and Kitsuki-san.
>Naomi passed the blessing of the Water Kami on to them as well.
>Even with their help, Toshiro was unable to thumpdrag at a pace with us. He waved us on.
>Kitsuki-san shouted.
>"Do not wait up for us; go, go!"
>I nodded, and took off at full speed.
>Only to be surprised as my wife overtook me.
>Oh, that's right. She's a tensai. Despite her small frame and sickly nature she was much beloved by the water kami.
>It dawned on me then that my Hana-chan, with her mastery of her own water, may be able to lift me over head while I was wearing my armor.
>Naomi rounded a corner, stopped short. Stared.
>I caught up with her.
>The Mantis and Monkey were backed up against a low fence brandishing their weapons.
>Surrounded by a semicircle of a half dozen whores in various states of undress.
>The mocking laughter at the sight died in my throat as the women all threw back their heads and shrieked.
>No human could make a sound like that.
>Misty vapours poured out their mouths, noses and eyes.
>And took the shape of women, clad in white, features twisted unnaturally.
>The women collapsed into crumpled heaps.
>Ghosts then. Vengeful spirits possessed the bodies of people, used them to kill. That was how our killers surprised their victims, why there never any witnesses.
>I dove at one, striking at it with my tetsubo.
>The mist swirled around my weapon, but I felt an impact.
>The ghost shrieked as I wounded it.
>That was all I needed to know.
>"ISHIGAKI!"
>Naomi yelled at me.
>"THOSE ARE NOT YOREI! THEY ARE GAKI!"
>"What?"
>From behind me I heard the Mantis.
>"Oh. Oh shit."
>The Gaki ignored me, even the one I had struck only hissed before turning away.
>They floated over to the Mantis and Monkey.
>They ignored the Monkey.
>All six tore into the Mantis.
>He covered himself as best he could, fending off most.
>But one got through to strike him in the back.
>It's fingers went through his armor as though it did not exist.
>I saw thick red bands just beneath the semi transparent skin of the Gaki. The red slid up the Gaki's fingers, arm, to the place where it's heart should be.
>Toshiro said that the victims had been low on blood.
>The Monkey turned and began to hack wildly at the Gaki, trying to drive them off of the Mantis
>Naomi could not reach him, surrounded as he was.
>So I rushed in, swinging my tetsubo in wide arcs, trying to knock one or two aside.
>I managed to do so, and the Mantis broke out from the pack moving to Naomi.
>Quickly she worked her magic, healing him.
>The Gaki pursued him, save the one I knocked down. It vanished.
>The hell?
>Dodging about the Mantis managed to avoid getting surrounded.
>"Get these damn things OFF OF ME!"
>The Monkey answered.
>"We're trying! Hold still so we can reach them!"
>"Are you INSANE?! I'm not going to just stand around while they suck up all my blood!"
>Naomi had drawn another scroll.
>Toshiro and Kitsuki-san arrived then.
>"Naomi says they're gaki!"
>Toshiro nodded.
>He pointed at me, and a tetsubo made of earth, with spikes of jade rose up from the ground before me.
>I tossed aside my mundane one, grasping the magic one, and slammed it down into one of the Gaki.
>It did not part the misty form of the Gaki as my other weapon had, but rather tore a chunk of the mist away.
>The Gaki howled in rage.
>Much better.
>As the Mantis weaved about defending himself, the Monkey and Kitsuki-san combined their efforts to injure another one.
>Once more, they all attacked the Mantis. And then another passed through the wall of a house, and stabbed its hands into his back again.
>Once more, I saw the Mantis' blood flow up the creatures arms and into its heart.
>I battered one aside with all my might.
>And then Naomi yelled to us.
>"MOVE!"
>We dove aside as she unleashed a torrent of water, bowling over the rest of the Gaki.
>Toshiro pointed again, and the Monkey's katana burst into fire.
>We fell upon the gaki, I think we killed two, or three.
>I couldn't be certain how many we dispatched because they all disappeared at once, even ones I knew we did not strike.
>We all pulled in to a circle, back to back looking around for where they would come from next.
>"Damn. Where did they go?"
>"What the hell Mantis? Why are they after you?"
>"How the hell should I know?"
>"You knew! As soon as Naomi said they were Gaki you freaked out!"
>"Now is really not the time! Shit... how many more are there?!"
>And then...
>Nothing happened.
>Silence. Just Silence.
>Slowly, the normal background hum of the pillow district reasserted itself.
>As the flames on the Monkey's blade died down, we allowed ourselves to relax.
>"Well, we got two at least. Maybe three."
>"No, we didn't Ishigaki-san."
>I looked at Kitsuki-san in surprise.
>Gaki are immortal. They are spirits of the dead, already judged and cleansing themselves before their rebirth. You cannot destroy a soul.
>"Why the surprised look? I never forget anything, and I have read many texts on diverse subjects."
>"It simply does not come up often, as we have experts on many subjects of import to our work."
>"So we can't kill them? Then what do we do, ask them to go somewhere else?"
>Naomi spoke up.
>"If their spirit forms are disrupted they will return to Gaki-do. They would not be able to return and cause more trouble then. Normally, anyway."
>I arched an eyebrow.
>"The imbalance, Ishigaki-kun. Somewhere in this district is a place where Gaki-do and Ningen-do overlap. A place that should not exist."
>Kitsuki-san nodded. "Those were Shozai-Gaki, were they not, Naomi?"
>"Hai."
>"Then we are looking for a place where great desire lead to a crime, and much blood was spilled?"
>"That would be a reasonable guess, yes."
>"Then let's get some rest for now. We can investigate where they are coming from in the morning."
>I for one, have no desire to face those things again without being at full strength. That would just be foolish.
>When we got back to the inn I pressed the Mantis.
>"Alright, why did those things only chase you?"
>I DON'T KNOW."
>"I stared at him.
>"I mean, I don't know why. My parents just told me that the Shugenja that attended my birth said that Gaki-do hated me or something."
>The Monkey chimed in from where he sat.
>He was dual wielding a pair of steamed meat buns, and didn't even have the decency to swallow before speaking.
>"So what you're saying is you're the juiciest bit of Gaki bait we've got right now?"
>"Ugh, I know you were raised on a farm but seriously Monkey! MANNERS."
>He swallowed hard and glared sullenly at me.
>"What? I get hungry after a fight..."
>He went back to stuffing his face.
>"Can you three be serious? You're taking this too lightly."
>In response to his chastisement I stared Kitsuki-san in the eyes until he dropped his gaze.
>"I am not, Kitsuki-san."
>"There is a place where Gaki-do has entered Ningen-do."
>"That is a concern for Shugenja."
>"The Gaki will try to stop the shugenja from closing the hole."
>"That is a concern for me."
>"I can hurt the gaki with my tetsubo."
>"I do not need to know anything else."
>"That is all true, Ishigaki-san, but the Gaki have spiritual bodies. Your armor is no defense against them."
>"And I suppose you think a Shikome cannot fight without her horse as well?"
>I was being rude, and I knew it. But I did not like my commitment being questioned.
>"Ishigaki-kun, how does our supply of Jade powder fare?"
>The question caught me off guard.
>"Uh...enough for a single mid seized oni, or several spawn, why?"
>"The spiritual bodies of the Gaki are more easily disrupted by the three sacred substances. Obviously they are not as resilient as Oni, however jade powder could help to disperse them more quickly."
>"I see, then we're going to need to get some more jade, Naomi."
>I was in a strange position socially.
>Once married, a wife's rank is set to just below her husbands.
>However, only shugenja could be full fledged Jade Magistrates.
>So, while I never bothered with honorifics for my wife, or my best friend (save for the most formal of occasions) the fact remained that they both outranked me now.
>Naomi however, seemed to appreciate I did not refer to her as -sama unless absolutely necessary.
>The Mantis downed his cup of sake in one gulp. That was his fourth.
>"One question. How EXACTLY are we going to find this hole? You aren't planning on having me walk around and wait to get attacked by Gaki, are you?"
>"Of course not, Mantis-san. We will ask."
>"Huh?"
>"Something great enough to create a bridge between Gaki-do and Nigen-do would be a very noticeable event. A distasteful one few would wish to speak of openly, but one that would still be remembered."
>"Oh."
>I was awakened in the middle of the night by Naomi.
>She was sitting up in bed, coughing violently. Blood was oozing out from between the fingers covering her mouth.
>I held her up waiting for the fit to pass.
>It did not.
>She was coughing so hard tears were forming in her eyes.
>I wrapped her up in a blanket to preserve her modesty and threw open the door. I carried her outside to the fresh air.
>It seemed to help; her coughing slowed, then subsided.
>I got her clean water to rinse the blood from her mouth with, and set to work brewing her medicine.
>As I waited for the water to boil, I got a cloth, soaked it in water as cold as I could find, and washed her burning flesh.
>She was limp in my arms, eyes fluttering.
>It was all she could do to remain conscious.
>When her medicine was done, I blew on the tea to cool it, the held it gently to her lips.
>She sucked weakly on it, then swallowed painfully.
>"I know it's hard Naomi, but please, you must drink it all."
>She nodded and did her best.
>She finished her medicine.
>I sat beside her, awake, the rest of the night.
>I did not leave the room in the morning. Naomi's breathing had been steady, but shallow all night.
>I heard the door slide open a crack.
>Then it shut.
>After a moment it opened again and Toshiro came in.
>He looked at me, then Naomi.
>He grunted.
>"It wasn't until I took her outside that she stopped coughing. She's been like that all night."
>He nodded.
>Took hold of the blanket
>He paused and looked at me
>"You've attended the birth of both my children Toshiro. Go ahead."
>I really did have no idea why he was being so considerate.
>He pulled the blanket down and examined Naomi. Placed his head on her chest to hear her heart and breathing. Pulled down her lips and peered into her mouth, checked her eyes.
>Through it all she barely moved, and made no sound.
>It had been a long time since Naomi had been so sick. Not since she was still carrying Daiko.
>I could tell that her life was not in immediate danger, but I had no idea how bad off she really was.
>Toshiro pulled out some scrolls. Said several prayers.
>I did not see any change, but I thought her breathing sounded just a bit smoother.
>"Ishigaki-san, she will be fine. Tatsuki can look after her. We must go. I am counting on you to keep the Gaki off me while I close the tear."
>I looked up at him, confused.
>"You never call me -san."
>"You never look at me the way you are now."
>"What are you talking about?"
>Toshiro bared some of his wakizashi, showed me my reflection in the steel.
>My face was twisted with a rage I didn't realize I felt.
>It was only then I realized how furious I was.
>My Hana-chan was in pain, her life in danger.
>I wanted to hurt those responsible. Even if that meant storming into heaven and throttling Jurojin himself.
>It was a cold rage, unlike any I had felt before.
>I did not like it.
>Shaking my head to clear away my blasphemous thoughts, I stood up.
>Toshiro looked closely at me.
>"You love her."
>"Of course I do."
>"You wish to live a long life with her. Have many children, many more grandchildren?"
>"Is that so wrong?"
>"Desire is a sin, Ishigaki. Gaki-do is the realm of desire."
>"What do you...oh."
>He nodded.
>"Shit."
>I should have woken him right away, but Gaki-do had influenced my desire, made me possessive to the point of obsession.
>The one who had put Naomi in danger...
>Was me.
>Toshiro saw the realization cross my face.
>"Good. be more careful about that, baka."
>"Focus on your duty. Clear your mind of all else. That will protect you."
>"Right."
>And so we asked around. It was Monkey who got the answer we were looking for.
>An old man, back bent, legs twisted with age.
>He looked like he could die at any moment.
>And he knew it.
>"It was a couple months ago. Some Crane samurai came into town, went down to the pillow district."
>"They had large chest with them."
>"Word quickly got out they were spending coin like it was nothing. Opium, sake, shochu, women, men."
>The old man laughed. "The samurai ordered everything on the menu, then had them add new things to the menu so they could order those as well."
>"Magistrate didn't like it one bit. She's pretty straight laced, doesn't like the pillow district. But the Lord said leave it be, and so she does."
>He chuckled again.
>"You know, great samurai, it is a great thing to know you are dying. I've never felt so free in my life."
>"I suppose, you who live your lives for war, know this feeling well."
>"I'm impressed at your restraint. There are so many things I would say, would do, if my body were not so decrepit."
>"I guess that is why I am still a peasant, and you are samurai."
>He had no way of knowing, but his words shamed me.
>He leaned in and placed his hand beside his mouth, as though he were going to whisper something that should not be said too loudly.
>Then he said it too loudly.
>"But then orders came in for our Magistrate."
>"The gold those samurai had?"
>"They stole it."
>"Now, it was just a coincidence they came here."
>"As I heard from one of the Yoriki, Megumi-sama only got word that a shipment of money had been stolen by bandits, and to keep an eye out for suspicious ronin."
>"Ronin! Hah! When all along some of the lord's own retainers robbed him!"
>Kitsuki-san's hand twitched a bit. He was quite displeased at the old man's blatant disrespect.
>I thought it was as funny as the old man did.
>Crane weren't quite as greedy as Mantis, but that was only because they had no rivals as the richest clan before the Mantis rose to power.
>They were still getting used to the idea of having to compete seriously for wealth.
>"But our pretty magistrate figured it out right away. So she went to arrest those traitors!"
>"Do you know what happened?"
>We shook our heads.
>"She found nothing!"
>"Oh the samurai were there all right."
>"In an empty house. With no money."
>"She looked all over, had the Yoriki tear the place apart!"
>"But to no avail. She's ashamed of that to this very day."
>"And the Samurai just disappeared."
>The Monkey thanked the old man, as the rest of us got Kitsuki-san away from him.
>"He'll be stone dead in a moment, just leave it for Enma-O."
>We then spoke to the Magistrate. Kitsuki-san handled it, delicately.
>He explained what we had learned, and asked Doji Megumi where she had found the Samurai.
>With her directions we headed into the pillow district. Hopefully for final time.
>There, tucked away in a back alleyway, was a rotting house
>The sakura tree in the front garden was dead, the rope holding the bucket in the well snapped.
>"Yes, it's here. This close there is no mistaking it."
>The Monkey scratched his head. "How did we miss this the first time through, anyway?"
>I shrugged. "It doesn't matter now does it?"
>"Powder your weapon. We need to be ready for when they come."
>"Toshiro, how long will the ritual take?"
>"As long it takes."
>Great. Got it. Thanks.
>Kitsuki-san, Mantis, Monkey and I took up positions around Toshiro.
>"Hey, Toshiro-san."
>"Toshiro-san!"
>"The sun is starting to set, what the hell is taking so long?"
>"The tear is resisting, Stop distracting me."
>"Is there anything we can do to speed things up?!"
>"I don't know, I'm not an expert on the spirit realms! I only know about Jigoku, and then it's just the things that come out of it!"
>"Whoa!"
>"What is it Monkey?"
>"There's a freakishly large number of cockroaches coming out of that run down house over there!"
>Kitsuki-san yelled, "IT'S THE GAKI!"
>The roaches became smoke, smoke became humanoid forms.
>Gaki rushed at us.
>With our weapons powdered, we were able to dispatch them with relative ease. The Mantis covered himself up, while the rest of us struck them down.
>Kitsuki-san showed his skill quite well. It was official now, I was the worst in our group with a sword.
>Unless you counted Naomi and Toshiro, but since they did not wear a full daisho, I didn't.
>But then the gaki came out of the house, again.
>"More?" asked the Monkey.
>"No, the same ones!" answered the Kitsuki.
>"They are immortal! They'll keep coming until the ritual is complete!"
>"Toshiro?"
>"Working on it!"
>Fuck.
>"I've got an idea!"
>I smashed one aside and ran inside.
>I could hear the others fighting outside.
>"GOT ONE!" yelled the Monkey.
>Okay, now where...
>A blood red flash came from a room on my left.
>I ran in, smashed my tetsubo into the Gaki, it vanished after the second blow.
>The red glow again. Up from the tatami mat.
>What
>The Gaki rose up from the ground.
>I pulled back the mat. Mantis was going to have to be ready for this one.
>But as I uncovered the staircase that Megumi's Yoriki had missed, the Gaki surprised me.
>It turned and struck at me.
>It's claws passed right through my armor, and I felt my body grow cold as my blood passed up it's arm.
>"I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU DID IN THERE BUT KEEP IT UP! THEY DIDN'T LIKE THAT."
>Oh great. They're all coming here now.
>"THERE'S A SECRET BASEMENT!"
>I spun my tetsubo in a defensive arc, warding off as many attacks as I could.
>I couldn't stop them all, however.
>The Mantis and Kitsuki-san came in, I pointed to the stairs.
>"I've got this, go!"
>As they headed down the Gaki turned again.
>Don't know why we didn't see that coming.
>We fought a running battle, down the stairs and into the basement.
>Where the bodies were.
>Almost twenty skeletons were hidden here.
>Six of them wore mouldering blue robes, and had daisho.
>Kitsuki-san looked at them, made another logic leap.
>He yelled to the Gaki. "I UNDERSTAND! You were murdered to protect the secret of where the gold was hidden, weren't you?"
>The Gaki paused.
>"Huh?"
>"Gaki aren't Yorei."
>"No, they are not. But sometimes Gaki still remember a bit of who they are. Sometimes it's only a faint echo the Gaki themselves aren't even aware of."
>"These Gaki, their desire for vengeance tore this hole, I think. That's why the Crane were the first to die."
>We backed out, warily. The Gaki followed us. Silent.
>Almost expectant.
>"Now what?"
>"I think we should find the gold."
>"It wasn't down there."
>"I know."
>"What are the odds of there being TWO secret rooms the Yoriki missed?"
>"Slim, I'd say."
>"Then where...?"
>The Mantis grunted.
>"I know!"
>He ran off.
>We followed.
>He was quickly wrapping a cloth around a humming bulb arrow.
>Then he soaked it in lamp oil.
>Lit it.
>And dropped it down the well.
>We looked.
>I saw a faint yellow glimmer before the light went out.
>When we looked up, the Gaki were gone.
>"Toshiro?"
>"Finished it about the time you yelled."
>"So, you could have just killed them one last time, I guess."
>"But I suppose this works too."
>Gaki are not Yorei. They have no attachments to their old lives.
>But sometimes, just sometimes, a soul carries a bond or desire so strong it will persist even after death.
>I often told Naomi I would love in this life and the next.
>I wondered if I would become a Gaki when I died.

Act XII: Bonds[edit]

>We stayed another week in town.
>Naomi was still too weak to leave the inn, much less resume travel.
>"Ishigaki-kun, could you bring me a bowl of water, please?"
>"Of course."
>"The wider, the better."
>When I brought back the bowl Naomi asked me to help her sit up, then began to whisper softly.
>Shapes began to form in the water, and I could see our home.
>The image shifted, and there were Daiko and Tetsute.
>The little troublemakers were playing with their nanny. The same way they would play with me.
>That is, they were trying to climb up her and then topple her over.
>Whenever they did something clever I would fall over. I wanted to let them know they were on the right track, even if they didn't really have the strength to topple me yet.
>Their nanny was currently on the floor, Tetsute had wrapped himself around her head, and Daiko was bouncing triumphantly on her stomach.
>I smiled, pleased at my children's ferocity.
>Crab children play games with names Strong Wall, and Find the Oni.
>They don't realize it, but they are already training for the day they will take up their duty.
>I glanced over at Naomi. She was smiling as well.
>"They are very strong, for being so young. Neh, Ishigaki-kun?"
>"A Hida bushi and a Water Tensai were bound to make strong children. It's not surprising."
>She leaned in to me.
>"You are right I suppose. Perhaps we should go home soon."
>"Homesick?"
>She peered up at me.
>"I am thinking we will need to hire a new nanny."
>We shared a chuckle together and watched our children terrorize their nanny until the spell ended.
>Later on, the Monkey accosted me.
>"Hey, Ishigaki! I wanna get a gift for my boy."
>"Okay."
>"So come on!"
>"Uh, what?"
>"Come on! You've got a kids already you should be good at this right?"
>I had no idea if I was or not, but he clearly wasn't going to let this go.
>I shrugged and joined him.
>"So what do you bring your kids when you get time to head home?"
>"Jade. Sutras to ward off evil spirits. Charms to help them go big and strong."
>The Monkey stared at me.
>"C'mon Ishigaki! Even I know you don't make things like that into gifts! Gifts are supposed to be rare, and useless! If you give someone something they actually need you're saying their Lord can't provide for them, right?"
>"I don't know."
>"You don't?"
>"I never have any money to spare on gifts, so I never paid any attention to the etiquette. I just get my children things I think they need when the Yasuki comes by the barracks."
>"Huh. Okay. Then how about for Naomi? What kinds of things to you get her?"
>"Intimacy."
>No way I was going to elaborate further for the Monkey.
>He looked at me, then blew out a sigh.
>"Are you trying to be unhelpful?"
>"No."
>"But Naomi is not your Hime-san, and Tetsute is not Tokichiro, and you don't live where I do."
>"Oh, what about this silk? You think the pattern will look good on Hime-san?"
>I closed my eyes, tried to remember what she looked like.
>"Yeah, it will."
>"Great! I'll take this, please."
>The Monkey casually dumped a pile of Koku on the floor and began counting to pay the shopkeeper.
>"Monkey, has your stipend increased?"
>"I don't know, but Hime-san is letting me have a bigger allowance. I'm up to seven koku a month!"
>I picked my jaw back up off the floor. That was a shitton of money.
>I had grown more aware of the value of money since marrying.
>I had been made aware that this happened to all Samurai after marriage.
>Where once you had food and a place to sleep in the barracks, once you were married it was expected that you would maintain a house, and staff it with many servants.
>Though it was Naomi who handled the fine details, I at least understood the broad strokes.
>Enough to know that my plain house and single nanny would make me something of a laughing stock, were it to be known.
>The Monkey then stopped off at a bookstore
>Which surprised me greatly. I had never seen the Monkey with a text before.
>He looked around, as confused as I would expect him to be, before seemingly grabbing one at random.
>"This one, please."
>He paid and we returned to the inn.
>I went to check on Naomi.
>She was awake, sitting up and even sipping a cup of broth.
>"My appetite is returning, as you can see Ishigaki-kun."
>I sat down behind her, and she leaned back.
>"I am sorry, my love. For worrying you so."
>"It's not your fault, Naomi. It's Jurojin's."
>"Ishigaki!"
>She turned to bop me on the nose.
>"It is not as though Jurojin wishes to be cruel! There must be balance in all things!"
>"For every person on whom a Fortune bestows their favor, another must bear their curse, surely you know this?"
>"So you're saying the reason I'm ugly is because you're pretty?"
>"You are not ugly, Ishigaki-kun."
>"I am a little bit, though. Most people flinch when they see my face for the first time."
>"Most people are fools. They cannot see you as I do. They do not know you as I do."
>"Keep swelling my head up like that and I'll have a hard time fitting out the door."
>"It is the duty of a wife to swell her husband's head from time to time."
>"Ohhh naughty girl."
>"What? No... I didn't mean... ah!"
>I grinned as Naomi's cheeks flushed.
>She could be bold at times but there was no changing her innocent nature.
>There was a loud coughing from outside the door.
>Naomi sat up straighter, away from me.
>Public displays like what we had been doing were impolite, and though none of our friends were truly bothered by it, Naomi preferred to comport herself properly.
>The door opened, and the Monkey came in.
>"Um, how're ya feeling Naomi-sama?"
>"Much better now, Monkey-san. I must apologize for holding everyone up like this."
>"Huh? No you don't have to apologize for anything Naomi-sama! In fact that's why I'm here. Um, anyway. Here."
>He knelt down and slid the book he had bought earlier toward Naomi.
>"What is this? I cannot possibly accept take a gift from so dear a friend."
>"Oh, you really wanna do that thing, Naomi-sama?"
>"Okay, um. I got this for you because we all love you. You know that right? I mean, not romantically or anything (nervous glance my way) but you know. None of us would be here if it weren't for you."
>"I am just a Water Tenasi. It is expected that I heal the injured. Besides which, many of you have been hurt protecting me. You owe me nothing."
>"I don't care if I owe you or not. I wouldn't have Hime-san or my son today if it weren't for you."
>"Very well, thank you Monkey-san."
>She glanced down at the gift.
>"This... is a pillow book."
>"Ummmm.... yeah?"
>Monkeys. Just no sense of right and wrong.
>Pillow books were stories of romance and love, most popular among the housewives of Rokugan.
>For obvious reasons no one really spoke about.
>Since I had watched him buy it, I knew there was no deeper meaning in giving my wife a pillow book.
>I may have punched anyone else doing so.
>I wondered if that was the real reason he wanted me to come along on his little shopping trip today.
>I heard the telltale tumpdrag of Toshiro coming up to the door.
>I opened it before he could.
>He held up an empty sake cup
>I cocked my head at him. I didn't really want to leave Naomi's side.
>"What is it, Ishigaki-kun?"
>"Just Toshiro. Doesn't want to drink alone."
>"So go with him."
>"But..."
>"You are a being a worry wart."
>"I am fine Ishigaki-kun, truly."
>Tatsuki peeked out from behind Toshiro.
>"I can stay with her, if you're worried, Ishigaki-sama."
>"Alright, you win. Let's go get drunk then."
>"Yosh."
>Toshiro and I headed out.
>When we got there, I was surprised to see the Mantis waiting for us.
>I glanced at Toshiro, saw the smirk on his face.
>He planned this.
>It was too late to back out now, though.
>Fine, I could be civil when I had to be.
>"Hey."
>"Hey."
>Toshiro handled the first pour.
>We drank our Sake.
>I took the next pour.
>"How's Naomi?"
>"Fine."
>"How's Tatsuki?"
>"Fine."
>"How's your foot?"
>"It hurts."
>We drank.
>Nice, civil, riveting conversation.
>Mantis took the next pour.
>I inspected my Sake closely.
>"Pffft. If I wanted to kill you I'd just hack you up with my kama."
>We drank.
>Toshiro poured.
>"That's assuming you were trying to kill me. Pillow district isn't far from here. Maybe you're just trying to drug me."
>We drank.
>"The hell you on about? I've got Tatsuki for that. I don't need your hideous ass."
>I poured.
>"So you're saying you'd consider it, if you didn't buy yourself a woman?"
>We drank.
>"Nah. Never."
>Mantis poured.
>Toshiro spoke up, breaking the little jabs the Mantis and I were taking at each other.
>"So, what are you going to do with her anyway?"
>The Mantis glared at Toshiro.
>Knocked back his sake in one gulp.
>"Make her my concubine. If she'll go for it."
>I finished my own cup to hide my surprise.
>"You really like her, don't you?"
>Toshiro poured.
>"No, you dolt. I love her. I'd marry her if I could."
>I wasn't sure how to answer that, so I just drank.
>The others followed my lead.
>As I poured, Toshiro spoke again.
>So, why can't you? Is it just the class difference?
>I'm already married.
>I sputtered a bit as my sake went down the wrong pipe.
>You okay over there, big guy? Too much to handle?
>I'm fine. fine. Can drink you under the table any day of the week.
>Bullshit.
>Mantis poured.
>When did you even get married?
>Before we all met.
>I never knew that.
>You never asked.
>We drank.
>Whose pour is it?
>Toshiro's I think.
>He poured.
>Well, you never offer up anything about yourself. I figured you wanted to keep to yourself.
>We drank.
>I never spoke up because YOU don't like me. Pour the drinks you bastard.
>I did.
>I spilled some.
>We drank.
>Where the hell did you get that idea?
>It's written all over your stupid face.
>The Mantis poured. He spilled too.
>When you fuckin walked in here, the second you saw me you wanted to leave!
>We drank.
>Well, if you were a proper samurai you wouldn't want to be seen with a koku fucker either!
>Toshiro poured.
>The fuck is that supposed to mean?
>We drank. I slammed my cup down and poured.
>Your a merchant, pretending to be a Samurai.
>Your whole fuckin clan is obsessed with money.
>You're worse'n fuckin Cranes!
>We drank.
>You ever seen a Crane fight like me?
>I've seen drunken panda's fight like you, but never anything you could mistake for a samurai.
>Mantis poured.
>Where the hell did you see a drunk panda?!
>Shinomen Mori.
>We drank.
>All kinds of freaky shit in there.
>Whose pour?
>Toshiro spoke.
>I'll get it. I can't remember either.
>He poured.
>We drank.
>You're full of shit. You never seen a drunk panda!
>I poured.
>You're right. But I have seen a drunk bug.
>Where?
>We drank.
>In front of me
>Oh FUCK YOU.
>He poured.
>Buy me dinner first.
>We drank.
>THAT IS ENOUGH.
>Another Samurai. A Crane, by his hair, came over to our table.
>You are being very rude and disturbing the other guests. I must insist you take you leave.
>FUCK OFF
>The Mantis and I responded in unison.
>We looked at each other in surprise.
>Grins spread across our faces.
>He looked so stupid, swaying all drunkenly while just sitting there.
>Toshiro poured himself a cup and drank it in one gulp.
>As the Mantis and I both stood up and punched the Crane in his too pretty face.
>And the fight was on.
>The Mantis was one hell of a brawler.
>Everything he could get his hands on became a weapon.
>And he seemed quite comfortable weaving around and barely keeping his balance.
>I swear he avoided more blows due to dumb luck and his own lurching than to any real skill.
>I, on the other hand, planted my feet firmly on the ground and hit anything that came within arms reach.
>I'm sure some of them hit me a few times, but I hardly felt it. Might have had something to do with them having the muscle development of a four year old girl.
>I said as much, and they took exception to that.
>Two of them went for my legs, and managed to take me down.
>The Mantis picked up a table and knocked them off me.
>Good thinking!
>I know right!
>Toshiro poured himself another drink.
>Then broke the empty sake bottle over the head of one of the samurai trying to get up.
>Several minutes later, the brawl was over.
>The Crab/Mantis alliance had conquered this drinking establishment.
>Then the magistrate showed up.
>Toshiro apologized to the Doji and paid the fine, then promised to get us both back to inn.
>It took a while, either I or the Mantis kept trying to wander off in search of more alcohol.
>And we both had to stop to puke at least once.
>The Mantis looked up at me after he finished one such bout.
>How in the hell is that Kuni friend of yours not drunk like us?
>Toshiro overheard him, and answered.
>My leg is hollow. I keep it all in there.
>He said this with a perfectly straight face.

Act XIII: Kenzan[edit]

>I woke up, the light in the room stinging my eyes.
>Why is it so bright?
>Oh, Naomi had every window in the room open.
>The dull thudding in my head became a fierce pounding as I tried to sit up.
>Good morning, Ishigaki-kun. Would you like some breakfast?
>Naomi cracked a raw egg and mixed it up into a bowl of rice, then shoved it right under my nose.
>Yo-ulp. You're doing this on purpose.
>Whatever do you mean, Ishigaki-kun?
>She daintily ate some rice.
>Oh, this is very good. Are you sure you do not want some?
>She offered me the bowl again.
>Right under my nose.
>I lurched to my feet and got outside in time.
>Mantis-san was already there.
>He wiped his mouth and grinned at me.
>Taught those little girls how to fight, didn't we?
>I grinned back.
>Yeah.
>Though I think Naomi is upset with me.
>Kitsuki-san appeared in the mouth of the alleyway.
>Of course she's upset with you. Both of you idiots made a real mess last night. You're retainers of Jade Magistrates! You should have some consideration for your position.
>Now she's going to have to reprimand you publicly for your shameful behavior last night!
>Mantis-san and I exchanged glances.
>Then burst out laughing.
>And what do you find so funny?
>Kitsuki-san's confusion only made us laugh harder.
>Thumpdrag.
>Thumpdrag.
>Thumpdrag.
>The situation has already been handled Kitsuki-san. I paid the fine.
>But, their actions...!
>I was there with them, did you not know that?
>Ishigaki and Mantis-san are as much my subordinates as Naomi's, and I will not reprimand them.
>For the love of the Fortunes, WHY?
>They won.
>We left Kitsuki-san there, his mouth working like a fish out of water.
>We sat in the common room, nursing cups of tea along with our hangovers.
>Naomi came and joined us.
>She looked between me and Mantis-san a few times.
>Then at Toshiro.
>You planned this.
>Toshiro sipped his tea.
>I didn't plan on this hangover being so bad, no.
>Naomi sat down with just a slight huff.
>That is not what I meant and you know it.
>I spoke up.
>Sometimes, Naomi too much sake is actually a good thing.
>Too much sake is the go to excuse for when you slip up and breach etiquette.
>From an emotional outburst to bad table manners, if you do something wrong you apologize and blame it on too much sake.
>It doesn't mitigate your shame, and it only works on minor things, but most people will accept your apology and not bring it up again.
>After all, everyone has had too much sake at least once or twice.
>A runner came up with a letter for Mantis-san.
>He read it. Then went pale.
>I looked at him.
>What is it?
>My wife. Says there's trouble and I need to come home right away.
>Naomi asked if his wife had elaborated on it.
>Just a name. Kenzan.
>He practically spat the name.
>Who is this Kenzan?
>MY problem. I'll deal with it.
>I put a hand on Mantis-san's shoulder.
>He may be your problem, but you’re our OUR problem.
>Naomi and Toshiro nodded.
>I'll go wake up the Monkey.
>And that was how we found ourselves on a ship headed to the Islands of Spice and Silk.
>Along the way we pressed for information on Kenzan.
>Mantis-san opened up more quickly than usual.
>Mantis-san had, in the past, captained a small kobune.
>It was how he got his start, and ended up with a favorable marriage.
>Kenzan had been his navigator, for a time.
>Kenzan, however was far from reliable.
>He was not a drunkard, or addict or anything of that sort.
>On the water, he was a fine navigator, one of the best Mantis-san had ever worked with.
>However, Kenzan did have a problem with gambling. A very big problem.
>When a full two dozen Mantis samurai stormed onto his boat, beating any who tried to stop them unconscious and taking his cargo to pay back Kenzan's gambling debts, Mantis-san threw Kenzan off the boat.
>Literally.
>Mantis-san complained to his lord, who complained to the lord Kenzan owed.
>Who responded that the Captain is responsible for the conduct of his crew and refused to give back the cargo.
>Mantis-san's Lord did not want to force the issue, since it was his retainers' weakness that led to this mess.
>So Mantis-san's lord settled for casting Kenzan out of the clan for making him look bad.
>Kenzan blamed Mantis-san for being made a Ronin, and swore vengeance.
>That's the last I heard of the bastard, until today.
>I expected his gambling to catch up to him, leaving him floating face down in a river somewhere, before he could cause any trouble.
>I thought you said you didn't know anyone who could have been THEM?
>Kenzan's a bastard, but he's no Maho-Tsukai.
>I leaned over the side of boat, checking Kitsuki-san's face to see if he was still conscious.
>He was.
>He was as green as his Haori, but he was still awake.
>It wouldn't do to let him pass out and fall overboard, after all.
>How long till we get there, do you think?
>If the weather holds, another two days.
>Kitsuki-san managed to make his vomiting sound especially distressed at that.
>And then a fog bank that seemed to come up from nowhere enveloped us.
>Somehow, I knew this was the Monkey's fault.
>The ship lurched as we collided with something.
>From where I was I managed to grab Kitsuki-san and keep him from falling over.
>I pulled him aboard, dumping him unceremoniously to the deck, as I went to check on Naomi.
>I am fine Ishigaki-kun, just a small bump.
>Then I heard a cry.
>Which turned very quickly into a gurgle.
>I turned to see a man pulling a tanto out of one of the sailors.
>How a man at sea got that dirty I will never know.
>I missed my chance to ask, since I cracked his leggs with my tetsubo and shoved him over the side.
>All around us, pirates swarmed onto the deck.
>I backed Naomi up into a corner and swatted anything that came near, as she gave me strength and speed with her magic.
>I could barely make out Toshiro and the Monkey fighting side by side, defending Kitsuki-san who was still feeling the effects of his seasickness.
>Mantis-san was in his element, he stode the deck with confidence, his kama were a blur as they scythed through necks, bodies and legs.
>Then a blast of water slammed into Toshiro, the Monkey and Kitsuki-san.
>The mist parted, revealing the whole deck again.
>The captain was laying on the deck, bleeding
>Over him stood a shugenja, with a bloody tipped trident.
>Toshiro and the Monkey kept their feet, but Kitsuki-san was knocked clean off the boat.
>Monkey dove in after him without hesitation.
>Crazy Monkey.
>Toshiro was in a tough spot. He could fight quite well with his tetsubo, but most of his Earth magic was for dealing with the taint. He had Fire for more mundane foes.
>Only, we were on boat.
>A big, wooden, boat.
>I batted aside another pirate, unwilling to leave Naomi's side.
>KENZAN!
>Mantis-san rushed out of nowhere, swinging on the shugenja.
>That then, must be Kenzan. From navigator to ronin to pirate.
>Quite the fall.
>Kenzan's eyes widened in surprise to see Mantis-san.
>He spun his trident as he backed away.
>Kenzan spoke.
>It has been too long you bastard! I'll have your head now!
>As Kenzan and Mantis-san squared off, preparing to clash with one another, a pirate on their ship blew a horn.
>Kenzan looked up
>Already?! Shit.
>He leveled his trident at Mantis-san
>We'll settle this another time! Jaa ne!
>As Mantis-san swung at him, Kenzan leaped over the side of the boat.
>And landed on the water.
>And ran to his ship.
>On top of the water.
>A hand appeared on the rail of the boat beside me.
>I looked over, Monkey was hauling himself up a rope with Kitsuki-san slung over his shoulder.
>Little help here? He's heavier than he looks!
>I grabbed Monkey's hand and hauled them both in.
>And then the water between our boats burst up.
>The water rained down.
>Off of the head of a giant snake.
>It opened its mouth as it's head swept from side to side, looking at both ships.
>Inside I could see fangs as long as a man.
>It hissed.
>Um. I don't think it likes us.
>Got a real knack for stating the obvious Monkey, you know that?
>Ishigaki-kun, that's an Orochi!
>Aren't Orochi smart?
>Very.
>So we can talk to it?
>The Orochi slammed its bulk against both ships, still hissing, still looking around.
>He does not seem to be in the mood.
>Mantis-san took charge, shouting orders to get the ship clear.
>The sailors lept to obey.
>WE'RE TAKING IN WATER!
>Mantis-san grabbed the nearest man.
>Where's the carpenter?
>The sailor pointed to a body laying on the deck, throat cut ear to ear.
>Okay, you're the new carpenter. Get down there.
>He gave the man a shove.
>Mantis-san then looked at me and Monkey.
>Plugging a hole water is pouring in from takes a lot of strength, and I've got my hands full up here!
>Got it. Let's go Monkey.
>Naomi-sama, this ship needs to move faster, and it needs to stop taking on water. The latter is a bit more important though.
>I do not think I can hold back the entire sea but I will do what I can.
>Mantis-san was right about plugging the hole.
>It took everything I had, with Monkey and another sailor on either side, to get the boards in place so the new carpenter could nail them in place.
>That Orochi tore a pretty big hole, by the time we got it plugged I was standing in knee deep water.
>Naomi pulled out a scroll and started to pray.
>Then, the water moved.
>All of it.
>It flowed up the stairs, swirling around Naomi's legs, onto the deck, and back over the side into the sea.
>The last little tendril of water, wrapped around Naomi, stretched out quite thin. Almost as if it didn't want to let go of her.
>She smiled at it.
>Thank you, my friends.
>Then it let go, and the water was gone.
>Water still leaked in from around the edges of the patch, but it was slow.
>Hey, Naomi can you do something about that, too?
>She shook her head.
>I could certainly ask the water Kami to stop coming in, but there are so many out there, and we're moving past so many... I am but a drop in the endless ocean. I am sorry.
>Don't worry about it, Naomi-sama!
>The carpenter gestured to the patch.
>This will keep the worst of it out until we can make better repairs.
>The carpenter left a few men to keep an eye on the patch and to occasionally toss out buckets of water, then went up on deck to let Mantis-san know the state of things.
>We all went with.
>Mantis-san nodded. Pointed over the side.
>In the distance I could see a dark shape.
>An island.
>We'll need to beach the boat to make a watertight seal on the patch.
>As we got close, we could see the jagged rocks that ringed the island.
>It was tense sailing, the Mantis on the tiller with crewmen looking over the sides of the boat, yelling to him how much clearance he had.
>But somehow we got through the ring of rocks.
>Naomi spoke to the water kami once more, and the water beneath us surged up, and eased us onto the beach.
>She smiled at us.
>Asking the kami for a quick favor, however, is well within my ability.
>Once ashore, we got off the boat, and Mantis-san inspected the damage from the outside with his carpenter.
>There were several places where the boards had been rubbed thin by the Orochi, aside from the hole it had punched.
>Mantis-san rubbed his chin.
>Day, day and half at least.
>Need to slap some sealant on the patch, keep it from leaking. And that needs time to dry.
>We're not far from the Mantis Islands though, so we should be able to make it.
>Kitsuki-san, no longer green, spoke up.
>There is a mist beginning to rise. Depending on how long it lasts we may be here longer.
>We looked around. Sure enough the mist was rising. Fast.
>Too fast.
>Shit!
>It was Mantis-san.
>He got back aboard the boat, yelled for the navigator.
>He came back out with some maps and charts.
>...and we were here, last time you checked our position?
>Yes, I'm sure of it.
>FUCK.
>I folded my arms.
>Bad news then?
>Yeah. We're on the Isle of Mists.
>The other sailors around came to dead stop and stared at Mantis-san.
>Monkey glanced around.
>What's the 'Isle of Mists'?
>A legend. Or at least, it's supposed to be.
>There's a part of the sea between the Crane coast and the Isles of Spice and Silk that have a thick mist all the time.
>Been that way since forever.
>Easy to get lost in mist that thick; ships get lost in that area all the time.
>Some old sailors would say there's an island in the center of the mists.
>A cursed island, where the mist comes from.
>Mantis-san looked down. Stamped his foot.
>Guess it's real though.
>He looked up.
>Hey! Get back to work you louts! Anyone not working on repairs, get a camp set up!
>And calm down! We know why ships get lost now! They don't know about the rocks, don't see them in the mist, and sink!
>But we've got a navigator AND a water tensai with us! We'll be able to come back alive!
>Think about how many drinks this story will be worth once we get home!
>That put some life back into the sailors, and they sprang to work.
>We all sat around a small fire, discussing our current situation.
>Now, we are currently stuck on an island that is perpetually surrounded by thick mist, which makes navigating the area around it difficult.
>Kitsuki-san waited for Mantis-san's nod before continuing his recap.
>We were attacked by Kenzan, who is a Shugenja, with formal schooling in the Yoritomo school before being made Ronin.
>And he hates Mantis-san with a passion.
>Another nod from Mantis-san.
>A conservative estimate puts us at two days until we can effect repairs.
>After which we will need all the assistance we can get from your navigator and Naomi-sama to clear the rocks surrounding this island due to the thick mist.
>Lastly, Kenzan is still out there somewhere. And also, it would seem, a rather hostile Orochi.
>Have I left anything out?
>The part where this is all the bad luck Monkey's fault.
>C'mon Ishigaki-san, that was one time! ONE time! I'm not a jinx!
>Sounds like something a Jinx would say.
>Ishigaki-san, please. This is hardly the time for our usual banter.
>I shrugged, and decided to let the jinx off the hook.
>For now.
>Naomi spoke up.
>There were a great many water kami swirling around the trident that Kenzan was carrying.
>Others as well, but I am not as skilled at sensing them, so I cannot be sure.
>A Nemuranai, then?
>I believe so.
>Everything has a spirit.
>From the proudest and most ancient mountain to the lowliest mushroom growing on a rotting log.
>For most, those spirits are dormant, passive.
>Items that are very old, that have passed from hand to hand across many generations, that were wielded by great heros or ignoble villains, or that were part of a turning point in history, they could all cause their spirits to awaken.
>These things are called Nermurani. They are all sacred treasures, most belonging to a great family, or even the Clan itself.
>It is a great honor to be given stewardship of a Nemuranai.
>A simple ronin pirate getting his hands on one was nigh unthinkable.
>Naomi, even after we get fixed and going, it's still two more days to the Mantis isles. Will you have enough medicine?
>She checked her pouch.
>Hai, I believe I do Ishigaki-kun.
>Some part of me really wanted to look in that pouch myself and make sure.
>But since her medicine consumption varied depending on good days and bad days, I realized I wouldn't be able to judge it on my own.
>The mist bothered me.
>It made the air thick and damp. Cloying.
>Even I felt a little short of breath.
>Mantis-san spoke up.
>Our provisions will hold up as well.
>He glanced over at the sailors working on the repairs. Then lowered his voice.
>It might have been an issue, but we've got fewer mouths to feed now.
>Naomi looked away. I gave her back a few soft rubs and she, in turn, gave me brave face smile.
>Not for the first time, nor the last, I was torn between my desire to protect my wife from emotional pain, and my desire that her gentle nature never harden.
>Toshiro spoke up.
>Mantis-san, I assume that patch would not fare well in a storm?
>Mantis-san frowned.
>It wouldn't, but I can't see a storm like that coming up on us so fast, given where we are and the time of year.
>And another ship battle?
>...
>No. We would not fare well in one of those at all.
>Kitsuki-san tapped his fan to his lips.
>You think that Kenzan may attack again.
>I think he is here, on this island.
>We all looked up sharply.
>You said it yourself, Mantis-san. He was one of the best navigators you ever worked with.
>Now Naomi says the trident he wields is a Nemuranai.
>A disgraced ronin, a pirate, with an awakened item?
>Consider the fact that we were engulfed in mist just before he attacked us.
>I think the trident controls the mist. Somehow, someway, Kenzan made his way here. He found the trident. Now he uses its power, and the island's reputation, to prey on shipping while eluding even the Mantis navy.
>And even if they DO chase him this far, he must know every safe passage through the rocks.
>No one would be able to root him out of the natural fortress.
>Shit.
>That all made sense.
>I spoke up.
>We should find out where he's hiding here. Take him out now.
>We can use the trident to clear out the mist, won't have to worry about the patch holding up in a fight if we do it now.
>Several of the others nodded in agreement.
>Naomi did not, but she did not object either.
>She simply gave me a look that said "please be careful."
>The Monkey surprised me by being the lone voice of dissent.
>I don't know, this mist is creepy as Jigoku.
>How will we even find our way around this island, or get back?
>It's not like we have a better option. You heard Mantis-san, we'll be at a huge disadvantage in a another ship battle.
>And that's not even counting what might happen if that Orochi shows back up.
>Yeah, that Orochi. What do you think his deal is, anyway? Why was he attacking us?
>You're asking me how an ancient giant snake thinks? How would I know?
>Monkey stood up in a huff. Shoving his katana back into his obi.
>I still don't like this, but if you're all gonna go, I'll go too.
>Not all of us, I said.
>Ishigaki-kun, you don't mean to leave me behind?
>I do. Look, I know you're not going to complain, but I also know you're having a hard time breathing in this shit.
>Because I'M having a hard time breathing in this shit.
>Kitsuki-san, Mantis-san, you should stay too.
>Mantis-san began to protest but I cut him off.
>I know you have old business with Kenzan, but he wants your head too.
>Who would captain the ship if something happened to you?
>There are others in the crew who could, and if we have the trident then I'm certain with Naomi and the navigator they could get through the rocks.
>I looked at him.
>You're certain?
>You're not just saying that because you want a piece of Kenzan?
>Yes.
>I searched his eyes for any hint off falsehood.
>He didn't look away.
>...Okay then.
>But watch your ass, you hear me?
>Yeah, I got it. I'll be fine.
>It was then Kitsuki-san's turn to object.
>Ishigaki-san, while I appreciate the vote of confidence in trusting me to look after your wife, I think my abilities will be of better use looking for Kenzan that sitting here.
>Son of a bitch. He saw right through me.
>I really did want to have at least one person stay behind and keep an eye on her.
>Ishigaki-kun, you should not worry so. I will be quite fine. Just sitting here is not tasking in the least.
>The way she said that made me feel guilty about leaving her behind, even though there wasn't the slightest accusation in her tone.
>Toshiro spoke before I could even look at him.
>If all else fails, I can speak with the earth kami and get a feel for where we are and where we are going.
>So I'm going with you, to make sure we really can all make it back.
>You can really do that? I've never seen you use magic to navigate before.
>Never had to before. But I can.
>Well, that settled it. No way I was leaving the jinx behind with Naomi.
>And I was the front line. the first line of defense for my friends when battle was joined. I would have to go.
>I hated my idea more than Monkey did.
>We set forth boldly heading to our fated showdown with Kenzan.
>5 minutes later.
>So uh, which way should we be going, anyway?
>That depends, how big is this island, anyway?
>I don't know, I can't see shit.
>We're coming up on a bamboo forest guys.
>How can you tell Monkey?
>I ran into some bamboo. I think this mist is getting thicker the further in we go.
>Well shit.
>We all looked at each other.
>Kitsuki-san suggested we start by returning to the beach and walking along it until we got back to our boat.
>We'll figure out how big this island is, and we stand a chance of spotting Kenzan's boat at least.
>And we're very unlikely to get lost.
>Yeah, let's do that.
>You holding up, Toshiro?
>Oh I'm fine. After all, I'm not the one rushing through a mist so thick you can hardly see.
>We all slowed down a bit.
>Hours later.
>I was sweating hard. I kept sinking deep into the loose sand on the beach, there was sand all in the joints and seams of my armor, and the mist was still cloying and oppressive.
>Mantis-san was only wearing the Do from his own suit of armor, and Kitsuki-san wasn't wearing any armor at all.
>FUCKING SHIT.
>Wow that was some impressive cursing from Kitsuki-san.
>He found a rock, half buried in the sand.
>With his foot.
>I knelt down by where he had fallen in the sand, once I got close enough I could see there was blood soaking through his tabi.
>In only a few hours we were exhausted, panting and now injured.
>This island was kicking our asses in ways that bandit lords, Maho-Tsukai and even Oni had not.
>Fuck it.
>Good Idea Kitsuki-san. Let's all take a break.
>Should probably wash that out.
>Kitsuki-san looked at the water rolling in from the beach. Then at Toshiro.
>He chose the salt water.
>The Monkey took long thirsty gulps of water from his gourd, passed it to me.
>Hey, Toshiro-sama.
>How come your face paint never runs no matter how humid it gets or how much you sweat?
>It's kabuki makeup.
>Uh, Okay?
>Kitsuki-san filled in the blanks for Monkey while washing his foot.
>Kabuki makeup is for actors.
>Ah, tshtshtshtsh.
>That salt stings.
>They move around in heavy costume, sometimes on a stage with many lights.
>It is natural they would sweat quite a bit.
>So, OW. So they add compounds to the paint, to keep it from running.
>Oh, okay. Why didn't you just say that to begin with Toshiro-sama?
>I thought you, of all people would know about Kabuki face paint.
>What gave you that idea?
>You are a strange person.
>I can't remember ever seeing you without that makeup on, and you're calling ME strange?
>He wears the paint to be polite, Monkey.
>Monkey looked over at me.
>Yeah, you've said that before. But I wanna know.
>We've known each other for years now.
>C'mon, lemme see your face.
>No.
>C'moooon.
>I spoke up again.
>Let it go, Monkey. Did you sit on a sand bur or something? The hell's gotten into you?
>You guys all think I'm weird.
>Mantis-san clapped Monkey on the shoulder.
>It's not a bad thing. We're all weird, in some way. You've just got a simple honesty about you.
>Monkey glared at us. "You make fun of me all the time and think I don't notice. You know what? I'm just fine. You all sit here on your asses, I'm going to go find Kenzan."
>He bounded off, into the mists before we could stop him.
>...
>...
>... What the fuck just happened?


Act XIV: The Cursed Island[edit]

>We stared at one another, none of us could conceal our shock.
>I stood up.
>We'd better go after him.
>Why bother?
>Stop.
>Turn.
>Stare at Kitsuki-san.
>Let the fool go. He's just going to be a liability like that.
>What if he gets hurt, or lost?
>He can take care of himself, Ishigaki-san. This may surprise you, but you do not have to keep putting yourself in harms way deliberately to protect us.
>I was about to retort when Toshiro caught my eye.
>He gave the barest nod of his head in the direction Monkey ran off.
>I headed off after him.
>Mantis-san started to follow me but I waved him off.
>Keep an eye on those two for me.
>We'll meet back at the ship.
>Alright.
>I took off.
>Toshiro was right, again.
>Something was wrong.
>Monkey was not that temperamental.
>Neither was Kitsuki-san.
>He tried to hide it with some logic, but I could see he was angry with Monkey.
>We all were of course, but we were going to go after him anyway.
>I was beginning to think Mantis-san was a prophet.
>Every time he said something would not be a problem, it turned out to a very big problem.
>I suspected this island really was cursed.
>I pulled out the finger of jade I always wore.
>It wasn't blackening. So there was no taint around for it to absorb.
>Good news there then.
>But it meant something else was going on.
>When the taint begins to warp a person's mind, they themselves never seem to notice.
>If Toshiro and I were right, if this island was cursed and affecting our minds, if Kitsuki-san was already suffering the effects, then he may not even realize what is going on.
>Which meant that figuring out what, exactly, was going on was going to be up to Toshiro, or Naomi.
>Naomi.
>I stopped dead in my tracks.
>She was alone. With a bunch of sailors. On a cursed island which warped the minds of those on it.
>I took a deep breath.
>Double checked to make sure I was going in more or less the right direction
>And ran for the boat as fast as I could.
>Kitsuki-san was right, after all.
>Monkey had more than his fair share of luck.
>Luck can be a skill too.
>Monkey would be fine.
>Naomi, on the other hand, would not harm a fly. I had only ever seen her attack the walking dead and immortal spirits.
>She would not risk killing those Mantis, no matter what.
>It's possible she wouldn't even risk hurting them.
>She needed me far more than Monkey.
>And besides, with her water magic she could track him down easily.
>I was in no way worried about the curse affecting her.
>Though her body was sickly, I knew she could strong willed at times.
>There was just no way my Hana-chan would be anything other than an Honorable, compassionate woman.
>No way.
>Though we had moved slowly because of Toshiro's limp and the difficulty of seeing in the mist, we had still been gone for a long time.
>Hours, I knew. Though I had lost track of time beyond that.
>I ran at the pace I had been trained to, one I knew I could maintain for some time and still be fresh and ready when I got where I was going.
>Still, I worried about how long it would take me to get back.
>I focused on my breathing, quieted my mind, and ran.
>I have no idea how long I ran, but I finally reached the boat.
>And I saw a large circle of water, standing upright. A wall keeping out a large clump of sailors who were hacking ineffectually at it.
>I didn't break my stride.
>Instead I bent low, taking one in the side with my shoulder.
>I straightened as I impacted him, tossing him up over my back.
>Brandishing my tetsubo I roared.
>GET THE HELL BACK! ALL OF YOU! GET BACK!
>Taken off guard by my sudden appearance, they did.
>I took stock of the situation.
>There were a dozen sailors, counting the one I had already hit, menacing Naomi, who I was sure was inside the wall of water behind me.
>I could see the bodies of several more lying on the beach.
>I could see several more poking their heads up from on the boat. Looked like the boat had become a makeshift fortress.
>The sailors recovered their courage quickly enough, and came at me.
>I backed up until my back was almost pressed against the water, keeping them from getting around behind me.
>Their numbers worked against them, with my back covered only five could reach me at once.
>Sure, only five.
>Encouraged by their advantage, the first wave came at me, telegraphing their charge with Kiai.
>I caught two blows on the haft of my tetsubo
>A third was stopped by my armor.
>Two got through
>The first thing to bear in mind when outnumbered is to limit the number of attackers you must face at any one time.
>The second thing to bear in mind is it's better to injure two than to kill one.
>The last is the most difficult. You must never let them see your nervousness. Be confident. Act as though it is YOU who has the upper hand.
>Convince them that to attack you means their own destruction, and you weaken their spirit.
>Weaken their spirit, and you have already won.
>Their reckless audacity allowed them to wound me, now they paid for it.
>I swung my Tetsubo in a wide arc, catching two of them. I took full advantage of my weapon's weight to bowl them both over.
>Even though they both picked themselves back up, that moment when their friends wondered if they were dead was a small wound to their spirit.
>It was now a simple question. Which would give out first? Their bodies, their spirit, or me?
>Again they came, and my world was more a storm of kama, tonfa, and jo.
>A blow to my leg pushed me down to one knee, I felt something pop.
>These sailors were all burly, and could hit hard.
>But I was a Crab, I was the mountain, and I would not be moved.
>I focused myself, remembering a kata I had performed for years at the dojo.
>I forced myself to wait, and respond at the last moment. The movements taught by my sensei would ensure that my own attacks created no gaps in my armor, and my enemies would find it even more difficult to wound me.
>As I rose up from my knee I used the momentum to bring my tetsubo up into the chin of the man who brought me down.
>With a crunch the spikes on my iron club pierced into his bone, and as I followed through his jaw tore free from his face.
>He gurgled piteously, bare chest awash with blood, before falling to the ground dead.
>The two I had injured fell back, clutching their wounds, unwilling to risk a similar fate.
>Three more stepped in, eager for vengeance.
>But my sensei's teachings proved true, as their attacks found nothing by Kaiu steel.
>I swung overhand and slow at one of the fresh ones, as he raised his kama to deflect my blow I changed my weapons course and broke his arm.
>Then pulled my weapon straight back, slamming the pommel into the nose of another, and sending him to the ground in a daze.
>ENOUGH! Get away from him you fools! We can't afford any more losses!
>They picked up their comrade, and began to fall back away from me.
>Glancing between me and the boat.
>Then they ran off into the mist.
>With a sploosh the water fell at last.
>Naomi was in there. Clutching the navigator.
>I knelt down next to them.
>Naomi's hair was a mess, her kimono torn off of one shoulder.
>And very fresh, vivid bruise was on her cheek.
>The navigator was dead, a single wound pierced into their forehead.
>I nodded to myself as I made up my mind.
>Curse or no curse, I was going to kill them all.
>Naomi forestalled the commencement of my rampage by throwing her arms around me in a desperate hug.
>I cradled my wife, her touch cooling my rage from a rolling boil to a gentle simmer.
>The intrusive sound of footsteps approaching threatened to reignite it's flame though.
>Um, Ishigaki-sama?
>It was the carpenter.
>Do, do you have any idea what's going on?
>Some of the others started getting more and more foul tempered, then a fight broke out over I don't even know what.
>When the navigator tried to get the men back under control...
>He looked at the body.
>I was just about to ask the carpenter why he allowed whatever had happened to my wife to happen to her.
>I thought I should at least give him a chance to convince me not to kill him.
>But Naomi spoke first.
>Mantis-san, can you not see that my husband and I are having a moment together?
>Please, go away.
>She smiled sweetly.
>Exactly the way I remember her mother doing when she was furious.
>I tried to push away, to get a better look at her, but Naomi tightened her grip.
>Water is the element of clarity.
>It is also the element of strength.
>Naomi, though she stood all of five feet tall, was a still a water tensai.
>And I found I could not break her grip.
>Well.
>This is embarrassing.
>I didn't know whether the carpenter had seen Naomi do something earlier, or had just known people who smiled like that.
>Either way, he knew to leave us well enough alone.
>He returned to the ship.
>Thank you!
>Still with that smile, still sweet.
>Now then, where were we?
>Oh, yes.
>She began undoing the laces of my armor.
>Naomi? What-
>It has been to long, my husband. I need your warmth, your strength now.
>Everyone has gone mad, it seems.
>I fear we will never leave this place.
>Here? NOW?!
>Why not? We once made love in the snow. Let us do so on the beach as the waves lap at our flesh!
>Naomi could be bold, at times, when we were alone together.
>This was something completely different.
>The curse was affecting her as well.
>So it didn't JUST make you belligerent and prone to violence.
>It also made you pretty damn horny.
>Or at the very least, beholden to your most immediate impulses and desires.
>The result of this was that my wife, seeking comfort after an ordeal, was now trying to rape me.
>My wife. Was Trying. To rape me.
>And with the bond she shared with the water kami making her unimaginably strong, I was not certain I could stop her without hurting her.
>I was glad none of my friends were here to see this as I desperately thought of a way to kill the mood.
>Naomi, they can all see us.
>Hmm?
>She pulled my head to her chest, looking over my shoulder.
>I suppose you have a point, Ishigaki-kun.
>My body is for you and you alone, and yours is only for me.
>Pooh.
>Well, there was one small ray of hope.
>She may have become possessive, jealous and impulsive, but there were parts of Naomi that were unchanged.
>Her insistence of formal language, being unfailingly polite, and-
>Ishigaki-kun! You're hurt! Why did you not say something?
>She quickly set to work on my injuries.
>She was still compassionate as ever.
>Even under attack, she hadn't hurt anyone.
>Just used a spell to keep them at bay.
>You're hurt too Naomi.
>Your cheek.
>She raise a hand up to her face.
>Oh.
>While she healed her own injury I straightened up her kimono.
>Naomi, this island. I think it really is cursed.
>Yes, I had begun to suspect this as well.
>Monkey is missing.
>What?
>He got very angry, and ran off.
>That is very unlike him.
>Good, good. She could see the strangeness in others then, if not herself.
>Which means I could still count on Kitsuki-san figuring out what was going on. Now I just had to hope he could still work with Toshiro to figure all this out.
>I hoped Toshiro was still resisting the effect of the curse.
>Anger a temperamental bushi and you might get your head cut off.
>Anger a temperamental shugenja and you might get your whole village burned down.
>I can't track very well in this mist. Can you use your magic to find him?
>We HAVE to get off this island, as quickly as possible. Daiko and Tetsute need us.
>THAT got her to focus.
>Yes, I can.
>She did so.
>I scooped her up onto my back.
>Just tell me which way to go.
>Ishigaki-kun!
>I cut her off before she could protest further.
>Let me spoil my beautiful wife, please?
>Very well. head that way.
>She pointed.
>I ran carrying her.
>A soft whisper from her sped my legs, lengthened my stride.
>And prayed that my friends weren't getting any worse.
>Guided by Naomi, I raced along the interior of the island, hunting for Monkey.
>She was so small and light, I barely felt her weight on my back.
>I wondered what sort of state Monkey would be in when we found him.
>The curse brought out your baser desires and impulses, it seemed.
>And Naomi, the frail flower clinging to me, was beloved by all of us.
>It wouldn't be much of a stretch, to my mind, for them to try and force themselves on her.
>Well, good thing Naomi was a water tensai.
>I could beat any one of them near to death and she could fix it.
>Besides, Monkey deserved a good thrashing for being so weak as to fall victim to the curse.
>We wouldn't even be in this mess if not for him being a jinx anyway.
>I tripped on some lose rocks, went down to my knees, hard.
>Are you okay, Naomi?
>That'll teach me to not pay attention to what I'm doing.
>Worry about beating the Monkey after I've found him.
>I am unharmed, let me see your knees Ishigaki-kun.
>It's alright Naomi, I'm-
>I shook my head to clear it as my vision tunneled.
>Fine, really.
>Then what was THAT just now?
>I don't know. I guess I may have been awake for a while now? It's easy to lose track of time here.
>It is.
>She produced a scroll, and called forth some mists of her own.
>As I breathed in the vapors I felt refreshed, like I'd had a full nights sleep.
>She sagged against me, wiping a bit of sweat from her brow.
>Naomi?
>I have just used quite a bit of magic today. It is no great concern, I assure you Ishigaki.
>I was seriously going to spank the shit out of that Monkey when I got my hands on him, for doing this to us.
>I chuckled at the thought that he would think I was the one cursed, since you don't notice the changes in yourself, just others.
>I scooped Naomi up and we set off again.
>We found Monkey.
>He was sprawled out, asleep.
>So I woke him up.
>With a good kick to the ribs.
>ISHIGAKI!
>Naomi looked shocked.
>Uwaggha!
>Monkey scrambled to his feet, pulled his wakizashi from his obi.
>ISHIGAKI! What the hell 'r ya doin?
>Monkey looked pissed.
>Waking you up.
>Oh that does it. I am sick of you thinking your so much stronger than all of us!
>I'm taking you down a peg, here and now!
>He put away his wakizashi, and pulled a tanto.
>Monkey surprised me. He knew how to fight dirty.
>He got in close, inside my range. Stamped on my foot to keep me from backing up.
>He grabbed at my Do, trying to pull me off balance and onto his blade.
>Kobo Ichi-Kai, the unarmed martial art of the Crab Clan, prepares its students to deal with grapples.
>It teaches the best way to keep one from grabbing you is to strike them.
>I did as sensei instructed, and slammed my kabuto into Monkey's face.
>He staggered back and fell.
>But it was a trick. One I fell for.
>At the last moment he went down to only one knee, and slashed at the back of my leg with his tanto.
>I felt warm blood flow.
>Then I felt ice cold water splash down on top of me.
>And Monkey.
>WHAT DO YOU TWO THINK YOU ARE DOING?
>I looked at Naomi who was staring aghast at the both of us.
>My blood was still up, the fighting instincts instilled in me roared for retribution.
>I forced the thought down. It was just the curse that made them both do unreasonable things. Monkey was my friend.
>And I would fall on my own sword before I hurt Naomi.
>I glanced at Monkey.
>He was shaking with fury, glaring at me and my wife in turn.
>I prepared to end him if he went after her.
>But he just whined at her instead.
>Naomi, he started it!
>Monkey-san, this Island does have a curse on it!
>What?
>She told him what happened with the Mantis.
>I told him about Kitsuki-san falling prey to it.
>Even Ishigaki-kun is feeling it now! We must find everyone and get off this island, before it's too late!
>Well, I wasn't REALLY under the effects of the curse, but Monkey would think he was the only sane one among us.
>So that little white lie didn't hurt anyone, and it served to dispel the Monkey's anger.
>So I decided not to correct Naomi.
>There would be plenty of time to discipline her later, when we finished what she had started on the beach.
>Monkey eyed me warily.
>Okay, you're gonna use your magic to find the others then?
>But how do we leave quickly? Won't we need a crew, and a boat that doesn't leak?
>Kenzan has both.
>Oh, I see what your getting at.
>Wait, you still think he's on this island? What about the curse?
>We're still able to work together. so it's not making us completely lose our senses, just bringing out bad personality traits.
>At this point, given how the curse worked and how everyone had a short temper, it was just easier to speak of it as though we were all affected.
>I hoped that Toshiro, at least still had his wits about him.
>Hah! I guess that's why Naomi-sama doesn't seem affected. She doesn't have any of those!
>You really are a lucky bastard to get such a fine wife, you know that Ishigaki-san?
>Yeah. And I'd kill anyone that made a move on her. Even without a curse making me more irritable.
>The Mantis sailors still had their sense of self preservation. Let's hope Monkey did too.
>We're going to settle this one day, Ishigaki.
>But getting off the island comes first.
>Agreed.
>I scooped Naomi up and she guided us to the others.
>They are all together right now.
>Thank the fortunes.
>Some are hurt, though.
>Oh great. I braced myself for whatever the hell happened with them.
>When we found them, they were inside a cave.
>Clear on the other side of the Island.
>I locked eyes with Toshiro first. Searching for signs of madness.
>I saw none.
>I cast my eyes quickly at Naomi, letting him know she was feeling it as well.
>He sighed.
>And looked back at the others.
>Kitsuki-san was wrapped in bloody bandages around his side.
>Mantis-san was unconscious.
>We found Kenzan's boat. He was going to rush in blind and alone.
>Monkey whispered quietly.
>I'm sorry Naomi. I didn't really believe you at first, but I played along cuz I didn't wanna die on this island and I can't sail a ship alone.
>But this is just too much. There really is a curse.
>Kitsuki-san coughed.
>Yes, and I think Toshiro and I know what it is.
>He explained as Naomi tended to his wound.
>Look, up there.
>We did. Characters I did not recognize were carved into the wall. They were very faded with age, almost impossible to make out.
>As I looked further down the wall, the characters became sloppier and sloppier, until they were just crude drawings.
>The last picture showed a trident. lines emanating from it, and people with snake like tails, fins and webbed fingers were all around it.
>A great snake coiled protectively around the last picture.
>Wat.
>Have you ever heard of the Ningyo?
>Nope.
>Naomi was the one who answered.
>They were one of the ancient races that ruled the world before the time of man, before the Kami fell.
>A great cataclysm befell their race, and they were driven mad, nearly feral.
>The kami here... they are so sad. The water still remembers, even after all this time.
>Naomi was running her fingers along the carvings, tears streaming down her face openly.
>Water is ever changing, it is adaptable. It has no shape of its own, but takes the shape of its container.
>For the water kami here to still bear this pain...
>Naomi threw herself against me and sobbed openly.
>Her strong bond with the kami of water meant she could sense them quite keenly, sometimes even when she wasn't trying to.
>Sometimes they even clamored for her attention.
>Just as the Kami of water gave her strength so to did they give her clarity, she would say.
>Now the kami of water were sharing a very sad story with her.
>Kitsuki-san picked up where Naomi left off.
>I'm just guessing here but I suspect some of the Ningyo came here.
>Toshiro spoke up.
>My guess is that the Ningyo tried to seal their curse in the trident.
>I don't think it turned out like they'd hoped.
>So if we stay here long enough we're all going to go feral, like the Ningyo?
>Toshiro nodded gravely.
>Alright, so what about that big damn snake? Is that the Orochi?
>Naomi sniffled and nodded.
>Yes, that makes sense.
>The Ningyo made a pact with the Orochi. The king of the Orochi placed a second curse on the Ningyo, to protect them.
>Huh?
>Ningyo are immortal. They will live forever with their madness.
>However, they will not die of old age. They can still be killed.
>And if one consumes the flesh of a Ningyo, one gains their immortality. The curse laid by the king of the Orochi gave dire retribution upon any who would do so.
>How do you know so much about Ningyo, Naomi?
>They are beings of Water, Ishigaki-kun. As a water tensai it is my business to know such things.
>So this Orochi is still protecting this tribe of ningyo?
>Yes, Orochi take their pacts very seriously.
>Alright hang on.
>You're telling me that Kenzan is able to use this trident to call up and dismiss the mist, and the mist is what carries the curse.
>He uses the mist to attack other boats
>Manages to keep group of near feral pirates under control
>And does all this while evading the wrath of a giant pissed off snake?!
>And THIS is the guy the Mantis pissed off?
>I cupped my face in both hands.
>Mantis-san was truly gifted when it came to finding challenges for us all.
>Naomi knelt down by Mantis-san
>I put my hands on his shoulders, just in case he thrashed about when he came to.
>Toshiro and Kitsuki-san went around the corner, out of sight.
>Naomi worked her magic, healing Mantis-san's wounds.
>He did indeed begin to thrash.
>I put my down right in front of his so I was the only thing he could see.
>Oi, Oi! Relax!
>Ishigaki-san?
>I pulled back a bit.
>He glanced down.
>Naomi-sama?
>I am almost done.
>Monkey poked his head into Mantis-san's field of view.
>I'm here too!
>Wonderful.
>Naomi finished healing Mantis-san's wounds, and sagged wearily against me.
>How much more do you even have, Naomi?
>She replied softly.
>One. To get us past the rocks.
>Mantis-san looked back and forth between the three of us.
>What's been going on?
>You know this place really is cursed?
>Yeah, Toshi.
>It's the curse of the Ningyo
>What?
>I cut him off before he could give us his version of events.
>Toshiro and Kitsuki-san were just around the corner waiting for us to reason Mantis-san into a state where they could rejoin us without it starting a massive brawl.
>But if Mantis-san told us his version, which would undoubtedly lay all the blame on them, they would probably come out and start arguing.
>It was going to be quite the challenge for me to keep all these lunatics in check.
>Monkey showed Mantis-san the carvings as Naomi recounted the story.
>Holy shit.
>Yeah, so we're all on edge things can get ugly pretty quickly.
>Monkey piped up.
>Ishigaki and I fought too, like you guys.
>Mantis-san picked his jaw up off the floor.
>Really?
>Yeah. We're gonna finish it, but first we need to get off this damned island.
>Yeah, yeah you're right. I don't want to end up a feral madman wandering this place till I die.
>So we are in agreement then? All grievances are tabled until we're away from this damn mist?
>Mantis-san took deep breath, composed himself and nodded.
>Toshiro and Kitsuki-san took their cue to rejoined us.
>Mantis-san looked at me sharply.
>After.
>I said.
>After
>He agreed.
>Kitsuki-san rubbed at his side
>We do have much to discuss. But, yes. After.
>So our plan was to get off this cursed Island, make it to the Isles of Spice and Silk, and then kill each other.
>Which was still better then killing each other now and going mad alone on this damned rock.
>Kitsuki-san spoke up again
>I would like to know just how Kenzan manages to protect himself and his crew from this curse
>Mantis-san shook his head.
>Pirates don't live very long. Just like bandits, the get killed in fights all the time. Combine that with the dangers of being a sailor and I doubt any of them live long enough to feel it's full effects.
>Toshiro nodded.
>We're proof enough that a common goal can give focus. If we can work together I imagine a pack of water bandits can as well.
>What about Kenzan himself?
>I said it before, but I'll graciously repeat myself for the sake of Mantis-san, since he was resting.
>It's just a guess, but I think the Ningyo that came to this island tried to seal up their curse into the trident. It didn't quite work the way they intended, which is why the mist comes from the trident and carries the curse.
>Perhaps then, it did work somewhat.
>And the one who bears the trident IS protected from it.
>Monkey spoke up.
>Wait, hold on.
>I thought the trident summoned the mist?
>So couldn't Kenzan just dispel it to keep himself and his crew safe.
>Kitsuki-san took over at this point.
>This island has been shrouded in mist for as long as any human can remember. last time I checked, Orochi do not have hands, so it could not wield the trident.
>So I suspect the mist leaks out from the trident constantly.
>I nodded along. We were making assumptions, but so far it was plausible.
>The trident's wielder was protected from the curse, and could suppress the mist, at least temporarily.
>Monkey scratched his head.
>So what does he do when he's asleep?
>I mean, a bunch of bloodthirsty temperamental pirates? Wouldn't one just shank him and take the trident for themselves?
>I looked around, just to make sure I wasn't the only one taken aback every time Monkey says something insightful.
>I was not. Kitsuki-san in particular, was taking it hard that Monkey noticed something he had overlooked.
>I wasn't very good at reading people, but I was fairly certain Kitsuki-san was considering which one of us he should ask to be his second.
>It was Naomi who answered Monkey.
>He must hide it someplace after they reach the island.
>So long as he goes on raids frequently, he would be able to stave of the curse without clinging to the trident all the time.
>It was quite the tightrope to be walking. But Nemuranai that bear curses are like that.
>So, if he doesn't have the trident now, we could use the mist to ambush him?
>Yeah.
>Um. Mantis-san.
>Naomi is almost spent.
>I heard.
>And the curse got into the other Mantis'.
>I had not heard that.
>There's been a lot to talk about.
>There has. Go on then. How bad is it?
>The crew turned on each other, and the Navigator is dead.
>...
>GOD DAMN IT!
>He grabbed the front of my armor.
>Why the hell didn't you say so sooner?!
>I brought my hands up between his, broke his grip.
>THIS is why!
>We stood there glaring at each other, waiting for the other to make a move.
>Naomi took my hand.
>Kitsuki-san spoke.
>So, will we need to find the trident in order to suppress the mist, so that you can navigate clear of the rocks, Mantis-san.
>He broke eye contact first. My win then.
>Yeah, Yeah we will. Kenzan would know all the safe ways through, but he'd keep that in his head.
>He's like you Kitsuki-san. Never forgets a damn thing.
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>So then, beat him up and get him to tell us where it is?
>I felt a dampness on my foot.
>I looked down. There was water under me.
>There hadn't been, before.
>And I had not moved.
>I looked out of the mouth of the cave we were in.
>The beach outside was rapidly vanishing, being swallowed up by the sea.
>Hey! I think we need to get out of here.
>The others looked outside when I pointed.
>Oh shit, this cave must be underwater at high tide!
>We all looked at each other.
>The carvings.
>Well, now we know where the damn trident is.
>We'd been sitting on top of it this whole time
>We scrambled to get out above the tide.
>Naomi refused to allow me to carry her.
>Get Toshiro-san, Ishigaki-kun. His leg. We need him to help deliver our babies.
>I was elated that Naomi wanted more children.
>I was disturbed she needed such a cold reason to want me to help Toshiro.
>C'mon gimpy, up you go.
>He climbed on my back.
>Then smacked me in the back with his tetsubo, as though I were a horse.
>So even Toshiro had succumbed. I really was the only sane one left.
>I made a note to beat him later for that. But not too severely. Naomi was right, we needed him.
>Not just for our future children, but for her medicine as well.
>We ran trying to race the tide.
>It is not an easy thing to do.
>The water was well up to my knees at one point.
>I worried for Naomi, but I did not need to.
>She was ahead of me, proving yet again that water was her element.
>Kitsuki-san floundered, however.
>Mantis-san snagged him, pulling him along.
>I heard Mantis-san tell Kitsuki-san: You owe me one now.
>Of course Mantis-san would think to pursue his grudge by placing Kitsuki-san in his debt.
>We managed to avoid being overtaken completely by the tide.
>Wet and tired we flopped down.
>Hey.
>Where the hell is Monkey?

Act XV: The Trident[edit]

>We looked all around.
>No Monkeys of any shape or size were to be found.
>I looked back out over the sea.
>Between the newly risen tide and the mist I couldn't even guess at where the cave was now.
>Monkey was insane.
>Even before we got to this island.
>Toku bushi had a reputation for taking on more than common sense dictates, in the spirit of their Clan founder.
>But Monkey took it even further than most.
>You don't think...
>Toshiro finished my thought.
>That damn Monkey dove back into a cave filling with water, without knowing how far he would have to swim, in order to get the trident?
>Of course that's what he did.
>So.
>So.
>What now?
>We take Kenzan's ship.
>Naomi asked.
>What about Monkey-san?
>Mantis-san replied.
>What ABOUT Monkey-san?
>Either he retrieves the trident or he's drowned.
>Little we can do at this point, either way.
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>We'll just have to come back at low tide to get it ourselves...
>He pointed. Kenzan's ship is straight that way.
>The water is shallow there, so the Orochi cannot attack them while they're anchored there.
>What's up with that snake anyway? Why doesn't it just wait around for them to leave the shallows?
>Naomi answered Mantis-san's question.
>The Ningyo tribe that brought the trident still lives here.
>And he still protects them.
>His only wish is for everyone to simply stay away from this place, so he leaves Kenzan an opening to do so.
>It's only because Kenzan takes the trident that the Orochi peruses.
>The water kami told you that, back in the cave?
>Not... exactly like that.
>The kami still remember the grief of the Orochi and the Ningyo, I saw their past
>Toshiro-san is right, the Ningyo did try to transfer the curse into the trident. Ultimately, it failed. They still went mad.
>The Orochi was genuinely friends with the tribes leader.
>It's no pact that keeps him here.
>He is looking after the beloved tribe of a dear friend who can no longer remember him.
>So that means when we go to leave, and use the trident to clear out the mist so we can get past the rocks, we'll have to deal with him too?
>Yes, but I'm sure if we just give him the trident he'll let us go.
>Okay then. Let's go get our new boat.
>Mantis-san looked over at me.
>We'll have to swim there.
>Hida Bushi train wearing full armor.
>In fact, our first lessons are constant drilling with the equipment we will use for the rest of our lives.
>As such, know how to use heavier weapons in ways other samurai never will, and we become so used to the weight and bulk of our armor it no longer hampers us.
>It is still difficult to be silent when you're wearing 50 lbs of lacquered metal.
>Which would be even heavier when waterlogged.
>I sighed.
>Naomi, give me a hand here?
>Naomi helped me out of my armor.
>Looks like I was going to have to fight in my fundoshi.
>We were going to be down a bushi, and Naomi had used up nearly all her magic.
>Toshiro, can you swim with that leg?
>Pretty sure. Yeah.
>Gonna try anyway.
>I kissed Naomi on the forehead.
>Wait for me, I'll be back for you. I promise.
>She looked me up and down.
>Slowly.
>I will be waiting.
>She smiled at me.
>There was a promise in that smile.
>We went to the edge of the water and began to swim.
>Toshiro struggled a bit, but he kept up with us.
>We neared the boat, the mist and the the current making waves lap at it's sides conspiring to aid us in our approach.
>The sea had washed Toshiro's face paint off.
>So he motioned that he wished to go first.
>I held on the rope of the ships anchor as he climbed up.
>I went after, then Mantis-san.
>Kitsuki-san brought up the rear.
>Toshiro slopped wetly onto the deck.
>A pirate turned to see what that was,
>And saw a waterlogged monster with a ruined face wielding a tetsubo come out of the mist, hellbent on consuming his very soul.
>Toshiro gave him enough time to scream before smashing him in the face, cutting it off with a loud crunch.
>The noise brought more pirates to investigate.
>They saw their comrades body, twitching and bleeding on the deck, sans face.
>They saw the creature that had killed him.
>And then, while their minds were still reeling with shock, only just turning to fear, a hulking wall of muscle wearing only a loincloth slammed into their ranks.
>We may have been badly outnumbered, but we had struck a decisive blow against their spirit before they even knew they were in a fight.
>They fell back away from me in terror, shocked into inaction.
>Mantis-san and Kitsuki-san charged in, harrying them, giving them no time to breathe much less think.
>The decks ran red with blood, and I thrilled at the heat of battle being upon me.
>Mantis-san let out a cry of triumph.
>Even Kitsuki-san was laughing.
>Toshiro had left his scroll satchel behind, unwilling to even risk it's precious contents being damaged or destroyed during our swim.
>But he waded in right alongside us, swinging his tetsubo with abandon.
>And then the mist parted.
>Kenzan appeared on the deck.
>He did not have the trident.
>What are you idiots DOING?!
>It's just four of them! Get up, get in there!
>He restored order to them, gave them back their spirit.
>Ordinarily, this is when I would seek to cover myself, to fight with caution.
>Allowing my enemies to exhaust themselves and strike when they were weak.
>Instead I chose to double down and try to maintain our momentum.
>I lashed out, killing one and sending another over the side.
>My friends followed suit, cutting and smashing any they could reach.
>At first, it seemed we may keep our momentum after all.
>But then the pirates finally countered.
>Stars exploded in my eyes as a tonfa smashed into my temple.
>A kama sliced open my side.
>My vision cleared just enough to see the others all receive wounds of their own.
>I smashed in the kneecap of one pirate menacing Mantis-san, clearing him a path to Kenzan.
>GO! Finish him!
>Mantis-san ran at Kenzan, threw himself into a dive and rolled through Kenzan's legs.
>As Kenzan tried to rise, Mantis-san struck him with his kama, biting deep into Kenzan's shoulder.
>Kitsuki-san, despite his wounds, threw himself at another pirate.
>He landed on the pirates tanto.
>But took the pirates head.
>Three others surrounded Toshiro and attacked, wounding him heavily.
>He sagged to his knees, tetsubo clattering to the deck.
>I lunged in, felling one.
>I missed the other.
>Only to be stabbed in the back.
>Several more pirates were advancing to help their leader, ready to kill Mantis-san.
>I realized that some of them still wore green.
>The ones who had tried to attack Naomi, and had run off.
>So they had joined Kenzan's crew?
>I struck one in the back.
>And then a jo slammed across the backs of my knees, and I went down, kneeling.
>A blade followed up, the point driven into my chest, and I toppled over, unable to stand.
>The pirates loomed over me, raised weapons to finish me off.
>And then a cry arose.
>I could just crane my neck enough to see.
>Kenzan's body hit the deck.
>And then his head did.
>It rolled off somewhere.
>Ah shit.
>We're gonna need go find that fuckers head.
>Can't have that damn thing just rolling around wherever it pleases.
>What if naomi sees it.
>Something was odd with my thoughts, but I couldn't tell what.
>My head was cloudy, I couldn't focus at all.
>I rolled onto my back, arms outstretched, and looked up at the blue sky.
>There was still a pirate standing over me.
>Sunlight glinted off his upraised kama.
>A trident stabbed him in the chest.
>He clutched at the haft as the wielder ran past, carrying him over the side of boat.
>I thought the man with the trident looked familiar, but it was hard to see.
>I was tired.
>So I closed my eyes.
>Many times in stories when Samurai are near death, they speak of seeing their ancestors.
>Often, they receive some bit of wisdom before being told to go back.
>Other times the Samurai realizes what is happening, and states they have some task they must complete first.
>Neither of these things happened to me.
>Or, if they did, I do not remember them.
>I do not know if I am disappointed that nothing happened, or relieved that I avoided such a cliche.
>It matters very little.
>I awoke to Naomi's tear streaked face.
>Thank the fortunes! Ishigaki-kun!
>She hugged me fiercely, but without the spine shattering strength from before.
>The next thing I noticed was there was no mist.
>I then realized that, while you would not question your actions while under the curse, you would see them for what they were once you were no longer being influenced.
>...
>We were going to end spending the next month and a half apologizing to one another.
>Naomi, ever sensitive to my thoughts and emotions, flushed red as she realized I was remembering what we did on that island.
>I had never seen her blush so deeply before.
>She looked like nothing so much as... well... a boiled crab.
>The rocking sensation, and the sound of lapping water, told me we were on a ship.
>Toshiro's face, freshly painted came into view.
>He had a tightness in the set of his jaw that let me know we were not out of the woods just yet.
>You done patching him up yet, Naomi?
>Good.
>The Monkey's voice sounded very strange.
>Toshiro whispered to me.
>We really should have known better than to fuck around with a cursed Nemuranai.
>C'mon Ishigaki.
>Get up.
>I did so.
>Monkey was sitting there on the deck.
>The trident was slung over his shoulder.
>Around me sailors, some the pirates, others the survivors of the Mantis crew, went about the work of the ship, and tried very hard not to look at any of this.
>We're clear of the rocks, Ishigaki.
>He stared into my eyes.
>It's after.
>He kicked my tetsubo across the deck to me.
>I glanced down at Toshiro.
>He was bandaged heavily.
>Naomi had just used up her last spell healing me, unless I had been out for a very long time.
>Mantis-san? Kitsuki-san?
>Don't worry about them Ishigaki. They're not dead or anything.
>Just too messed up to move.
>Looks like you guys really needed me to save your sorry asses.
>Toshiro spoke up.
>The curse, Ishigaki-san. We were a little mad with bloodlust, fought recklessly.
>I nodded.
>Yeah, you keep talking about the damn curse, but you guys were treating me like shit long before we ever got here.
>It's the trident, Ishigaki-san. Get it away from him.
>Got it.
>Whisper all you want, it's not going to save you Ishigaki.
>Monkey hopped up, twirling the trident.
>You know, your lucky I'm such an honorable guy.
>I could have killed you while you were out.
>I stared at Monkey.
>It's not honor. You just need to know the truth.
>He chuckled.
>Yeah. You're right. I do.
>He lunged.
>I twisted to the side, pushing his thrusts past me with my tetsubo.
>You really are an annoying little shit, you know that Monkey?
>And you're bad luck.
>So, quite frankly, I think you should be grateful we keep you around at all.
>I didn't mean any of that, of course. I was free of the curse now.
>But I wanted to goad Monkey, make him angry. Angry, reckless and stupid.
>I was only going to get one chance.
>Of course, in the grip of the curse as he was, Monkey walked right into my bait.
>He hadn't taken complete leave of his senses though.
>He tried to rile me up right back
>Once I kill you I'm taking Naomi for my own!
>Well.
>Maybe he had taken complete leave of his senses.
>I bit down on my anger.
>Monkey was not himself.
>I prepared myself.
>He thrust the trident straight for my heart with all his might.
>I pushed it down just enough that it missed my lungs.
>Grabbed his lead wrist.
>And slammed the pommel of my tetsubo into the bridge of his nose, breaking it.
>He lost his balance, falling to the deck.
>And released his grip on the trident.
>Toshiro and several sailors jumped on him, pinning him to the deck.
>I moved to kick the accursed trident over the side, but Naomi shouted to forestall me.
>Ishigaki-kun, stop!
>We must give it back to the Orochi when he comes for it!
>I nodded.
>Fine. Nobody touch that damn thing till the snake gets here.
>I placed a full barrel of fresh water on top of the trident to keep it from sliding off the deck.
>Shouldn't the mist be seeping from this thing now that no one is holding it?
>Toshiro came over.
>I glanced back. Two sailors were still holding Monkey's arms, but he was not struggling at all.
>"Give me a moment," Toshiro said.
>He knelt next to the trident, and began to pray.
>What's he doing Naomi?
>Asking the Kami for their favor.
>I can see that.
>No, you do not understand.
>All magic is the work of the Kami.
>We use scrolls to help us focus our minds properly, and because the prayer so transcribed is pleasing to the Kami whose favor we seek.
>It is possible to recite the prayer from memory, to get the motions, and even your emotional state just right, so that you do not need a scroll.
>It is also possible to simply entreat the Kami directly for intervention you do not know how to properly ask for.
>I am exhausted, but there is a very simple water spell that will reveal the properties of a Nemuranai.
>Toshiro knows it possible for the kami to do this, but he does not know the proper way to ask. So he is entreating them in a less formal way.
>It takes much longer, this way.
>That's why we rely on our scrolls.
>Uh. Okay.
>I understood maybe one word in three of that.
>Magic was something I would never truly grasp, as I could not hear the kami as Naomi and Toshiro could.
>I think she just said it's possible for a shugenja to cast a spell they didn't know, by asking really nicely for a long time.
>I think.
>Naomi dressed my wound as she wasted her breath trying to explain the finer points of shugenjaing to me.
>I didn't stop her, because I was so glad to hear her speaking normally again.
>When she finished, I laid back, putting my head to rest in her lap.
>The full weight of the ordeal that was the isle of mists came down upon me.
>Seeing my friends turned into something they were not.
>My wife.
>My own thoughts and actions disgusted me.
>And worst of all was the way I did not even think to question them at the time.
>How far did the curse change a person?
>Did it make you into something you simply were not?
>Or did it only bring to the surface what was truly inside you?
>I didn't want to know, not about myself, or the others.
>But I couldn't stop turning it over in my mind.
>I suspected the others were the same.
>Or would be, when they woke up.
>A sob broke the silence.
>It wasn't Naomi.
>I looked over.
>Monkey jerked his arms free of the sailors holding him.
>He looked at us, tears in his eyes.
>I'm sorry!
>Ishigaki-san! I tried to kill you! Twice!
>Naomi-sama, Toshiro-sama!
>He yanked off his Do.
>Oh shit Monkey what are you doing.
>I got up.
>He pulled out his wakizashi.
>Monkey.
>STOP.
>Naomi yelled it before I could finish thinking it.
>And with such force everyone on deck came to an abrupt halt.
>I recovered first, ran over and slapped the blade from Monkey's hands.
>Then I hugged him.
>Just forget it Monkey.
>But, but I...
>We all did Monkey.
>Ishigaki-kun is right. We all did terrible things on that island. No one is to blame for any of it.
>You will NOT take your own life over it, do you understand me?
>Monkey nodded, wide eyed at the vehemence in Naomi's voice.
>Besides Monkey, if you did that then we would all have to.
>You'd be killing us all, you really want that?
>N-no. I don't.
>Okay then.
>Okay.
>...
>Um.
>Ishigaki-san?
>You can stop hugging me now.
>I let go of Monkey, more than a little embarrassed.
>Naomi tittered behind her sleeve.
>After some time Toshiro finished his chat with the Kami.
>He stood up, and came over to us.
>The trident was a Nemuranai before they tried to seal the curse inside it.
>Originally, when placed upon it's altar, it would cause mist to seep out over a wide area, concealing it.
>When held, it's wielder could summon a much smaller area of mist around themselves.
>Ah. And then the curse became rooted in the mist?
>Yes, Naomi-san. It's just as you say.
>It was then that the Orochi finally made its presence known.
>It came up, hissing furiously.
>OI! Hold on a minute!
>I waved my arms at it, Monkey did likewise
>To my relief, it stopped hissing. Closed its mouth. And stared at us.
>Kenzan, the guy who took the trident, is dead!
>We just want to get away from the curse!
>So here, have it back!
>It leaned in, opened it's maw.
>With a quick kick Monkey sent the trident into the thing's mouth.
>It closed its mouth on the trident, holding it.
>And then vanished beneath the waves without a word.
>Monkey looked over at me.
>Not very talkative, was he?
>What, you were hoping to have some polite teatime conversation with a giant snake?
>Yeah, actually.
>I mean, he's lived forever!
>Before men walked in Ningen-do!
>He must know a lot, must have seen a lot!
>Monkey.
>Huh?
>He's been protecting a tribe of crazed Ningyo all this time. All he knows about is fish, more fish, and what crazy fish people do with their free time.
>Oh. Yeah, I suppose you're right.
>While I wanted to rest, I could not. There were not enough surviving Mantis to crew the boat, so we had no choice but to use pirates as well.
>Several of us were on guard at all times, to keep them from getting any funny ideas.
>Toshiro promised them that since he was a Jade, and not Emerald magistrate, he would blame their crimes entirely on the mist and let them go once we reached port.
>Toshiro was a filthy liar.
>These men and been in and out of the mist several times.
>They needed no curse to make them bloodthirsty criminals.
>We reached the Isles of Spice and Silk in two days, as predicted.
>Everyone was fully recovered from their psychical injuries and fatigue, thanks to Naomi.
>The mental injuries would take longer to heal.
>In the end, we did a tea ceremony together and agreed that we would simply never speak of the things that happened on that island again.
>Unlike Toshiro, I am not a filthy liar.
>I never said I wouldn't write about them.
>Not like I expect anyone would ever read these journals anyway.
>I'm getting sidetracked.
>While we were handling all the matters of docking, Monkey slipped quietly away and got the magistrate.
>And several dozen well armed Yoriki.
>So while the pirates cried and protested and insulted Toshiro, there was little they could do but be carted off.
>A drowning man will grab anything to try and save himself, even if he knows his weight will pull it down with him.
>These pirates were no different. Given the choice between immediate death at the hands of the Yoriki, or death via execution that was at some point in the future, they chose to live just a little bit longer.
>We got a chance to meet Mantis-san's wife.
>She greeted her husband traditionally, dogeza and asking whether he wished for dinner or a bath first.
>We chose bath.
>The time at sea, and the island, had given us little time to clean properly, and we all stank to Tengoku.
>Mantis-san's house was quite large, and had two baths, so Naomi and Tatsuki got cleaned up at the same time we did.
>Tatsuki was a clever girl.
>She hid in an empty barrel inside the ship as soon as she saw people getting weird.
>So.
>Mantis-san.
>He poured a bucket of water over his head, washing all the soap off.
>Yeah?
>How do you think your wife is going to take to Tatsuki?
>The same way she takes to our baby making sessions. Cold indifference.
>I told you before, we have a normal marriage.
>She runs the house, managing my stipend and business.
>When I come home sometimes we fuck, sometimes we don't.
>But it's only for children.
>We don't love each other.
>But we do both love our kids.
>Monkey was soaking, a cloth over his eyes.
>Without moving he asked Mantis-san how many children he had.
>Two so far.
>Boys. Ichiro and Nichi.
>He got in to soak beside us.
>I know, not very original.
>But they're going to choose their own names when they complete their Gempukku anyway.
>Mantis-san was right. Children's names were often bland. Adding in numbers relating to their birth order was a common thing.
>For precisely the reason he said so. A person chooses their adult name upon completing their Gempukku.
>And takes a new name upon retiring.
>Some even receive a fourth name upon their death.
>Needless to say, keeping track of who is who in official records can be a challenge.
>I shook my head. Mantis-san was telling the truth when he said his marriage was normal.
>But I couldn't fathom it.
>Not making love to someone you had no feelings for, nor arranging a marriage that would put your own children in such a position.
>Then again, I was a Crab. It was the custom of our Clan to allow Samurai to choose their own spouses.
>You had until 25, then a spouse would be found for you.
>We did it this way because we were in a never ending war.
>Our clan suffered losses almost daily.
>And a couple in love would make love more often than a couple that could not stand one another.
>Which meant more babies.
>Which meant more Crabs to replace the ones who fall.
>I wondered if I was no better than those who condemned their children to a loveless marriage.
>After all, I was condemning mine to life on the Wall.
>Damn that island.
>I got out and dried myself off.
>I was far too introspective for my own good at the moment.
>Judging by the silence in the bath behind me, we all were.
>An evening of drinking was in order.
>Gloomy thoughts would intrude on even the most stalwart veteran after a long time standing a post on the Wall.
>It's why Crabs were so rowdy once off duty. Chasing those dark thoughts away to keep hold of your sanity.
>Toshiro joined me as I finished dressing.
>Looked at me.
>Nodded in agreement.
>We came out and a servant lead us to a room.
>Mantis-san's wife was there talking with Naomi.
>Tatsuki was pouring tea for them and fidgeting.
>Ishigaki-kun! Kaori-san was just asking about you.
>Oh?
>She sipped her tea.
>My husband's letters are terse, I fear.
>He has told me precious little about you all.
>In his defense, there isn't much to tell about me at all.
>I'm just a simple Crab, killing oni where I find them.
>She smiled.
>Such work is hardly simple though.
>True. But it's also not a topic for polite discussion.
>Also true.
>She nodded, and turned to Toshiro.
>He had already reaplied his face paint.
>You must be Kuni Toshiro-sama.
>May I ask why you paint your face?
>I know it is a custom of your family, but I thought it war paint?
>For many it is. Others will wear it when going about official duties or in public for one reason or another.
>It is a personal choice, just as the pattern of the paint is.
>I see. That is very interesting.
>What is your reason then?
>My leg is not the only thing wounded in battle with the Shadowlands.
>Oh. I see. Forgive me for prying.
>Toshiro waved the apology away.
>It is fine. Everyone is curious about it when we first meet.
>Well.
>This sure is an exciting conversation.
>I was relieved when the others came in.
>You received my letter, Husband?
>I did.
>Kenzan has taken to targeting our ships, personally.
>I know because he sent one sailor back alive to tell me.
>Mantis-san nodded.
>Kenzan has already been dealt with.
>She looked shocked, then quickly hid it behind a sip of tea.
>Mantis-san continued.
>It was pure chance, but he attacked the very ship we were coming here on.
>How unfortunate for him.
>She smiled again.
>Is the damage to our business severe?
>We lost three ships, crew and cargo all.
>But I believe we can recover.
>Though we will have to be tight with the purse strings for a time.
>No frivolous expenses.
>Kaori-san didn't look at Tatsuki, but Tatsuki squirmed all the same.
>Mantis-san sighed.
>You've already guessed then?
>Kaori-san sipped her tea.
>He produced Tatsuki's contract.
>His wife's eyes widened again as she looked at it.
>How did you get this? I haven't given you nearly enough money to buy a Geisha's contract!
>I got a great price from the Bog Hag that owned it previously to have it.
>The one-two combination of shocks was enough to finally shake Kaori-san's face.
>She stared at Mantis-san.
>Opened her mouth. Then closed it, unable to find words.
>This repeated several times.
>There was a bog hag wearing the skin of the madame of a Geisha house.
>It had a coven, and several of the Geisha were also Hags.
>No, Kaori, Tatsuki here knew nothing about it. She was a victim of the hags as well.
>And no, she is not tainted.
>Mantis-san gestured towards Toshiro and me.
>I promised I would keep no secrets from you. But Tatsuki is perfectly safe.
>And I will keep her.
>Kaori-san managed to regain her composure.
>Looked at Tatsuki.
>Very well then.
>Stop squirming so. Did you not learn proper manners during your training?
>I... I was still in training when Mantis-sama acquired my contract.
>Kaori narrowed her eyes.
>Sighed.
>Very well.
>I suppose I can teach you what you need to know if you're going to be part of this household now.
>With that last bit of business out of the way I elbowed Mantis-san.
>You must know where there is a good place to get some drinks around here.
>I do.
>Well let's go then.
>Mantis-san, Kitsuki-san, Monkey, Toshiro and I all went out for the evening.
>We got blind stinking drunk.
>And we lurched back to Mantis-san's house singing at the top of our lungs.
>We were all singing a different song.
>I sounded like a dying frog.

Act XVI: Unexpected Visits[edit]

>Naomi, Toshiro and I returned to my home in the Crab lands.
>Toshiro only stayed for a day, saying he needed to see his Sensei as well.
>"Plus, the goblin is probably dead."
>"I'll need to get a new one."
>Naomi could not cover her surprise.
>"Goblin? What goblin?"
>"I keep a goblin in a cage at my home. I poke it with a stick at times."
>"For research."
>He waved and began thumpdraggin his way home.
>"He... he was joking wasn't he Ishigaki?"
>"Probably."
>"Oh goo... Probably?!"
>I grinned at her.
>"Oh! YOU!"
>She gave my shoulder a light punch.
>"Papa! Play!"
>Daiko wasn't quite up to full sentences yet, but she did understand verbs as well as nouns now.
>Tetsute was close behind her. His babbling was sounding more and more like real words every day.
>So I decided I would take a few days to enjoy my family, see if I could catch Tetsute's first words before heading off to see sensei.
>So I roughhoused with my children.
>Somewhere along the way, Tetsute had added biting into his arsenal.
>I was still lenient, allowing them victories over me when they did well.
>There would be time enough for stern instruction later on.
>For now I wanted to hear their triumphant laughter, see their smiles as they toppled me.
>I did have to scold them a bit when they tried to play with Naomi the same way, though.
>But they both understood.
>Naomi played word games with them instead. Naming body parts and then tickling them was one of their favorites.
>Daiko returned the favor to her mother.
>"Foot!"
>Naomi toppled over in peals of laughter, which became mock cries for help from me when Tetsute clumsily joined in on her other foot.
>Then he bit her toe.
>"OH! You little RASCAL!"
>Naomi scooped Tetsute up and hugged him into submission.
>Then it was more roughhousing with dad until they finally wore themselves out.
>I just laid there on the floor.
>They had fallen asleep on top of me, and I didn't have the heart to risk waking them.
>I overheard our nanny asking Naomi if it would be possible to hire a few more servants.
>Given the terror twins' almost boundless energy, I could see why she wanted that.
>Naomi, to my surprise, assented.
>I didn't think our stipends were sufficient to do so.
>Some of the herbs in her medicine were a bit expensive.
>And stipends were paid out yearly. Once gone, it was gone.
>I asked her about it that evening, when we were all bathing together.
>Oh, you overheard?
>Yeah.
>Tetsute squirmed in my hands as Naomi washed his hair.
>Daiko was splashing away in the tub, waiting for the rest of us.
>About that, I was not going to say anything until I was certain about things, but...
>I have been exchanging correspondence with both Mantis-san and Monkey's wives for a while now.
>They have both been doing well in their business, and since we need more servants to keep up the house, keep up with the children...
>And a few Ji-samurai, or at least Ashigaru couldn't hurt, all things considered.
>Yes Ishigaki-kun, you are right about that as well.
>So. They have been advising me on ways I might afford all this on our stipend.
>Oh really?
>Hai. I am going to attempt to rebuild Ishigaki Mura.
>My eyebrows jumped up. So far up they almost punched a hole in the ceiling.
>I thought at first, a sake works would be in order. Crab sake is renowned thought the empire, and Kaori-san assures me she knows several places it will sell quite well.
>But where are you planning on getting the workers, the master?
>The Yasuki who procures the herbs for my medicine said he could arrange that.
>I blinked. While I wasn't looking, my wife had been studying the fine points of becoming a merchant patron.
>We rinsed Tetsute off and got in the bath.
>Is there anything I can do to help out?
>Yes. Continue to refine your technique. Be the wall that guards this family, and always come home, my love.
>My heart melted.
>Daiko splashed us both and giggled.
>I splashed back.
>Then Naomi cheated and dumped the whole bath on the lot of us.
>Never get into a splash fight with a water tensai.
>In the morning I set off, making my way to the Dojo.
>I entered and saw Kojiro-sensei immediately.
>He was practicing basic overhead strikes.
>But he was doing so with a truly massive Kanabo.
>Rather than a single piece of Iron, a Kanabo is mostly wood with metal studs.
>I guessed the one he was swinging must weigh something like 20 lbs.
>It was too large to be used as a real weapon.
>But the strain showing in his muscles left no doubt as to its effectiveness as a training tool.
>I knelt before my sensei and waited for him to finish his training.
>Half an hour later, he returned to a neutral stance, put up his Kanabo and spoke.
>I was wondering how long you were planning on keeping me waiting.
>He stretched and shook out his joints.
>Then tossed me a tetsubo.
>We fought again.
>Sensei fought differently this time.
>He was never were I thought he would be, he defied my every expectation.
>Of course. Sensei knew exactly how I had been trained to fight. He was a graduate of Sunda Mizu, just as I was. He was a teacher to those who would become the elite of our clan.
>He knew exactly what I would do in battle.
>Now he was turning my own training against me.
>I tried to adapt, but reflexes so deeply ingrained for so long were not so easily altered.
>In the end, all I could do was endure as best as possible.
>Given sensei's strength, that wasn't very long at all.
>Yosh. You did well, Ishigaki-san.
>Did I?
>I dragged myself back to my feet.
>You saw the point of my lesson right away.
>Not many catch on that quickly.
>He gave me an appraising stare for a time.
>Nodded.
>You are ready.
>You will sometimes face enemies that know your style well, or who you are ill suited to defeat.
>And as you have just learned, it is difficult to change one's style in the middle of battle.
>At these times, you must endure.
>I nodded along with sensei.
>He was not telling me anything I did not know before today, but one must respect the words of sensei.
>He would come to a point eventually.
>You have already learned when to conserve your strength, and when to unleash your fury.
>Now you have seen the limits of your endurance.
>I will teach you to break through those limits.
>Sensei's instruction built upon the earlier lessons.
>First, the Hida bushi learns to take a crushing blow and pass it's force through them and into the earth.
>Then, the Defender of the Wall learns to attack the taint in a foe with the purity of their own earth when they are struck.
>My next lesson would be to disrupt any attacker, by lashing out with my earth even as I passed the attack through me.
>By combining active and passive defense, sensei said, I would make my body harder than any suit of armor.
>Once again, this was a far more spiritual technique.
>And once again, the only way to master it would be getting beaten night and day until I got it right.
>I took a breath and resolved myself to accept this pain.
>Enduring these harsh lessons now would help me to keep my promise to my wife and children.
>We began.
>Sense used his training kanabo.
>He did not stop until I could no longer stand.
>A Kuni made sure I was fresh and ready each morning, and evening.
>I now understood fully this dojo's motto.
>The Shadowlands is not Hell.
>After a month, Sensei declared I was doing it right.
>We fought one more time.
>I did not win, but I was able to push through one of his attacks to land a hit of my own.
>He nodded in satisfaction.
>Continue training, Ishigaki-san.
>I have high hopes for you.
>Hai, sensei!
>I returned home, with a few new scars.
>And found my Mother-in-law had come for a visit.
>My first clue that there was something horribly wrong in my house was the child I didn't recognize, wearing a red kimono, playing with my children out front.
>He recognized me though.
>ONII-SAN!
>I didn't have a little brother who would wear red.
>Ah. This must be Ashitaka, Naomi's little brother.
>I wondered how many people I didn't want in my house were in my house right now.
>Just one,it turned out.
>I opened the front door perhaps a bit too forcefully and announced my return.
>Nanny came to greet me, and told me where Naomi was having tea with her mother.
>Just her and the boy?
>Hai, my lord.
>I grunted and went in.
>Naomi's mother had aged visibly since I saw her last.
>Streaks of grey were shooting through once raven black hair, and there were deep lines around her eyes.
>She looked tired.
>It didn't surprise me. Now that Naomi was out of reach and Hohiro the Master of Earth, it would be her or Ashitaka that served as Shoji's scapegoat now.
>The boy was far too happy to have seen that side of his father in earnest.
>Oka-san.
>Ishigaki-san.
>Naomi did not like the coolness in our greetings.
>She pretended not to notice though.
>Ishigaki-kun! How was your training?
>It went well. A few new scars, but I have advanced again.
>That is wonderful, Ishigaki-kun!
>Naomi turned to her mother.
>Ishigaki-kun is a Defender of the Wall now.
>Mother-in-law blinked.
>I thought that's what all Crab were?
>Ah, no. You misheard. Defender.
>Naomi stressed the capitalization.
>It is a special school for the elite of the Crab Clan.
>The elite?
>Mommy dearest looked around my sparse home.
>The Crab Clan is far more concerned with merit than social status for things like that Mother.
>I see.
>I sat down next to Naomi, took off my kabuto and sat it down next to me.
>Nanny poured me some tea.
>I rested my chin on my closed fist and looked Naomi's mother in the eyes.
>Why are you here?
>Ishigaki!
>Mother held up her hand to forestall any further protest from Naomi.
>Your husband is right to be upset with me, Naomi-san.
>Mother looked at me evenly.
>Then bowed. Full dogeza.
>I knew full well what Shoji was doing to Naomi was not right, yet I allowed it to continue.
>For this I apologize.
>Why are you apologizing to me, then?
>The one you wronged is over there.
>Yes. You are right.
>Mother bowed to her daughter
>Naomi-
>Mother! Please stop! You did nothing wrong! You could not go against father, I understand!
>Of course Naomi would leap at the chance to have a normal relationship with any of her family.
>I was certain that she would even forgive Shoji, should he ask for it.
>He never would, of course.
>And she would still seek to obey him, were he not shunning her outright.
>Because Naomi was an honorable woman, and honorable children obey their parents, even when their parents are complete assholes.
>Personally, I would just as soon have tossed the old bitch out in the mud and gone on pretending Naomi and I both had no family save each other.
>But as I had just pointed out, I was not the one who was wronged.
>So even though I thought Naomi forgave far too easily, I couldn't gainsay it.
>I looked aside politely while mother and daughter hugged one another and wept.
>Oka-san's tears seemed genuine to me.
>I gave them some time, then asked again, more gently than before.
>Why are you here, Oka-san?
>The two disentangled themselves, sniffled and wiped at watery eyes.
>I need your help.
>Naomi looked taken aback that her mother had other reasons for her visit, aside from just seeing her daughter and grandchildren.
>Are you asking for help from your family, from a Crab, or from a Jade Magistrate and her Yojimbo, Oka-san?
>All of them.
>I blew out a sigh. I would have said no to the first. I might have said no to the second. But the third was Naomi's choice.
>Yes, of course Mother. We are family, you need only ask!
>Bandits. It's bandits.
>Huh? Oka-san we are jade.
>The bandits have Ogres with them.
>Oh.
>When your father heard there were Ogres among the bandits, he left to command the soldiers himself.
>Shoji is an ambitious man. As an Earth Tensai, he would be well suited to dealing with Ogres. A good chance to put his name back in people's mouths.
>Oka-san continued.
>But, something is wrong. It is taking far too long to deal with simple bandits, ogres or not.
>I fear for your father's safety.
>So, there we have it then.
>Oka-san was being so polite because she knew damn well how I would take a request to help Shoji.
>The man had once called for my execution. And for that of his own daughter.
>Of course Mother! Ogres bear the taint of Jigoku. As a Jade Magistrate it is my duty to see such taint purged from the Empire, and it also my duty as a Crab! I will help you.
>Thank you, my daughter. I do not know what I did to be so blessed with such a dutiful child.
>Neither did I.
>Naomi asked Nanny to fetch her some ink, paper and a brush.
>She wrote out quick letters to everyone else, explaining the situation and asking everyone to meet up at her father's castle.
>Then she went to go pack, leaving me alone with her mother.
>Were you really serious? About wanting Naomi's forgiveness?
>She looked at me, startled by my abruptness.
>Do you really think so little of me?
>Yes.
>She scowled at me.
>I am serious. I know Shoji can be a cruel man.
>So? Why did you do nothing then?
>I married him because his station would provide well for my children. They would have the finest things, the best education.
>Even Naomi was still taken as a Tensai.
>And I hoped he would soften to her one day.
>Naomi STILL hopes for that day, even now, you know.
>I do.
>And you do not tell her that day will never come.
>It was my turn to scowl.
>She would never believe that.
>No. She would not.
>I sighed and wondered if I would be able to give my all to save the life of the man I most despised in all the Empire.
>Ishigaki-kun, I want to take Daiko and Tetsute with us.
>Um. I know they're strong and all but I don't think they're quite ready for ogres yet. Gonna need a few more months at least.
>Ishigaki! I am serious.
>I... I want to show them my home. Where I came from. At least once in their lives.
>I hugged Naomi.
>I understand Naomi, but there is something you must understand as well.
>I have been outraged on your behalf at the way your father treats you. But, since my rage is on your behalf you have the right to hold me back.
>If he treats either of our children that way, nothing will hold me back.
>If he treats our children that way, I would not want you to hold back.
>I do not think he will though, Ishigaki. He is kind to Ashitaka.
>That surprised me, at first.
>Then I realized. Ashitaka was still young. He would be enrolled in a school soon enough, but he was still very much a blank scroll.
>A scroll Shoji no doubt intended to fill himself.
>I did not voice my suspicions to Naomi.
>But I resolved then and there that he would not have any such influence on my children.
>Evil is an easy thing to define.
>Evil is the person who spills their blood as they whisper prayers to the Dark Brother.
>Evil is the dead, defiled and walking, seeking the flesh of the living.
>Evil is the mass of tentacles, and fangs, dripping with ichor, that was never meant to walk in Ningen-do.
>Good is much more difficult to define.
>Honorable was a bit more clear, but was it good?
>Was it right?
>Shoji, for all his faults, was an honorable man.
>One who acts without honor will quickly find themselves shunned by all right thinking people.
>This is true, even in my own Clan.
>While we Crabs do hold some tenants of Bushido higher than others, and will throw away everything to defeat the Shadowlands, we do not do so when we war with other clans.
>And so Shoji must behave honorably, if for nothing else than his own ambitions.
>If it seems a man clinging to honor for the sake of his own gain seems contradictory, that's because it is.
>Courtesy and Compassion are tenants of Bushido, the code of conduct held by Samurai, whose entire existence is war.
>I said it before, did I not?
>There has never existed a Perfect Samurai.
>And so it is that Shoji, the bastard that he is, was still an honorable man.
>In the eyes of some Rokugani, he would be a proper father.
>In the eyes of many, he would be stern, but not unreasonable.
>Only a few, like me, would see him as a bastard.
>Despite everything he had done, Shoji was not evil.
>Many would say he was right, or at least, not wrong.
>So while I spoke of defying him, of defying the proper order of things, of defying Honorable behavior itself, I would need to keep a very tight leash on my anger.
>Satisfying though it may be to simply punch him until his face is an unrecognizable mess, there would be consequences for such action.
>I had learned the last time I interacted with him not to be hasty.
>As Sensei had hardened my body, so to must I harden my spirit. So that I would be ready to endure what I must.
>Until the time was right to make him pay.
>Naomi made arrangements, securing a boat that would take us around the mountains that divided the Empire.
>Fall was closing in, the mountain passes would be treacherous soon enough.
>Toshiro arrived while she handled those details.
>He was just returning from his visit with his sensei, and was surprised to learn what was going on.
>Oka-san asked Toshiro to speak with Ashitaka a bit about Earth magic.
>The boy's future had already been decided by Shoji. He would become an Earth Tensai, as the family custom dictated.
>After his conversation, Toshiro came to me first.
>Boy has a keen mind, in some ways.
>Some?
>Yeah. He makes connections that others would not see. It's a simple wisdom, but it runs deep. His soul is old indeed.
>I'm sensing a but.
>No talent for hearing the earth Kami.
>So he can't be an earth tensai?
>No, he could. But even with the heavy focus of Tensai training, he'd only be average at best with earth.
>He would be better off NOT being a tensai at all, I think.
>I grunted.
>All children are born with ability to hear the Kami.
>Despite that, few would ever be trained as Shugenja.
>Simply because most would not ever be good at it.
>It was not enough to simply hear the Kami.
>You must be able to understand them, and make yourself understood by them, as well.
>This required certain traits, a particular mindset, that simply could not be trained.
>Once a child's schooling begins, their path is set for life.
>No Shugenja will ever be able to learn the techniques of a bushi school
>No bushi will ever cast magic.
>Indeed, for those who are not trained as shugenja, the ability to hear the kami fades quickly as one ages.
>Shoji was going to doom his youngest son to a life of mediocrity, when he could be so much more.
>I could just picture the joy on Oka-san's face when she heard the news.
>As fortune would have it, Naomi was resting with her mother on the porch overlooking the garden.
>And it was, at least now, a proper garden.
>Stones had been set up in small shapes, turning it into sections.
>Most were bare sand, raked into patterns Naomi assured me meant something.
>But there was a small patch of flowers. Blue with five petals.
>Naomi called them Wasurenagusa.
>We even had Koi in our Koi pond.
>My punching rock was still there, but it was now the centerpiece of a shrine of some sort.
>Shugenja are priests, after all.
>Some people forget that.
>I wondered if whatever deity or spirit Naomi was placating with that shrine would be upset if I made use of my punching rock.
>I'd ask later.
>Toshiro and I sat down, and he broke the news to Oka-san as gently as he could.
>Your kid shouldn't be a tensai.
>Toshiro was not very good at being gentle.
>Oh?
>He elaborated, babbling on about spiritual things that I not follow.
>I folded my arms, nodding along in time with his words.
>I don't think I fooled anyone there, but at least I tired.
>Oka-san, despite not being a shugenja herself, seemed to understand him just fine.
>Given that her whole family were Shugenja, it didn't surprise me she would understand such mystical and esoteric things.
>Naomi joined in the conversation.
>I gave up trying to fool anyone and stared longingly at my punching rock.
>The conversation came back down to my level when talk turned from what he should not do to what he could do, but it went back up just as quickly.
>Daiko must have sensed my distress, because she picked that moment to joint us.
>By crashing through the rice paper outer wall.
>PAPAPAPAPAPA! Play now!
>I scooped her up, spun her around a few times, and took her inside, swooping her around as though she was flying.
>I managed to overhear Oka-san over my daughter's delighted giggles.
>Naomi! You should discipline your children better! Such behavior, it's unseemly.
>Maybe for a Phoenix, but my children are Crab, mother.
>As a fish grows to meet the size of it's pond, so will I give my children plenty of room to grow large and strong.
>They will inherit a solemn duty one day; and I will prepare them for it in accordance with their own nature. I will not stifle them to suit my own personal feelings.
>Goddamnit I love it when Naomi talks dirty like that.
>What do you think Daiko, would you like another brother, or maybe a sister?
>YES!
>Okay then.
>That night, Naomi and I bowed to our daughter's superior wisdom.
>We left in the morning to go save the life of the biggest bastard in the Empire.

Act XVII: Expectations[edit]

>We set sail on a Yasuki vessel.
>The captain was a jovial fellow, his frame padded out with the comfortable fat of one who eats well, and often.
>Dainty hands, that had never held a weapon or pulled a rope.
>After a few days it was quite clear that he knew less about sailing than I did.
>I wondered if he inherited this boat, or stumbled into it.
>It didn't matter either way, he was a vital member of my Clan.
>Most Samurai, even Mantis, who took up some form of business became merchant patrons.
>They hired peasants to handle the dirty business of haggling and exchanging money directly.
>Learning only enough about commerce to tell if the one they hired was doing a good job or not.
>Yasuki were very often in the stalls themselves, making the deals personally.
>Such a hands-on approach is one of the reasons the Crane censured the Yasuki family.
>The other reason was that Yasuki had a tendency not to play fair.
>The Crane were far more concerned about the WAY things were accomplished, then on actually getting anything done.
>The Yasuki, rather than accept the admonitions of their Clan, told the Crane if they didn't have use for them, the Yasuki would simply find someone who would.
>This was in the middle of the very first inter-clan war.
>It was between the Crab and Crane.
>And so the Yasuki helped turn the tide of that war by joining the Crab.
>For most courtiers of Rokugan, should they deal with Crabs at all, it is Yasuki they will meet.
>But not the Crane. The hatred runs too deep.
>So diplomacy between the Crab and Crane is handled by the Hida and the Daidoji, who earned my Clan's respect at the Battle of the Tidal Landbridge.
>You would think that some Crabs would mock the Yasuki family, for it was rare indeed for one to don armor or take up a scroll satchel and face the Shadowlands directly.
>They were openly merchants.
>Some among their family were even as ignorant of the Shadowlands as the rest of Rokugan.
>And you would be right.
>And you would be right.
>But not for those reasons.
>Young bushi would often mock the Yasuki.
>But that was because they wished for the entire empire to simply provide the Crab with whatever food and jade our Clan could not produce on our own.
>They lived in barracks along the wall, and wondered why the rest of the Clans were such fools that they did not willingly aid their eternal protectors.
>To their minds, the Yasuki simply should not be necessary.
>But that was simply not the way things worked.
>For every bushel of rice, for every finger of jade, the other clans would demand something in return.
>Because they all had things they needed but could not produce for themselves.
>The Dragon Clan lived high up in the mountains and had as little arable land as we did.
>The master artisans of the Kakita family only used Kaiu steel in the forging of their famous blades.
>Such was the reality of the world.
>It hadn't changed in over a thousand years, and it was not going to any time soon.
>So I greeted the Captain with genuine warmth, for I knew he was doing his part to aid the Clan just as any other.
>Naomi wondered aloud why there were no Mantis vessels sailing to the Phoenix lands.
>Port towns had ships from all over the Empire in them.
>Usually one could find a ship from any Clan you would care to going wherever you were headed.
>The Captain laughed.
>Oh, the Mantis are at it again.
>They seem to take perverse delight in picking on the Phoenix.
>Likely just making empty threats so they can get some concessions from the Phoenix this winter.
>He shrugged.
>The Phoenix will make some unfavorable deals with the Mantis, and try to make up for it elsewhere.
>The glint in his eyes told me he had an idea how to capitalize on that.
>And if not, then there will be one their 'wars'.
>He scoffed.
>Where the Mantis make a few raids but never commit enough troops for the Phoenix to be justified in unleashing the full power of their magic.
>The Captain was so caught up in showing off his knowledge of the world he completely failed to notice Naomi's discomfort.
>The Phoenix and the Crane were the two Clans that most sought to avoid war.
>They would even interfere in other Clans war to try and bring peace.
>There were plenty of Phoenix who were idealistic, pacifistic or held life in high regard.
>Naomi was proof enough of that.
>But I was a bit more cynical about the Phoenix clan as a whole.
>When the Crab clan must attack, there is an ideal battle plan we strive to enact.
>First, the Hiruma will attack the enemy at a time and place they are not expecting, often at night when most of the enemy is asleep.
>Once the enemy responds and forms up battle lines, the Hiruma run.
>Just slowly enough the enemy gives chase.
>Into a field prepared ahead of time by the Kiau.
>The Hiruma avoid the traps, while the enemy fall into them.
>Confused, tired, and wounded, the enemy is then engulfed by the Hida heavy infantry, and ground to dust.
>However, there is one thing about this plan that changes depending on who we face.
>Against the forces of Jigoku, the traps are cruel and deadly.
>Against another Clan, they are annoying.
>Whereas an Oni will fall into a 10 foot deep pit and onto bamboo spears covered in jade powder (we would use poison as well, if it were not for the fact that most poisons have little to no effect on Oni) a Samurai will fall into an ankle deep depression and twist their ankle.
>Simply put, we hold back when we fight honorable foes.
>If we fought with all our might, with every tool and trick on full display, our Clan would be disgraced in the Courts, and severely censured by the Emperor.
>Just as what happened with the Crane clan when the existence of the Daidoji harrier school was revealed.
>So while some could say it was the Phoenix clan that had the most military might at its disposal, it could not always bring it's full power to a battle.
>Dropping a mountain onto a few hundred samurai would raise some eyebrows at court, to say the least.
>So the Phoenix were the Mantis' ideal punching rock.
>Quick, limited raids utilizing the Mantis' naval power did not really allow for the Phoenix justification to bring the full might of the magic to the war.
>I shook my head. Mantis-san was no coward, but his clan sure did love to bully people who could not fight back.
>Daiko and Tetsute enjoyed the spray from the sea foam as the ship cut into the waves.
>We reached the Lands of the Phoenix with no trouble.
>We entered into the castle of Naomi's father, and were greeted by his Karo.
>Well, Naomi's mother was greeted by the Karo.
>Welcome back, Isawa-sama. The other members of the Jade Magistrates entourage have already arrived.
>My husband?
>He has not returned yet, but we received word a few days ago. He says the campaign goes well and it is only the cowardice of the bandits that drags it on.
>I managed not to cough out the word bullshit.
>The Karo took us to the others, and we exchanged warm greetings.
>We could not dally long bragging about the results of our training, however. Time was precious.
>I turned to the Karo.
>You know where Shoji...-sama is now?
>Yes, the Forest of Stone.
>Naomi looked startled.
>The bandits are there?
>Hai, Crab-san.
>I managed not to punch the Karo.
>He knew damn well who Naomi was.
>Calling her by her clan and clan alone was telling her she was a stranger to him now.
>Naomi fell silent, stung by his rejection.
>The Karo made a hasty excuses and left us then.
>Given the fact he was getting icy stares from a painted Kuni, a Kitsuki, and three bushi, I wasn't surprised.
>Naomi-sama, you know this place?
>She looked up.
>Hai, it is an old Forest my family has tended to for centuries. The Earth Kami are drawn to the place.
>Then lead on, let us go and deal with these traitors and their pet monsters.
>Toshiro came to a dead stop as soon as we passed under the first few trees.
>What is it, Toshiro?
>The earth kami. They're singing.
>He looked at me sadly.
>I wish you could hear it, Ishigaki.
>He was not sad for me.
>Toshiro did not pity me for not being able to hear the Kami any more than I pitied him for not being able to run.
>He was sad because there was a world he lived in I did not.
>We could speak about many things, understood one another so well we often did not have to.
>But this was one subject I could not share with him.
>For that matter, Shugenja are often shaped by, or perhaps already suited to, their respective elements. A shugenja of fire will see magic and the Kami differently than a shugenja of air.
>I realized then, just how lonely it must be to be a shugenja at times.
>Not even Naomi would see this forest the same way Toshiro did.
>I clapped him on the shoulder. I knew he would not want to be pitied.
>He nodded, and we set off deeper into the woods.
>Naomi called upon the water kami to lead us to her father. Combined with her knowledge of the land, we made good time.
>We found Shoji and what was left of his soldiers in a large clearing.
>A stone pillar jutted up from out of the middle of it, and the clearing sand down to it.
>As though it had been tossed down from the heavens, and made a large crater with the force of its impact.
>Which, when I considered how the earth kami loved this forest, was probably not far from the truth.
>What is this? Who are you, identify yourselves!
>The boy wearing the Shiba clan mon on his armor pointed his Naginata at us.
>Naomi stepped out ahead of me.
>I am Hida Naomi, Jade magistrate. This is Kuni Toshiro also a Jade magistrate. And these are our Yoriki. We have come to give aid.
>Relief flooded the young bushi's face.
>He brought us into the makeshift camp set up.
>They were in bad shape. Maybe a few dozen samurai left standing, some wounded.
>There was a lone ashigaru, standing watch.
>I could see what Shoji's plan had been, just from the state of his troops.
>His plan had been simple. Samurai form a wall of flesh to protect him. Ashigaru form a second wall to protect the Samurai. He destroys the Ogres.
>He probably assumed that once the Ogres were devastated by his magic the bandits would lose their will to fight, and be quickly dealt with by his remaining forces.
>Naive. Assuming bandits could never be the match of Samurai because of class.
>He was hardly the first idiot to make that assumption. He would certainly not be the last.
>I just wished it wasn't my job to save him from his own stupidity.
>Naomi began reaching into her satchel as she moved to a wounded bushi.
>Naomi. Stop.
>What?
>Do not waste your magic. Get up those who can still fight, no more.
>Ishigaki-kun, why?
>He's right Naomi-san.
>Toshiro and I were both scanning the treeline intently.
>The others caught on to our tension.
>What is it, Ishigaki-san?
>The others, not even Mantis-san and Monkey, were used to open battles as Toshiro and I were.
>They did not see what we did.
>We were in the middle of a death trap.
>The trees around the edge of the clearing grew thick, and their leaves cast everything within into deep shadow.
>We were all out in the open, for everyone to see.
>Many bore obvious injuries. All were fatigued.
>And we were downhill from the edge of the forest.
>I glanced at Toshiro, then the rock.
>He nodded, confirming my suspicions.
>This then, was the center of the woods, the place where the earth kami were most drawn to.
>Shoji, despite his plan failing before, was going to keep doing what he had been doing.
>That is to say, thinking like a shugenja, and not a commander.
>Speaking of, he finally noticed us and came over.
>What is the meaning of this... YOU!
>GO! Leave this place at once, you cretins! You disrupt my plan to take the enemy!
>You mean your plan to throw away the lives of you men while you continue to fail to strike a killing blow?
>He slapped me for that.
>I didn't even feel it.
>He, on the other hand, gashed his hand on my menpo.
>Father, PLEASE!
>Naomi put herself between me and her father.
>Mother asked me to come, and as a Jade Magistrate it is my duty to do so!
>The Shiba were watching intently now. If any of them did not know who Naomi was, they did now.
>You have become a jade magistrates now?
>Hah! How did you manage that feat you little trollop?
>I returned his slap to him.
>To his credit, he stayed on his feet.
>Toshiro spoke to diffuse the situation before it could get any more out of hand.
>He presented his own chop.
>You may be a Daimyo, but this is now a matter for the Jade Magistrates. You will be silent as we correct your failure.
>You do NOT have the authority to command ME! Jade Magistrate or not!
>Mantis-san decided to take a crack at Shoji.
>We don't need to command you. Nor do we need your consent. We just need these Samurai you have been thoughtlessly squandering.
>Shoji laughed.
>Shiba swore fealty to Isawa, you fool! So it was, and so it shall be! These Shiba will not break their oaths to assist fools like you!
>They will if they want to have any hope of getting you back to your castle alive.
>A Shiba stood up, opening his mouth to weigh in on our polite debate over who was in charge
>And swallowed an arrow before he could say anything.
>Monkey caught the Shiba as he fell, and Naomi was already there, healing him.
>Shoji ordered his men to form a circle around the stone and placed his back to it.
>I called out for them to form a wedge.
>They formed a wedge.
>More arrows came.
>I tucked my head behind my sode, and caught several on it.
>Another struck my Kabuto and slid off.
>Mantis-san's armor protected him as well.
>Kitsuki-san looked on almost calmly, and twisted like a reed before a gale.
>Nothing touched him.
>Monkey threw himself over the wounded Shiba
>An arrow bit into his bicep.
>I'm fine Naomi-sama, keep going!
>She did.
>Due to the way Toshiro's lame leg twisted, another arrow was able to strike him in the calf.
>He scowled at it, then rolled his eyes and shook his head.
>Be ready!
>I yelled to the Shiba.
>When the Ogres come, we charge into them!
>Do NOT stop to fight! Keep moving!
>We have to get out of this circle!
>Shoji tried to counter my orders.
>Do not listen to this fool! Our power is greatest here, we cannot lose!
>Mantis-san backhanded Shoji. Hard.
>This time Shoji did hit the dirt.
>You were told to shut up.
>Now shut up and let us save you.
>As I suspected, the Ogres came.
>Spread out along the entire edge of the clearing.
>Then they charged, the downward slope adding to their speed and power. They meant to finish us off.
>I was glad they were so eager.
>If they had held their ground and simply allowed the bandits to expend their arrows we would have died.
>As it was, with their size, weight and speed, there were not enough bodies left to halt them.
>The Ogres would have crushed the Shiba beneath them and then they would have torn Shoji limb from limb.
>I was at the very tip of the wedge. The first thing they would hit.
>I ordered the charge.
>The first Ogre slammed into me, not even bothering with his weapon.
>It intended to knock me down with it's momentum, trample over me.
>I sank my stance low, held my tetsuo parallel to it's waist.
>And twisted.
>The ogre was unbalanced by it's downhill charge.
>It fell to my side.
>GO! Keep going! To the woods!
>My plan was simple.
>In the tightly packed trees, the ogres would be unable to fight together. Even the bandits would be broken up into smaller groups.
>This would neutralize the numerical advantage Shoji had continually given them so he could have clear lines of sight.
>After that, it would be a matter of endurance. defeat one small group of enemies, then face the next. And the next. And the next. Until we died or won.
>We pushed on, the Shiba along the edges of the wedge following my lead and using the Ogres own momentum to topple them, while the Shiba in the center braced their fellows, keeping them from being bowled over by the Ogres charge.
>We broke through their line.
>Once in the woods, Mantis-san realized what I planned.
>He moved quickly, despite his heavy armor. A green shadow scything his way through bandits, never staying still.
>Monkey cut one down, took the bandit’s bow and arrows and climbed into a tree.
>Kitsuki-san stayed near Naomi, his blade flashed out of it's saya and cut down the first bandit that approached.
>Toshiro and I turned. We could leave the bandits to the Shiba and the others.
>The Ogres were realizing what we had done, and were forming up again.
>This time, they would be the ones charging uphill.
>On my left Toshiro readied a scroll.
>And Shoji readied one of his own on my right.
>So there were limits to how stupidly he would allow his pride to make him.
>Good.
>The Ogres came, and were met with a wall of Jade power from the two shugenja.
>One dove through, and I struck it, shattering it's collarbone and sending it rolling down the circle.
>Two more engaged us, raining blows down on me.
>I fully understood the value of my new training in that moment.
>The Ogres blows seemed feeble.
>Even with such heavy weapons I disrupted their taint with my purity, I broke their water with my earth.
>My armor did the rest.
>I continued to bring my tetsubo down upon the Ogres, Blow after blow, I sent them tumbling down while Shoji and Tohiro burned them.
>Before I knew it, there were no more ogres.
>We turned, breathing hard, to see how the fight with the bandits fared.
>There were no more bandits.
>We had won.
>I glanced sidelong at Shoji.
>And wondered just how costly he planned on making this victory.
>I don't know how large a force Shoji lead to deal with the bandits.
>I know only that we went back with 19 Shiba and one ashigaru.
>I carried Naomi.
>She had exhausted her magic, and herself, making sure we would bring that many back.
>Ishigaki-kun, I can still walk, you know?
>What people can do, and what they should do are rarely the same thing Naomi. Rest now.
>She rested her head against my chest and allowed me to spoil her.
>Shoji stayed silent the whole way.
>His soldiers had chosen to disobey him, and the only person in my group that didn't hate him, was the one he hated the most.
>He probably suspected that if he pitched a fit now a bandit's arrow would find its way into his heart.
>I could not say for certain he was wrong about that.
>So he fumed silently. Only the throbbing of the vein in his temple betraying his fury.
>Like the subtle warnings before an avalanche.
>Kitsuki-san came up beside me and whispered.
>We will have to allow him to take credit for the defeat of the Ogres.
>Huh?
>We were a bit rough in the way we took over, and he is still a high ranking Lord.
>I know, there were extenuating circumstances. We were not quite wrong. But neither were we wholly right.
>He could make a scene.
>So we will allow him to save face.
>Giving him the credit means that if he complains about how we took over he reveals his own failure, and our success.
>I nodded slowly.
>I didn't like the idea, but we had all seen Hohiro do something similar once to diffuse his father's anger.
>Shoji was not upset about getting struck, or that we usurped his authority nearly as much as he was upset over the damage to his reputation.
>At my nod Kitsuki-san fell back to tell the others the plan.
>We returned to the castle.
>Welcome back my lord! I trust the campaign went well?
>Kitsuki-san swooped in to answer.
>SPLENDIDLY!
>Kitsuki-san went on in spectacular fashion, speaking at length about how the Bandits had set up traps and used other cowardly tactics to slowly whittle down Shoji's forces.
>Until Shoji devised a plan to trick them into committing to an all out engagement.
>Then, taking position at the head of his forces, Shoji lead the charge into the heart of the enemy.
>Where he personally slew the Ogre champion.
>That was twice as large as me, apparently.
>Mantis-san came over while Kitsuki-san continued.
>He muttered under his breath to me.
>Don't you think he's laying it on a BIT thick?
>I looked over at Shoji. Gave my head a jerk.
>Mantis-san looked.
>Shoji was puffing himself up further at every word.
>At this point the concern was not how believable Kitsuki-san's story was, but rather if Shoji's mortal frame would be unable to contain that much smug and simply explode before Kitsuki-san finished.
>Sadly, Shoji had trained his body well.
>Used to containing his nearly divine arrogance, it contained the smug with no ill effects.
>Is this true, my Lord?
>Shoji nodded emphatically.
>I am not, by nature, a braggart so I will say that Dragon-san exaggerated a bit.
>But yes, it is true that the bandits would not have been bested without me.
>Monkey whispered to Mantis-san and me.
>Is it though?
>Mantis-san whispered back.
>He is the Lord, and we won by making use of his samurai. So yeah. It kinda is.
>Toshiro added to that.
>Did you notice? He even told the truth of the matter, that Kitsuki-san was exaggerating the role he played.
>Technically, Shoji did not lie. He just knew what everyone would assume, and that no one would ask for further details.
>Monkey blinked at that.
>Wow what a slimy bastard.
>We nodded along in agreement.
>Very good my Lord! Shall I send word to the delegation that all is ready for their arrival then?
>Shoji gave the Curt Nod of Assent.
>Shoji then turned to the Shiba and praised their steadfast courage and selfless devotion to their duty.
>It was then that the full genius of Kitsuki-san's plan was made apparent to me.
>A surprised grunt told me Mantis-san had come to the same conclusion I had.
>Shoji's interpretation of history was wrong.
>Shiba did NOT swear fealty to Isawa.
>Shiba DID however, kneel before Isawa as Isawa swore fealty to Shiba. Isawa also insisted that Shiba swear that his descendants would protect Isawa's descendants for all time.
>So when a Shiba must protect an Isawa hell bent on doing something suicidally stupid, and that Isawa is the Shiba's lord, the Shiba is placed in a difficult position.
>Do they betray Shiba's oath by allowing their lord to get killed?
>Do they fight, futilely, and die knowing that their Lord would follow right behind them?
>Or do they disobey, save their lords life, and commit seppuku for disobeying orders?
>They had disobeyed Shoji not out of any sort of malice towards him.
>They did so because it was the only way they could uphold their duty.
>Shoji was such an ass that I had overlooked this possibility.
>My estimation of those Shiba rose sharply.
>Most Rokugani would have chosen the second option.
>They would have died honorably, and gone to their ancestors in glory.
>These ones chose to sacrifice their honor, knowing they would die to cleanse their shame.
>Knowing their deaths would save the life of their Lord.
>Knowing Shoji, he was likely prepared to order them all to write their death poems the second we returned.
>But he could not now; it would raise uncomfortable questions.
>Kitsuki-san had just saved nineteen lives with an overacted speech.
>Not a bad days work, Kitsuki-san.
>We slipped away to get purified and bathe.
>What do you suppose the Karo meant by, the delegation?
>Kitsuki-san asked the servant leading us to the bath if he knew who the delegates were.
>Oh yes great samurai! Isawa-dono has been given the honor of hosting the Mantis delegation for the peace talks!
>The Karo showed up in our room later on in the evening.
>No announcement, just opened the door and strode in already babbling.
>And here are your traveling papers. It may be difficult to find a ship since the Harbor has been emptied for the Mantis delegation but I'm sure you can manage... some... thing?
>He stared, boogle eyed at Oka-san.
>I was unsure what school Oka-san attended, but the hidden technique, Frosty Eyed Stare of Death, that she was employing was truly formidable.
>Even the Karo shrank before it.
>I was glad I was not on the receiving end.
>Oka-san had taught her daughter a lesser version, Smile of Heavenly Disappointment.
>That was horrible enough I had sworn off drunken brawls to avoid seeing it again.
>Thank you Karo-san. But you know full well my daughter's health issues. They will be staying here this winter.
>Buh, but my Lady! Your Lord Husband...
>And I wish to spend at least some time with my grandchildren.
>You know that the Crab clan has a strong connection to the Earth, yes? Perhaps one of Naomi's children will be suitable to become an Earth Tensai.
>The Karo blinked at that. Considered. Then nodded.
>As you wish my lady.
>I know Oka-san only said that to shut him up and get to leave, but the thought of Shoji actually taking an interest in one of my children sent a chill down my spine.
>Hey, Toshiro...
>Those two? No, I don't think so.
>It's too early to say for certain but I suspect they're far too energetic, a bit too much air in their nature.
>Oka-san sipped her tea.
>True, but you are not going to stop there are you, Naomi-chan?
>I blinked at the -chan.
>First she stood up, albeit indirectly, to Shoji on behalf of her daughter.
>Then she used an honorific to show endearment?
>Was she really trying to make amends for everything?
>I would need to ask Kitsuki-san later. It was said that it was impossible for even a scorpion to lie to a true master of Kitsuki's method.
>No mother, I do not believe we will be stopping at just two.
>Oka-san and Naomi shared a glance and smiled at one another.
>I looked up, certain something important had just gone over my head.
>We spent some time in conversation, Oka-san asking Naomi and myself about the Crab clan in earnest, and how our lives were.
>There was much to discuss, Oka-san had missed several years of her daughter's life.
>I decided not to spoil the mood by bringing up the letters Naomi sent that had never been read.
>Kitsuki-san snuck himself into the conversation.
>I hear that you are well versed in Hanakotoba, Isawa-sama, is this true?
>A daimyo's wife did outrank a Yoriki to a Jade Magistrate.
>I wondered if I was getting it wrong and I was supposed to address her as Oka-sama.
>Well, that didn't matter. Even if I was I wasn't quite ready to show her that much respect, yet.
>I am, is there something you would wish to discuss, Kitsuki-san?
>Oka-san, Naomi and Kitsuki-san talked for a while about flowers.
>Monkey listened with rapt attention, fascinated by the depth of meaning in such simple things.
>Mantis-san, Toshiro and I suffered in quiet dignity.
>After a time Kitsuki-san woke us up by snapping his fan closed.
>You may tell her Naomi-sama.
>What, huh?
>Thank you Kitsuki-san.
>Oka-san blinked in confusion.
>Mother, there is something important I must tell you. It concerns the Bloodspeaker cult.
>I looked at Kitsuki-san, to double check.
>He simply nodded in assurance.
>How in the hell had a conversation about plants revealed her trustworthiness to Kitsuki-san?
>Toshiro sipped his tea.
>Kitsuki's method is quite formidable.
>I nodded.
>When Naomi was done filling her mother in on THEM, there was silence for a long time.
>Then.
>Why did you tell me this, Naomi?
>Father should not have had such difficulty with those bandits.
>And now we have learned that they appeared before Father was to host the peace talks with the Mantis this winter?
>We cannot be certain who THEY count among their number, but THEY may try again.
>To what end, Naomi?
>Oka-san was so stunned by this revelation she was forgetting she was technically in public right now.
>Chaos aids them Mother. It allows them to make movements while remaining concealed.
>And they have attempted to place their own into positions of power by killing high ranking individuals in the past.
>You think they aim for your Father's life?
>Naomi shook her head.
>I cannot say for certain. If the talks fail then many lives could be lost in the chaos of a war.
>Oka-say nodded at that.
>Perhaps they are even intending to move on multiple fronts, then.
>Yes Mother, that is possible. Likely even.
>If your father dies, then Hohiro would inherit this castle. But he is far too busy with his duties as master of Earth to rule it in reality.
>Karo-san would likely take over the full responsibility in Hohiro's name.
>I can think of nothing that would incriminate him now, but I will keep a close eye on Karo-san.
>So, the idea that the Master of Earth, her own son, might be a Maho-Tsukai was so abhorrent to her she failed to even consider it.
>Truth be told, I might be the only one in the room who thought it a possibility.
>I had brought the subject up only once, in the aftermath of our disgrace at Kyuden Hida, and the others had simply said there was no proof and left it at that.
>Well. In any event now was certainly not the time to raise the possibility again.
>Naomi's mother, having regained her composure as we talked, bid us good night.
>The others went to their own rooms.
>Naomi and I settled in to sleep.
>That night, I woke up.
>I checked Naomi, and seeing she was fine, I quieted my breathing to listen for what had awoken me.
>A soft sob. Choked in fact. As though someone were trying not to make noise as they cried.
>I eased myself out from Naomi's arms and went to the door.
>The crying was definitely coming from the other side.
>I opened it swiftly.
>And scared little Ashitaka half to death.
>Oi. What the hell are you doing out here chibi-san?
>He simply stared up at me, mouth hanging open.
>I sighed.
>I supposed the sight of a half naked giant covered in scars will do that to someone.
>So I picked him up by the back of his kimono and brought him inside our room.
>I plopped him down, and pulled on the rest of my kimono so I wouldn't look so scary.
>Then I sat down in front of him.
>Alright, what's going on?
>His face twisted, fresh tears welling up in his eyes.
>Father hates me now!
>I took a deep breath.
>And wondered if I was enough of a ninja to make it into Shoji's bedroom unseen.
>I doubted it.
>So instead I asked.
>Got any idea why?
>Because I won't make a good earth tensai.
>He hates me because I'll never be as good as Toshiro!
>I wondered if I could silence anyone who did see me before they could make a noise and hide the bodies long enough to make it into Shoji's room.
>Probably not.
>But even for those who aren't tensai, Isawa trained shugenja are amazing, chibi.
>Every other shugenja school in the Empire has an element they are strong with, and an element they are weak with.
>Isawa Shugenja, unique in all the Empire, don't have that weakness.
>Shouldn't that be something to be proud of?
>Father says that doesn't matter, only Tensai will advance in a high rank in our clan.
>I had no idea if that was true or his own prejudice.
>But it was true that the leaders of the Phoenix clan were the Elemental Council, and only a Tensai could be appointed there.
>I frowned, thinking this through.
>Alright then. What do you want to do with your life?
>Ashitaka sniffled and rubbed his eyes.
>Make Father proud...
>But you already know you can't do that.
>His eyes teared up again.
>I cupped my hand over his mouth before he could start full on bawling.
>Quiet!
>I hissed.
>You wanna wake your sister up?
>His eyes darted over to Naomi, still sleeping soundly.
>He shook his head.
>I took my hand away from his mouth.
>Alright chibi, it's a little early to tell you this, and it's harsh too.
>But your father is the biggest asshole I've had the misfortune to meet.
>Ashitaka covered his mouth in shock.
>Your family has a tradition of becoming Earth Tensai.
>If you don't do that, and do it well, he'll never respect you.
>Think about how he treats Naomi.
>She sent letters to you guys. All of you. Damn near every week.
>His eyes got wider with every word.
>Young though he was, Ashitaka realized his father must have disposed of Naomi's letters without telling anyone, or at least ordered the Karo to do so.
>I pulled him in for a hug.
>Poor kid's world had just turned inside out and screamed at him.
>So.
>I said softly.
>What is it YOU want to do with your life?
>He sniffled in my arms.
>No one has ever asked me that before.
>It's fine if you don't have an answer right now, Ashitaka. Take your time and think it through.
>I will... Ishigaki.
>Good boy.
>I got him a drink and took him back to his room.
>Judging by the number of guards stationed about, it was a good thing I didn't try to Ninja my way to Shoji's room after all.
>Oh well.
>I returned to our room and got back into bed.
>Thank you, Ishigaki-kun.
>Wha-? How long have you been awake?
>Long enough.
>She rolled over and kissed me.
>You did well.
>She snuggled in against me and we both fell asleep.
>As the days passed, the courtiers from various clans arrived.
>Aside from the expected delegation from the Mantis, there were Crane, Dragon and Scorpion courtiers present.
>As well as token groups from the Crab, Lion and Unicorn. Mostly here to keep an eye on things and report the outcome Kitsuki-san said.
>The Dragon were neighbors to the Phoenix, and often needed more rice than they could grow in a year.
>The Crane and Scorpion just liked to meddle in everyone's affairs.
>The Crane lied about their motivations, saying the were only interested in maintaining peace in the Empire.
>I was always amused that the clan that all wore masks were so open and honest about their intentions.
>Some people would not trust a Scorpion farther than they could throw them.
>I could probably set a new record at Scorpion tossing though, so I didn't even trust them that far.
>But at least they had the decency to tell you not to trust them.
>I was contemplating what set of circumstances would need to come to pass that I could try to set that new record without the usual scorpion reprisal when Kitsuki-san came up to me.
>Ishigaki-san! I have would like for you to meet my friend! He has been a great help in many of our investigations, though I have only sought his assistance via letter until now!
>I was greatly surprised to see him here, but I am glad I can finally introduce you.
>Hida Ishigaki, this is Bayushi Amano.
>It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Hida Ishigaki-sama.
>I have heard much of you from my friend.
>Well.
>Great.
>Yeah, likewise I'm sure.
>I stared at Kitsuki-san.
>And wondered what it was that had caused him to switch brains with Monkey.
>Bayushi Amano was tall. Absurdly so.
>We could look one another in the eyes without adjusting our heads.
>Judging by the hands that poked out from his sleeves and his slender face, he was very thin.
>But I could not be certain, because he wore a very loose kimono.
>It hung off him almost comically when he stood still, but it billowed quite impressively when he walked.
>His mask was a piece of sheer silk, wrapped around his eyes like the bandage a blind man would wear.
>So even though I could look him in the eyes, I could not make them out.
>He smiled pleasantly at my less than formal returned greeting.
>I suddenly felt a need to check every riceball in the castle for ninjas.
>Oh, there is Toshiro-san! Excuse us, please, Ishigaki-san.
>I nodded, and they went off to pester Toshiro.
>Seriously, what the hell was Kitsuki-san thinking?
>Great help?
>OUR investigations?!
>How much did that bastard Amano know?
>How much did the Scorpion Clan know?!
>Did they know about the island?
>I considered how many times it had felt like murder was the only solution in this damned castle, and wondered if it was cursed.
>My frantically racing thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the Mantis delegation.
>It was lead by a woman in perhaps the most opulent Kimono I had ever seen.
>The ornamentation in her hair, the lightly painted face.
>She must have spent hours getting ready.
>And I was fairly certain she was wearing more than my yearly stipend on just one arm.
>And yet she failed to draw every eye in the room.
>Rather it was one of her attendants that did so.
>The woman everyone was actually staring at was a shugenja, judging by the scroll satchel.
>Her kimono was far more plain.
>But it would not do to call it "modest".
>It slipped off her shoulders, held aloft by some trick I could not fathom.
>This of course, exposed a generous expanse of cleavage.
>Cleavage that belonged to breasts that stopped just shy of being obscenely large.
>A necklace of black pearls with a few jade magatama encircled her neck.
>A massive pearl hung on the center of the necklace rested comfortably in her cleavage.
>As if you needed any more of a reason to look.
>The bottom half of her kimono had the hips cut away showing bare flesh.
>Not uncommon, but you WERE supposed to have a top that would be long enough to cover that up.
>Her obi cinched tight around her slender waist, causing her barely there Kimono to cling tightly to her body, revealing a dramatic hourglass figure.
>I wondered if she was really shaped like that, or if she was just able to not breath for extended periods of time.
>Light brown hair swept behind her ears and fell down to her shoulders.
>And blue eyes, like those of some Doji completed the look.
>I had heard rumors of Mantis who dressed in such scandalous fashions, all the empire had of course.
>I had even seen a few when we were on the Isles of Spice and Silk.
>But this one took it to extremes I had not thought possible.
>I doubted she was even in mourning, and suspected she just liked having short hair.
>Only after I began to recover from my shock did I realize she was no taller than Naomi.
>Oh, right. Naomi.
>I realized I had been staring far too hard.
>Me and every man in the room.
>And every woman was hiding behind their fans.
>Naomi came over to me.
>Held up her fan and whispered to me.
>Be on guard around her, Ishigaki-kun. She is doing that on purpose.
>Huh?
>Naomi looked at me as one might look at a child reaching into a fire because they do not know it will burn them.
>She is using her appearance as a weapon to distract and confuse. She is dangerous.
>Very dangerous.
>I- I see.
>I must go warn the others.
>Okay then.
>I thought about what Naomi had said.
>She was probably right. I couldn't remember the last time I taken such thorough notice of a woman.

Act XVIII: Peace Talks[edit]

>Everyone broke up as the mingling and introductions commenced.
>As usual I just tried to stay out of everyone's way.
>However some found reason to try and speak to me anyway.
>Like the old Crab.
>He didn't bother with finding someone to introduce us.
>I am Hida Katsuie, and you?
>He only had one arm.
>At the age of forty a Samurai is expected to retire. They shave their heads and enter into a monastery to spend the rest of their live seeking enlightenment by contemplating their navels.
>This idea is abhorrent to many Crab.
>It's not that Monks don't serve a purpose; they do.
>It has more to do with the fact that a samurai has a job to do, and we really hate shirkers.
>So when a Crab becomes too old and infirm to serve actively we find other ways for them to serve the clan.
>Sensei is one such position.
>There is nothing quite like being instructed by a one eyed, one armed, one legged man to impress upon young bushi just how dangerous their duty can be, and how important it is to take their training seriously.
>Military advisor was another.
>No matter how thick witted a person may be, a lifetime of battle will make them skilled strategists, if only because they are encountering situations similar to ones they faced in the past.
>I was living proof of the truth of that.
>Last but not least was courtier.
>A blind Hiruma that wears a mask because some Oni made off with his face may not be as charismatic or as eloquent as one trained from the outset to be a courtier.
>But that hardly matters.
>His gruesome and highly visible injuries will serve as a constant reminder of how much the Crab Clan is owed.
>I'm Hida Ishigaki.
>You are not part of my entourage, and I was not told to expect other Crabs to be here.
>Ah.
>I pointed out where Naomi was taking with Mantis-san
>Hida Naomi. Jade Magistrate, and my wife.
>She's a water tensai.
>And Isawa Shoji's daughter.
>He stroked his chin.
>Come on.
>I took him over to where Toshiro was.
>Kuni Toshiro, Hida Katsuie.
>They nodded to one another.
>Toshiro had not taken up any of the standard Crab Clan Retirement Packages of course, despite having a clubbed foot.
>This was because he was a Shugenja.
>No one was about to suggest someone who could make enemies spontaneously combust, hurl jade boulders, and provide emergency first aid with the help of the Kami might be unable to do their duty because they couldn't walk very fast.
>He's also a Jade Magistrate.
>I see. What brings you all the way out here, may I ask?
>Heard about the Ogres and bandits?
>Yes, I did.
>Well, there you go.
>Hey, Katsuie-sama
>I decided I'd better be up front, lest he form some plan that ended up being implausible.
>I looked around, to make sure no one was looking.
>Katsuie-sama sighed and handed me his fan.
>I covered my mouth with it as I whispered to him.
>Shoji is an ass. He does not like his daughter, so we don't actually have an in in that regard, got it?
>He nodded.
>To my relief he didn't push for any more information.
>He took back his fan.
>Still, you are much more familiar with our host and his family than I am. May I count on you for advice?
>I nodded.
>I can do that much, at least.
>Very good. Thank you both for your time.
>I shared a glance with Toshiro.
>This was the first time I'd been considered an asset in Court.
>Up until now I settled for not being a detriment.
>Think I need to get a fan?
>Toshiro pursed his lips, looking at me appraisingly.
>Then he clapped his hand over his mouth to keep from bursting out in laughter.
>Yeah, I thought so too.
>I looked around trying to see what the others were up to.
>Monkey was speaking too loudly with the Crane, trying to show off his newly acquired knowledge on the meaning of flowers.
>She smiled politely at him as he regurgitated words he had only heard once at her, and occasionally flicked 'HELP ME' glances at her Yojimbo.
>Who returned discreet "what do you want me to do about it?" shrugs whenever she did so.
>Kitsuki-san had broken off from Amano to speak with the Dragon courtiers.
>I was a bit surprised to see a bald man covered in vibrant tattoos in the group.
>If I was right that was a tattooed monk.
>He wore a sleeveless Kimono, and normal pants instead of Hakama.
>Every inch of skin I could see from the neck down was covered in ink, so I could not be certain what was mystical and what was mundane.
>Mantis-san was also with his clan.
>Oh, shit.
>Toshiro and I didn't have to think very hard about helping our clan.
>And I suspected neither did Kitsuki-san.
>The Dragon likely wanted peace, since a war and Mantis raids would force the Phoenix to stockpile more food than usual.
>Rice paddies and mountains are generally incompatible, and the Dragon got a decent amount of rice from the Phoenix, being neighbors and all.
>But Mantis-san was in an awkward position.
>His Clan would fully expect him to assist in extorting the Phoenix for as much as possible.
>I waited until Kitsuki-san finished his conversation, then approached him.
>I nodded toward the Mantis delegation
>You think we might end up working at cross purposes here?
>It's possible, Ishigaki-san.
>He shrugged.
>If it happens it happens. I won't hold it against him.
>You sure? Doesn't your clan need that rice?
>The Phoenix are not the only only Clan to produce a surplus of rice.
>Okay, if you're sure.
>There was no opportunity to speak with Mantis-san the rest of the day. He was always with someone of his Clan.
>So I brought it up that evening as we gathered together.
>He folded his arms and made a face like he had just bitten into a lemon.
>Yeah, they're pressing me hard for everything I know about Shoji.
>And I mean everything.
>I'm sorry, Naomi-sama.
>It is alright, Mantis-san.
>I cannot bear you any ill will for working to serve your clan, nor can I blame you for the actions taken by your Clan's leaders.
>Of course Naomi would be that way.
>But I was sure there were many Phoenix who would not be so understanding.
>I couldn't discount the possibility of guilt by association blowing back on the rest of us.
>In the morning Kitsuki-san pulled me aside, along with Toshiro.
>I have a suggestion for you both. One that should help to dispel some of your worries from the other night, Ishigaki-san.
>Oh great, He really had mastered Kitsuki's Method.
>Now I had another mind reader to deal with.
>I would ask that you attempt to persuade Hida Katsuie-sama to push the Mantis clan to settle for less then they hope to gain.
>I failed to see how any of this was really Crab business.
>Toshiro spoke up.
>He's got a point, Ishigaki.
>Hah?
>If the Phoenix can't afford to give as much rice to the Dragon as normal, the Dragon will have to turn to other Clans.
>If the other Clans find their surplus in high demand, they'll be able to ask for more in return.
>Ah, and that's bad for the Crab. Shit.
>It made sense to me now, why Courtiers insisted that Court was more dangerous than any battlefield.
>I had never considered that a war on the other side of the Empire could impact my Clan negatively.
>For one, the Empire was just too big a thing.
>For another, I was a Crab and a warrior.
>I didn't bother myself with matters of court anymore than the average Rokugani bothered themselves with matters of Oni.
>Certainly, some things had rubbed off due to long exposure to them.
>And I did seek to know my own clan's strengths and weaknesses.
>But still, I was a far cry from a courtier.
>Toshiro nodded to Kitsuki-san.
>Good idea. We'll give it a shot.
>So we went out to find Katusie-sama.
>He was entertaining some Lion and Unicorn courtiers.
>Not by telling war stories, but by playing a konto.
>And well, at that.
>The frantic speed with which his single hand danced across the strings at odds with the soothing tones he produced.
>I couldn't help but take a seat myself and be impressed.
>When he finished he spoke up.
>Thank you for listening to my humble performance.
>Now I must excuse myself, it would seem some of my kin wish to speak with me.
>I started first.
>So, we were thinking it might benefit the Clan if we tried to get the Mantis to settle for as little as possible.
>Yes, I had considered that as well.
>Do you have some idea how I might go about that though?
>I did not.
>Toshiro though, had given it some thought.
>He spoke to Katsuie-sama at length about Shoji's many faults and flaws.
>Also his strengths.
>He even told Katsuie-sama the truth of the battle with the Ogres and bandits.
>Throughout it all Katsuie-sama remained silent, stroking his beard thoughtfully.
>So, if I am understanding you correctly Toshiro-san, the Phoenix could not have picked a worse host for these peace talks if they tried?
>That's about it, yeah.
>I finally caught on to Toshiro's game.
>A little late but still...
>So yeah, any of the Clans who want peace could be persuaded to join in more forcefully once they know Shoji is likely to screw it up somehow.
>Yes. It will take time to set things in motion however.
>I must be certain peace is their objective before speaking of such things to others.
>In the meantime, I can reach out to my counterpart in the Dragon clan, to see if we can combine our efforts.
>Thank you both for bringing this to my attention.
>He excused himself.
>I wondered at the odd turns my life had taken.
>Here I was, a Crab bushi.
>A simple Yojimbo in service to a Jade Magistrate.
>Brush in hand, the best I could hope for was that my poem would not offend everyone that read it.
>And yet I was talking part in political events that could affect the entire Empire.
>Toshiro nudged me.
>Shoji was planning some to have competitions all throughout the winter court as entertainment for the guests.
>And first up, was a Sumai tournament.
>Toshiro arched an eyebrow at me.
>Uh.
>Then Naomi came up.
>You are going to enter, are you not Ishigaki-kun?
>Wat.
>A wild Monkey appears!
>Yeah! You should do it!
>Do I look like a Sumai to you Monkey?!
>No, but you're real good at knocking people over, and you've got good balance!
>Mantis-san smirked at me.
>I'm going to.
>I gave in.
>Of all people, it was Naomi who seemed most pleased.
>I got registered, changed into a mawashi and took my place in the lineup of challengers.
>This competition was mostly a chance for the Yojimbo of the various courtiers to strut their stuff.
>Not a single professional Sumai to be seen.
>A delicate and willowy Crane.
>The tattooed Dragon.
>Mantis-san. Stocky and thick.
>An Akodo, with a husky frame.
>The Shosuro had not an ounce of fat on him anywhere.
>A Shinjo, surprisingly short.
>And the Shiba, average in every way you could think of.
>Then I came out.
>Fans fluttered as a v shaped slab of muscle and scar tissue took his place in the line up.
>I had been right about the Dragon, he was a giant wall of color from the neck down.
>It was so chaotic I saw a new shape every time I looked.
>The first match would be the Dragon, up against the Lion.
>The Dragon bowed and introduced himself as Togashi Asuma.
>Do not worry, I swear I will not draw upon my tattoos in this competition. There are plenty shugenja who can stand as witness.
>I wish for this to be a true match of athletic ability.
>The Akodo bowed in return.
>I shall accept you honest desire, and crush you with all I have. To do any less would be an insult to you and our host.
>Asuma nodded.
>Well said.
>First came the stare downs.
>Then the collision.
>The two slammed into each other, palms striking chests.
>Neither gave ground at first.
>Then the Dragon stepped in, moving his rear leg just after taking a blow from the Akodo.
>Asuma uncoiled his hips to add follow through to his next shove.
>The Lion could not resist it and tumbled back out of the ring.
>Next we would have a bug battle.
>Mantis on Scorpion action.
>Well, this should be.
>WHAM.
>...
>Have I ever mentioned that Mantis-san is terribly strong?
>The Shiba and the Crane were the next to square off.
>They stared each other down steadily.
>Then rose up and grappled with one another.
>I could see them shifting their weight to in response to each other's movements.
>Their movements and shifts were small, subtle. Each trying to unbalance the other.
>The Shiba sunk his stance, then let go of the Crane's mawashi and pushed up under his armpits, trying to upset the Crane's balance.
>The Crane, however, flowed with the Shiba's force, and pulled tossing the Shiba over his hip and to the mat.
>That looked a bit like something out of Mizu-do.
>There are three main martial arts in Rokugan.
>Kaze-do, Mizu-do and Kobo Ichi-Kai.
>Kaze-do was the first style to be created, created by a monk named Togashi Kaze and first taught to peasants.
>It had since found its way into the dojo's of the samurai.
>It was a style that strove to emulate the wind, so the practitioner moved about a lot.
>It made use of acrobatic kicks and rapid strikes to wear down, exhaust and knock over one's foes.
>Mizu-do is the style the Crane practice extensively.
>In Mizu-do, the practitioner seeks to be like water, fluid and formless.
>When attacked with force, the Mizu-do practitioner will seek to redirect and control that force, often by pulling his opponent off balance and into the ground.
>Kobo Ichi-Kai is the last style. Developed by the Crab, and rarely seen outside of our Clan.
>It is not a way, but a school.
>It was not born from an enlightened man meditating on nature.
>But from samurai brawling in teahouses and docks and back alleyways.
>From a Kuni learning just how one human body can damage another by treating the injured and performing autopsies on the dead.
>The other martial arts teach you how to defend yourself when you have no weapon.
>Kobo Ichi-Kai teaches you how to kill.
>Which left me facing off with the Chibicorn.
>A Hida and a Shinjo squaring off in a tournament.
>It wasn't the first round, but the parallels were obvious.
>When the Kami dueled to see which among them would become the Emperor, Hida had faced Shinjo in the first match.
>Hida lost.
>Now I stood before my opponent, and to look at us I outclassed him in every way that mattered in a Sumai match.
>We bowed and took our stances.
>The stare down.
>We attacked one another's spirit.
>I narrowed my eyes, flared my nostrils, and stared at the point just between his eyes.
>He countered with a self assured smirk that I could see in my peripheral vision.
>It was a fine move, both defense and counter in one.
>Showing he was not intimated in the least, he reminded both of us the weight of history favored him in this contest.
>We sprang.
>He came up just a hair's breadth slower.
>Crossing his arms in front of his chest he slammed up into me.
>The momentum forced me fully upright.
>I took a half step back.
>And windmilled my arms.
>He struck me again driving his palm into me with all his might.
>But it was not so easy to topple a Crab.
>My half step had been a brace.
>The windmilling a lie.
>Before he could realize what had happened I grabbed his Mawashi, spun my hips and threw him bodily into the air and out of the ring.
>Every one of the seven founding Great Clans has a story of their Kami meeting Shinsei.
>Six of those kami gained wisdom from the little teacher.
>When Hida lost his match to Shinjo he stormed off to sulk alone.
>While he was brooding a little man with a crow perched on his shoulder came up to him.
>Why are you so upset, First Crab?
>I am upset because I am weak, and my strength could not save me from my weakness.
>The little man smiled.
>But now you know your own weakness.
>And by knowing it, you transform it into strength.
>A true son of Hida is not some mindless brute who charges headlong and recklessly into battle.
>Nor is he a fool who thinks his own biceps are all he needs to win.
>He knows exactly what he is capable of, and also what he is NOT capable of.
>He knows how to save his strength for just the right moment, and secure victory before his enemy knows he has been defeated.
>If a Hida deliberately places himself at a disadvantage, it is only because someone must be in that position, and he is best suited to survive it.
>Unless of course, he is just a fool.
>We do have plenty of those in our clan as well, I'm sad to say.
>There was a break between the rounds as Shugenja came in to treat the competitors and ensure they would be fresh and ready for their next bout.
>Naomi saw to me personally.
>That was masterful Ishigaki-kun!
>Monkey pipped up.
>I thought he had you when he took you off guard at the start there.
>Kitsuki-san bopped Monkey lightly on the head.
>It was a ploy, Monkey. Ishigaki-san tricked the Shinjo into committing when he should not.
>Whoa, really?
>I nodded.
>Mantis-san spoke up from where he was being treated.
>What about me?
>I smiled over at him.
>You'd better win. I wanted to set the Scorpion tossing record.
>I will win.
>We grinned at one another, eager at the chance to test our strength against the other.
>After the break, Mantis-san and Togashi Asuma entered the ring.
>They bowed to one another.
>You truly are a raging storm and pounding wave, Mantis-san.
>I look forward to testing myself against a force of nature wearing the flesh of a mortal.
>Mantis-san stretched and flexed popping joints loudly.
>Let's have a good match, Dragon-san.
>They took their stances.
>I saw Mantis-san's eyelid twitch.
>Then the Dragon was upon him, slap after slap driving Mantis-san back to the edge of the ring.
>Mantis-san brought his arms up under Asuma's and broke the Dragons rhythm.
>Continuing the motion, Mantis-san slammed both palms into Asuma's chest driving him back towards the center.
>They both resettled their stances and came at each other again meeting slightly inside Mantis-sans side of the ring.
>Again the air filled with sharp sound of flesh being struck and Mantis-san's chest was soon bright red.
>Whatever damage was being done to Asuma was concealed under all of his tattoos.
>Then I heard a sharper crack and the referee steeped in between the two.
>He spoke to Asuma briefly, who nodded.
>Then declared Mantis-san the winner.
>Contestant Asuma has sustained an injury and is no longer able to continue the match!
>So Mantis-san had struck with enough force to crack a rib, maybe even break it outright,
>A shugenja hurried in to tend to Asuma.
>The Dragon waved off the shugenja to bow to Mantis-san first though.
>I thank you for this lesson, Mantis-san. I will remember not to try to overpower the waves in the future.
>Mantis-san returned the bow.
>With a little more training you probably could Dragon-san.
>You flatter me.
>You almost had me.
>Togashi Asuma bowed again and allowed the shugenja to take him from the ring and treat his wounds.
>I entered the ring and faced off with the Crane.
>Instead of going for the Imma Killya Stare I decided to try out the confident smirk the Chibicorn had shown me.
>The Crane blinked.
>It worked.
>We came up and I shoved a palm at him.
>He slipped beneath my arm and grabbed my Mawashi, trying to pull me over his hip.
>Just like he did with the Shiba.
>I was ready for him to do something like that.
>I shifted my weight leaning back.
>Then I spun around.
>It wasn't a proper Sumai move, I don't think, but this was hardly a professional tournament.
>He still had a firm grip on my Mawashi, so when I spun it yanked him off balance.
>He stumbled past me, leaning over heavily.
>I let him stand up straight and turn around.
>But before he could fully reset his stance I slammed my chest against him.
>And sent him tumbling to the mat.
>Another break before the finals.
>Naomi and Toshiro came to tend to me.
>The others went over to Mantis-san.
>Naomi rubbed a salve on her hands and began rubbing it into my arms and shoulders.
>It was cool.
>I wondered why she was doing that though, when she could do the same with a quick spell.
>Is it just me or is she touching me more than necessary?
>I looked at Toshiro, who flicked his gaze out towards the spectators.
>All of the men were leaning over in conversation with one another. I saw some Koku change hands in a few places.
>The ladies of the court were a sea of fluttering fans, no doubt bored by the barbarity...
>The youngest ones, those likely still unmarried were all flushed and fidgeting.
>It wasn't really that hot in the room.
>Oh.
>Toshiro shook his head and chuckled that I hadn't noticed until now.
>The break ended and Mantis-san and I entered the ring.
>We bowed without words.
>There was no need to speak.
>We took our stances.
>Neither of us bothered to try to assault the others spirit.
>We wanted this contest to be of one thing, and one thing only.
>We came up and our chests slammed together.
>We gripped each others' mawashi.
>And we strained with all our might.
>One of us was going to lift and throw the other.
>That was the only way this would end.
>We strained, pushing our bodies against one another and shifting our weight, each subtly robbing the other of the leverage they needed to win.
>I suppose, to someone who could not see the subtle battle taking place, it would look very boring.
>But I was dimly aware that there were many courtiers leaning forward with great intensity.
>Oi, don't get distracted now!
>I'm not.
>I sank a little lower, then rose up onto the balls of my feet.
>Mantis-san countered by leaning forward, forcing my heels to slam back to the ground.
>I pivoted my hips, letting my left side continue backward.
>He leaned back.
>I slammed my chest into his.
>He tried to counter by matching my force, but his reaction was just slightly delayed.
>I felt his body give under my assault.
>I knew his toes had come up off the mat.
>Now or never.
>I lifted straining every muscle in my back and shoulders.
>He sank his weight low, Pushed against my mawashi to counter my lift.
>But it was too late.
>With every tendon taut and every muscle on clear display I gave one mighty heave and threw Mantis-san to the ground.
>My vision swam and I had to place my hands on my knees to avoid falling myself.
>I sucked in huge lungfuls of air.
>Mantis-san was looking up at me, surprised.
>So was I, truth be told.
>I'll take the fact that you're breathing that hard as a compliment.
>He grinned as he stood.
>I nodded emphatically.
>Good... match.
>I panted at him.
>There was polite applause as I was named the Champion.
>We all headed for the baths to get cleaned up after our exercise.
>Asuma congratulated us both on our bout.
>That was amazing. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to witness such a contest.
>I looked over at the Togashi.
>Mind if I ask you which ones are magical and which ones are art?
>Not at all.
>He showed me.
>Mountain.
>Ocean.
>Tiger.
>Bamboo.
>Crab.
>So, safe to say we would have had no chance had you used those?
>If I had used my tattoos, it would only have been fair to allow you to use your tetsubo and armor.
>The Power in my tattoos is a gift, it is not my own.
>I strive to master them, and use them to their full potential, but they are no more a part of my own self than you armor is your own flesh.
>Huh. Like how shugenja don't really work magic themselves, but ask the Kami for their favor?
>He smiled at that.
>In a way, yes.
>Ishigaki-san.
>I looked over to Mantis-san.
>I just want to make sure, you weren't faking that panting were you?
>By Hida no!
>It really was that hard for me to win.
>He nodded.
>Okay then.
>We'll have to have a rematch sometime.
>If it was really that close.
>Yeah, we will.
>But first, I need something to eat. I'm starving after all that exertion.
>We went went to get some dinner, and I found myself the center of attention.
>Time to initiate polite small talk.
>Much of the talk revolved around my scars and training methods.
>Oh that one? Ogre with a tetsubo.
>We train in full armor night and day at Sunda Mizu.
>Goblin. Had a few of them climbing on my back and stabling me that time.
>Running mostly. With a log. Up and down the steps up to the top of the wall.
>Oni. It's arms folded like a praying mantis, and it had sharp bones that were as good as blades coming out. Almost killed me, in fact.
>That last one was the Oni that gave me the scar on my face.
>It brought back some painful memories.
>So I went on the attack.
>I decided to go for a two pronged assault, one that would drive back the sadness of my lost family and shift the topic from me.
>So, do you have any children yet? I've got two myself.
>Oh my.
>It was the Mantis woman with the cleavage.
>I would love to have children one day, but I'm not married yet sadly.
>Ears pricked up all around the table.
>My mother was a Doji, so I'm certain she knows someone who will be able to arrange and excellent marriage for me one day though.
>That explained the blue eyes then.
>How about you Hida-san? How did you meet your wife?
>We were assigned to work together, and our feelings blossomed over time.
>I smiled over at Naomi.
>Eh? Is she your wife?
>Yeah. Thats Hida Naomi.
>The Mantis looked back and forth between me and Naomi.
>She wasn't the only one.
>I was large, scarred and ugly.
>She was small, frail and lovely.
>We were, physically at least, opposites in every way.
>The Mantis remembered her manners then and introduced herself to Naomi.
>I am Moshi Aoi, it's a pleasure to meet you.
>After dinner Naomi went to take a bath.
>When she came back she was quite red.
>What happened, Hana-chan?
>Th-that Mantis... Moshi Aoi?
>Yes?
>She's a... she's a...
>Yes?
>She's a PERVERT!
>...
>...wat.
>She wanted details Ishigaki-kun!
>Copious details!
>She used those exact words!
>What is it with my wife getting asked about her love life in the baths?
>What the hell do women do in there anyway?
>I hugged Naomi close and stroked her hair.
>I suppose Naomi falling in love and marrying her lover was an unusual thing in Rokugan, but still...
>At first it was innocent enough, simple things like when I realized I loved you, how you confessed to me...
>But then she asked about the bedroom!
>I could see why Naomi was so red.
>We had been married for years, and had two children.
>Yet she still blushed every time we made love.
>Even when she was initiating it.
>It was adorable.
>I loved that sweet innocence of hers.
>A loud thumpdragging let us know to break our hug before our comrades came in.
>Save Mantis-san.
>Toshiro produced a small bottle of sake and set it to warming.
>Kitsuki-san started up.
>Kitsuki Takumi-sama was pleased with Hida Katusie's proposal of cooperation.
>Good, that's good news then.
>He nodded.
>Monkey spoke up.
>Hey, where's Manits-san? Shouldn't we wait for him?
>No, Monkey we should not.
>Anything he hears would go straight into the ears of the Mantis delegate.
>He knows that, which is why he is not joining us.
>Oh.
>Monkey looked down.
>I don't like this.
>I clapped Monkey on the shoulder.
>None of us do, but we're not about to ask him to work against his own clan.
>Monkey nodded.
>Okay.
>Kitsuki-san resumed.
>Amano-san assures me that we can count on the aid of the Scorpion as well.
>I had to ask.
>What's the price?
>I'm sorry?
>The price, Kitsuki-san?
>We're talking about a Scorpion here, they don't do anything that isn't beneficial in some way to their own schemes.
>I fail to see how that's any different from any other Clan.
>It's different because you're friends with him. You may not be as cautious as you should.
>I don't think I like that implication, Ishigaki-san.
>I met Toshiro's gaze, shook my head.
>I would shoulder the burden of being the asshole alone on this one.
>Isn't that precisely why Mantis-san is not here in this room with us?
>Because even though he's our friend we know we would be working at cross purposes?
>Kitsuki-san sat up rigidly straight.
>He slowly put down his cup of sake.
>He looked me right in the eyes.
>I have known Amano-san since we were children, Ishigaki-san.
>If he could not help me, he would say so.
>I know all his mannerisms; he cannot lie to me and knows it.
>And he would not tarnish our friendship by trying to lie via omission to me.
>I stared back.
>You are absolutely certain of this?
>Yes.
>Okay then.
>I refilled Kitsuki-san's cup myself.
>Thank you, Ishigaki-san.
>You're welcome.
>Are you two done fighting now?
>Yes Monkey we are done fighting.
>Good.
>Kitsuki-san sighed then.
>Unfortunately, I have some bad news.
>I had occasion to speak with the Crane during the tournament, and I am certain they intend to sabotage the peace talks.
>Really, the Crane?
>Yes. I don't know quite how they intend to do so.
>I am certain they will pretend they're working towards peace.
>But they wish to inflate the value of their own surplus rice.
>So far Dragon, Crab and Scorpion were working together for peace between the Mantis and Phoenix.
>The Crane stood opposed, in secret.
>The Crab and Unicorn often had good relations.
>But the Unicorn and Crane had better ones.
>It was the Crane Clan Champion that first recognized the Unicorn as the returning Clan of the Ki-Rin.
>The Lion hated the Crane as much as the Crab did.
>But the Lion also hated the Scorpion.
>There was also some bad blood between the Lion and Phoenix.
>I could not judge if the Lion or Unicorn would choose to enter this battle or merely observe.
>Nor could I be certain of the outcome.
>If the Crane and Scorpion stood opposed to one another in the court, all hell could break loose.
>Tomorrow was the painting contest. What would happen then, I wondered?
>In a manner of speaking, anyway.

Act XIX: Art Critics[edit]

>When I woke up in the morning I noticed my beard was getting shaggy again.
>Time for a trim then.
>I shook my head at the thought.
>On the Wall a 'trim' was me pulling my beard taut and slicing it off with a tanto as close to my chin as I could.
>Away from the wall there was an assortment of tools to use.
>And my fingers were ill suited to fine detail work.
>Mirrors were expensive as well, hard to make.
>Naomi saw me rubbing at my scruff.
>Smiled.
>I'll get it Ishigaki-kun.
>Fortunately, I had Naomi.
>We sat in silence while she made me presentable, enjoying the intimacy of the moment together.
>Then off for breakfast and polite meal time conversation with the court.
>I was fortunate enough that the talk had already shifted away from the sumai tournament and on to the painting contest.
>It was, like the sumai tournament, an amateur affair.
>Open to any who cared to pick up a brush.
>A large room had been set aside to display the finished works.
>Who painted what would be kept secret, so bias against this or that clan would have no weight on the judging.
>Naomi had with a few paintings, so I was looking forward to her entry.
>I had no doubt even my eyes would be able to pick hers out from the group.
>Kitsuki-san was a consummate courtier so I'm sure he would enter as well.
>To my surprise those two encouraged the rest of us to enter as well.
>The Akodo from the tournament overheard and agreed.
>The way of warrior is the two fold way of pen and sword.
>One must train their mind as diligently as they train their body, and so be scholar, poet and warrior all at once.
>He nodded to emphasize his point.
>Indeed it is one of Akodo's orders that one always carry a text with them.
>If one has nothing else to do, they should read.
>Toshiro, Mantis-san and I all exchanged glances.
>It was Naomi who finally convinced us.
>All the works will be anonymous you three.
>It is only the winner whose work will be known.
>So we agreed to try our hand at painting.
>I stared for a long time at the blank paper in front of me.
>It was taunting me.
>I didn't have the first clue what made a good painting so I had no idea where to even start.
>And, my hands were rough.
>My fingers thick and a little clumsy.
>Ill suited to delicate work like painting.
>In fact the only time I could ever be gentle...
>...was with Naomi...
>I knew what I would paint.
>It was crude, and ugly.
>The lines far to thick.
>I used no color.
>I was afraid trying I might slop over the lines I had already laid out.
>A simple jagged line near the bottom represented a layer of snow.
>And in the center a single flower bloomed with all it's might.
>I struggled for a bit after I painted the stem.
>In the end I went with five petals, like the ones Naomi had planted in our garden.
>I'm sure they had some meaning, but like with the patterns she had raked in the sand, I never bothered to ask what.
>That garden was HER garden.
>I did not understand the art she brought into and made for our house.
>But it brought her happiness to do so.
>That was reason enough for it to exist.
>I didn't give the painting a name.
>I signed my own name to the small paper beside me and called in a servant.
>They confirmed that this was my painting and my name, then folded up the paper with my name on it and tucked it behind the painting.
>The painting declared the winner would have the paper bearing it's creators name unfolded and read aloud.
>Everyone else's painting would be returned to their rooms discreetly by servants after the judging was finished.
>I took a few deep breaths and then went out into the grand hall where the artwork was on display.
>There were a LOT of paintings.
>And servants kept bringing in more.
>At the door a servant asked my name.
>I told them, and they wrote it down.
>Then folded up the paper firmly.
>He handed the paper to me.
>Beneath each painting you will find a bowl, great samurai.
>Please place your vote into the bowl of the painting you judge to be the best.
>Once all the paintings have been brought in, of course, great samurai.
>Please do not vote for your own painting, great samurai.
>I looked at the paper in my hand.
>I had to ask.
>What's to stop someone from just swapping out their vote with the name of a painting they they think is better than their own?
>The servant took two pieces of paper.
>The vote ballot is folded thusly
>He folded
>While the artists name is folded in this way
>He folded again.
>When he unfolded them they had clearly different creases showing in the paper.
>Oh. Okay then.
>I circulated among the paintings already here.
>A few stood out to my eyes.
>One was a single vertical line, with almost the entire rest of the painting covered in black ink.
>Only a small circle of blank paper surrounded the line.
>It almost looked like a darkness closing in on, and threatening to engulf, whatever that one line was supposed to be.
>There was another that was simply the kanji for 'empty' upon an otherwise blank page
>Except, it wasn't empty, because there was a kanji on it.
>Was that supposed to be clever?
>There were quite a few courtiers discussing that one, so I guess it was.
>Dots.
>Lots and lots and lots of dots.
>There were several courtiers around that one, arguing over what it could mean.
>I looked again.
>Wait.
>This looks like a battle formation.
>No. Two armies engaging each other.
>If you were looking at a battle from above, anyway.
>I wasn't certain, because the artist had only used black ink, but I thought I could pick out the sides.
>I was no great strategist, but I had seen plenty of battles.
>If I was right about which dots were on which side, this battle was going to end without a clear winner. Just piles and piles of corpses.
>Huh.
>Oooh? Do you have some idea as to the meaning of this painting, Hida-san?
>It was Scorpion woman, Soshi by the mon on her kimono, that spoke to me.
>I looked back...
>The courtiers were all looking at me expectantly.
>There were several Crane and Scorpion in this group, as well as a few Phoenix.
>And the head of the Mantis delegation.
>I pointed.
>Looks like two armies to me.
>See, here and here?
>These are battle formations.
>The Soshi hid behind her fan and sniffed.
>How uncouth, to make a painting glorifying war when there are peace talks going on.
>I wonder about that.
>An Asako spoke up.
>What do you mean, Hida-san?
>Well, they're all going to die.
>I gestured, explaining how the battle would progress from this point.
>When each unit would likely be ordered to join in, and how the shape would change.
>Looks to me like these armies are going to just wipe each other out.
>No one wins.
>I laughed at myself.
>But what do I know about art anyway?
>I'm probably wrong anyway. Don't mind me.
>Fans fluttered as I got away before I could embarrass myself further.
>There was another painting, of a mother bird feeding her young in a nest.
>Behind them was a large wall.
>Behind the wall, dark, ill defined shapes could be seen trying to climb over it.
>The wall was cracked in a few places, but the shapes didn't seem to be having any luck.
>At first I thought I had found Toshiro's but the style was too practiced.
>His would be uglier, like mine.
>The person who painted this one had painted before, many times.
>Of course, with such an obvious meaning, this had to belong to one of my fellow Crabs.
>I wondered which one painted in their off time..
>Katsuie-sama, perhaps.
>I'd already seen him playing a Konto, so it wouldn't surprise me if he had other artistic pursuits as well.
>I overheard some courtiers talking, another painting had drawn a small crowd.
>I went over to see what the fuss was about.
>I wonder about the deliberate crudeness of the lines.
>It obviously speaks to the harshness of the world, and how one must struggle to bloom so beautifully.
>Indeed, this perfectly captures mono no aware, even without the petals falling.
>There's no way...
>I agree. It was wise to leave it to the viewer to remember the truth.
>I came up.
>Sure enough, it was my painting.
>I'm sorry, I'm a bit crude. But could someone please explain to me what's going on this painting?
>Patronizing smiles only half hidden by fans.
>Of course Hida-san.
>Look here, this thick line is snow. It's crudeness shows a harsh winter, just as the world can be a harsh and cruel place.
>A lone flower, struggling to bloom beautifully with all it's might.
>Though it is far from perfect, no other flower has the strength to do this.
>And even as your heart exults in the flowers victory, you are taken over by the bittersweet realization that it will wilt and perish soon, perhaps even alone, before the other flowers bloom themselves.
>Mono no aware; the impermanence of things.
>Moshi Aoi took a moment to peer at the painting.
>I think that this painting is exulting the virtues of the artists lover.
>What?
>Isn't this a Wasurenagusa flower?
>It is hard to tell because the artist used no color.
>The others crowded around again.
>Gasps arose.
>You are right, Moshi-san!
>A secret declaration of love!
>A winter romance already!
>Fluttering intensifies.
>...
>...
>The fuck did I just do?
>I beat a hasty retreat.
>I understood that great art was supposed to be subtle, full of hidden meaning.
>I hadn't realized this meant art critics would talk out of their asses and see things the artist never intended.
>It was just Naomi, just my Hana-chan.
>Not some epic treatise on short beautiful lives.
>And certainly not the declaration of a winter romance.
>I didn't even know what those wasa.. wa.. wasabi flowers, or whatever the hell they were called, meant when I painted that.
>True Love.
>Huh.
>Of course that was where Naomi would start.
>Well then, I supposed I would just let the courtiers gossip about a non-existent romance.
>Don't misunderstand, of course I loved my wife dearly.
>But a winter romance was a different thing to that.
>Love is, at best, a secondary consideration in marriage, if it is considered at all.
>It is taboo for a samurai to show emotion in public, and this extends to love as well.
>In plays and stories however Love is often an element.
>Most of the time, the lovers meet a tragic end for their feelings.
>Most of the time, this is what would happen in real life as well.
>I remember one play I saw, about two bushi who loved one another dearly.
>They would often duel one another testing each others skills and pushing the other to excel, and so they were both quite skilled with their blades.
>Such was their skill that they dueled with real blades, and never hurt one another.
>This kind of skill could be seen at some of the top tournaments in Rokugan, like the Test of the Emerald Champion.
>What began as a rivalry blossomed into romance, then into love.
>However, the parents of the Samurai-ko arranged a marriage for her, even though they knew of her love.
>On the wedding day, the two lovers had one last duel with each other.
>The parents and her husband to be thought it a minor indulgence, one last duel to end their rivalry and love forever.
>The lovers killed each other, by stabbing each other through the heart at the same time.
>This play was written about two people who did such a thing in reality.
>A winter romance was the closest thing a Samurai was supposed to get to love, in the real world.
>One person would, though subtle innuendo and often hidden in works of art, extol the virtues of the person they were romancing.
>It was a game, dancing on the edge of acceptable behavior.
>One must be subtle enough to not let on who they were courting for real, yet it was no good if the one being courted could not themselves realize it.
>If, by the time it was over, everyone knew but could not prove who was involved then it was successful.
>The participants would both be talked about with admiration for some time, perhaps even years.
>The best ones would be immortalized in art.
>Of course, should someone be able to PROVE who was involved things would not go so well.
>Many times, some brash young fool would pursue a married woman.
>Sometimes, should samurai love someone who ends up married to another, they pursue their love in this way.
>Having clandestine affairs during the winter courts.
>Those that get caught will be spoken off for some time as well.
>As a warning to those would selfishly pursue their own desires instead of their duty.
>Whatever the outcome, a winter romance would be a very exciting thing for everyone to try and keep track off.
>I suppose then, that I had unintentionally muddied the waters making it easier for those who would try one this year.
>It was while I was thinking of these things that I came upon the next portrait.
>It was a woman, facing away from the viewer.
>She was slipping her Kimono off, exposing her back down almost to her rear, and looking over her shoulder seductively.
>There was nothing to distinguish a clan or even caste.
>I wondered if this was the Moshi pervert's submission.
>I saw many that were quite simple, paintings of animals, landscapes, some fortunes.
>One was of Ebisu, a pleased smile on his face, as he watched over peasants planting the next crop of rice.
>Kitsuki-san was extolling the virtue of an honest peaceful life to a group of assembled courtiers in front of that one.
>There were already a few ballots in that ones bowl.
>I looked around. The servants were not bringing in any more paintings.
>I realized I could be here all day and not see, or at least not understand, all the paintings here.
>I followed Kitsuki-san's lead and tossed my ballot in that one.
>Though I still hadn't seen Naomi's painting.
>Once everyone had cast their votes, the servants tallied them up and Shoji announced the winner.
>It was Ebisu watching the peasants.
>I was absolutely mortified.
>As I watched an embarrassed Monkey walk up and get his accolades for having the best painting.
>Several runner ups were on display, without naming the painters of course.
>I was more than a little shocked to see mine up there.
>So had the dot battle.
>And 'Empty'.
>Now it was Monkey's turn to be swarmed by courtiers.
>Kitsuki-san came to the rescue, helping poor Monkey by covering for any gaffes.
>I silently wished them luck and thanked the Fortunes it wasn't me this time.
>I see your painting did well, Ishigaki-kun.
>Naomi came up to me, smiling.
>But, why are you trying to court me? I thought we were already married.
>She was teasing me again.
>Too many people around for me to swat her rump this time.
>Looks like you chose this battlefield well, Naomi. But I'm going to launch a counterattack tonight.
>She hid her blush behind her fan.
>Tonight then.
>Um. My eyes are bad at judging art, and there's a lot here...
>You couldn't find mine?
>She did not seem saddened by that, though a bit surprised.
>It is here.
>The birds and the wall.
>Naomi? YOU did this?
>I thought you would go for something more... gentle.
>Ishigaki-kun, you painted a picture of me.
>What do you suppose I painted?
>I stared, starting to get it.
>That is you. You are my wall, protecting me. And our children.
>Baka.
>She bopped my nose with her fan, for not seeing it sooner.
>Toshiro had been the smartass who made "Empty".
>Mantis-san had simply done a sailor, standing on the prow of a boat.
>And Kitsuki-san a landscape. It was very detailed, almost jumping off the paper.
>That night, I launched my counterattack and laid siege to my wife's castle.
>Her gates opened before my might, and I stormed inside her fortress.
>But in the end, it was a draw.
>We were both victorious.
>We took a private breakfast, just our little group.
>Once again, Mantis-san was not present.
>Kitsuki-san thanked me for explaining Dot Battle.
>Uh, you're welcome?
>It was Amano's work.
>Yesterday we took the temperature of the court, so to speak.
>Seeing how popular images of peaceful life, or at least the futility of war, were.
>Is that why you were talking at length about Monkey's painting?
>Wait, huh?
>Monkey looked absolutely crestfallen.
>You mean I didn't win because it was good?
>Kitsuki-san reacted quickly.
>No Monkey, Ishigaki-san is wrong. I WAS speaking about your painting, but I was speaking about it represented.
>It was a fine painting Monkey, and you won on your own merits.
>You sure?
>Yes.
>Okay.
>He stuffed a rice ball into his mouth. Whole. And grinned, pleased with himself.
>The good news is that by the votes we can tell sentiment is currently strongly against the Mantis.
>They will have to be more sparing with their demands for peace then?
>Naomi's tone was hopeful.
>Kitsuki-san nodded to her.
>Yes. If they overreach then there is a possibility of other clans promising aid to the Phoenix.
>I nodded along.
>So we're ahead, and our objective should be to go defensive and maintain our advantage.
>Exactly so, Ishigaki-san.
>Monkey raised his hand.
>Um, how are we gonna do that, Ishigaki-san?
>I stared at Monkey. Hard. Until he put his hand down in confusion.
>I wasn't about to admit I had no idea how to do that either.
>Kitsuki-san stifled a chuckle by coughing into his hand.
>Just continue on as you would normally Monkey, and you too Ishigaki.
>You need not worry about pushing things along.
>Besides, since there is no competition today, you will likely be a focal point for discussion again Monkey.
>Monkey's eyes widened.
>I had seen that look on the faces of Goblins when I dangled them over the south side of the wall, before dropping them.
>Okay.
>I excused myself early, before Monkey could think to ask for help.
>Katsuie-sama asked for my presence in his room later on that day.
>I was surprised to see the painting of the woman on the wall there.
>Wait, you did that?
>Uh, Katsuie-sama?
>Yes. It is my niece.
>I stared...
>She is... difficult. A tomboy with a real temper.
>And quite ferocious.
>Fine traits for warrior upon the Wall, but I hope to help her find a good husband and settle down a bit.
>You know well, how married life and the responsibility of being a parent can calm the raging fires of youth, do you not?
>A bit, yes Katsuie-sama.
>But, enough about that.
>I asked you here because I wished to hear about how you and friends are doing.
>I explained Kitsuki-san's thoughts on the Crane, and his interpretation of the voting yesterday.
>I stumbled a bit over the part where we were working with the Scorpion, unsure how that would go over.
>But Katusie-sama just sipped his tea.
>Necessity often makes for strange bedfellows, after all.
>Thank you for you candidness Ishigaki-san. You have given me much to think about.
>I took that for the dismissal it was and headed back out.
>Now, how was I going to lay low the rest of the day?
>I saw Kitsuki-san, engaged in a game of go with Moshi Aoi.
>Monkey was drowning in courtiers.
>I left before he saw me.
>I found Mantis-san sitting in a room with the doors to the outside open, allowing in a nice breeze.
>I sat down.
>Monkey is having a rough time.
>He nodded.
>Ran away before he could ask for help, did you?
>He nodded again.
>You too, huh?
>Yep.
>We chuckled.
>He pulled out a Go set.
>Sure, why not.
>We played.
>Mantis-san was reckless, with a style that slashed at my flanks over and over again.
>I played a much more defensive game, trying to lure my opponent into reckless offense so I could nip out and take more territory.
>It was close, but Mantis-san was just able to edge me out when the game ended.
>Good game.
>Yeah, likewise.
>Are things going well for you, Mantis-san?
>We shouldn't really talk about that.
>I don't mean your clan, I mean you specifically.
>Oh.
>He scowled.
>I don't know if I can figure out a way to bitch without giving something away, though...
>Sounds like you need a drink
>I do. Yohko, that's the lead delegate, hates Aoi with a passion. She's always pissed Aoi gets all the attention, even though she's only doing what she's told...
>He cut off.
>You didn't do that on purpose, did you Ishigaki-san?
>You think I'm that smooth?
>Yeah, you're right there.
>Hah. Well whatever. I don't really care at this point.
>The Mantis delegation is sabotaging itself with infighting. And Yoritomo Yohko thinks I should try and play double agent to get us back on track.
>I refused, of course, and now she's pissed at me.
>Seriously, that damn bitch is as vindictive as your Father-in-law.
>Huh. I can see why you're pissed then.
>Yeah.
>I won't tell anyone.
>Huh?
>You don't sit in our meetings, so I won't tell anyone about this little slip up.
>...
>Thanks, Ishigaki-san.
>Another game?
>Sure.
>I got him the second time around.
>We were just about to go for two out of three when a shriek arose.
>We looked at one another.
>We both knew that song.
>We ran towards the cries.
>A crowd was beginning to gather as we made our way through.
>A servant, still shrieking her head off was staring at the lifeless body of Yoritomo Yohko.
>A wakizashi with a charm dangling off the end of the hilt jutted up from her chest
>Without thinking about it I extended my arms and began pushing back the crowd, ordering them back from the scene.
>Mantis-san gave the servant a soft slap.
>She stared at him, in shock.
>But she stopped screaming.
>MOVE!
>MOVE DAMN IT!
>MAKE WAY I SAID!
>Shoji burst through the crowd.
>Looked at the Mantis delegate.
>And sank to his knees.
>Not the reaction I was expecting.
>I knew that the implications of this murder must be far worse for him than I realized, if he reacted like that.
>Then he saw me.
>YOU!
>You were an Emerald Magistrate once! You MUST find who did this!
>For Shoji to ask me, of all people for help.
>And to do so without hesitation.
>I realized this was a very big deal.
>Kitsuki-san and Naomi arrived on scene next, along with the Karo.
>Thump.
>Drag.
>Thump
>Drag.
>Thump.
>...
>Thumpthumpthump.
>Hey, hey guys! Magistrate coming through, make way please!
>And there's Monkey and Toshiro.
>I looked evenly at Shoji, now that everyone was here.
>You're sure you want US to handle this investigation?
>Yes!
>He looked at Toshiro, avoiding Naomi.
>Bastard.
>You may be Jade Magistrates now, but you were Emerald Magistrates before, and there is a Mantis among you!
>None can doubt you will be impartial in this matter!
>He stared hard at the assembled courtiers, almost daring anyone to contradict him.
>Find the culprit, quickly!
>He took off, the Karo right behind.
>I shooed the lookie loos some more, then glowered when that wasn't working.
>The glower did work.
>Moshi Aoi was the last to leave.
>She addressed Kitsuki-san.
>You were an Emerald Magistrate?
>Yes.
>Then you will be able to find the one responsible, won't you?
>He looked up at her.
>Of course I will. WE will.
>She nodded.
>Thank you.
>She left then.
>Mantis-san waited for a bit, then sighed.
>Guess I should tell everyone now.
>Yohko here hated Aoi.
>Kitsuki-san looked up.
>Was it mutual?
>I can't be certain. But Yohko was a vengeful bitch if you got on her bad side. A bit like Shoji, actually.
>I see.
>See anything useful, Kitsuki-san?
>Hmmm. red silk for the tsuka ito, the tsuba a bronze oval without decoration. And this charm here...
>It is for peaceful dreams.
>Damn, that is twisted.
>You said it Monkey.
>We withdrew the wakizashi and cleaned it, then asked for a servant to bring us a spare sword stand to keep it on.
>Toshiro looked the body over, but there was no way to perform an autopsy without raising too many questions.
>Her arms are cut up.
>Defensive wounds.
>And she was stabbed from the front
>So she was not caught completely off guard
>Hmmm.
>Toshiro waved over one of the eta waiting for us to be finished.
>Lift up that arm there.
>One stab, straight through the heart, but many more cuts on her body.
>Can't tell if it's an amateur, or just rage though..
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>Okay then, someone who she did not trust, drew their short blade and attacked wildly, overpowering her and finishing her off.
>Toshiro nodded.
>Looks like it.
>Mantis-san folded his arms.
>My money is on rage then. Another courtier she pissed off most likely.
>That, sweet dreams bit seems pretty personal.
>Kitsuki-san stood up, and nodded to the eta.
>They began to clean up.
>We went back to our rooms to talk and set the wakizashi down.
>At this point, I am inclined to agree Mantis-san.
>But we would be remiss if we did not first check to see if we can find the owner of this blade.
>Monkey stared at the weapon.
>Hey, if the killer used their own blade wouldn't that make it stupidly easy to find them?
>It would.
>Which is why we should check to see if they know someone who might want to frame them.
>What if they're just running away, like right now?
>It couldn't be that easy, could it?
>Best not risk it.
>Our first line of questions, unexpectedly and to everyone we passed, was whether or not anyone was missing.
>As it turned out, someone was.

Act XX: Bad Dreams[edit]

>A gunso informed us one of his hohei did not show for muster this morning.
>He said her name was Shiba Ayame.
>Did she stay in the barracks here?
>Hai, I shall show you.
>Please do, Shiba-san.
>As we headed towards the barracks Kitsuki-san looked again at the wakizashi.
>Yes, this is indeed the blade of a private fresh from her gempukku.
>In Rokugan, peasants are not allowed to carry weapons of any kind.
>The exception being ashigaru, and crab peasants.
>However, even peasant soldiers are never allowed to have a daisho.
>The paired long and short blades are the symbol of a samurai's status.
>Some Samurai do not wear their katana.
>Wearing it means you claim skill with it.
>And thus you must defend yourself with it.
>That means that if, say, Kitsuki-san were to be challenged to a duel, he would have to fight it himself.
>Whereas Naomi and Toshiro, who do not wear Katana, would have the right to name a champion to fight the duel in their stead.
>ALL samurai wear their wakizashi however.
>Even if, like Naomi, they only ever draw it to clean it.
>In fact, in many places where a samurai is expected to leave their weapons behind, it is still acceptable to wear one's short blade.
>For those of high rank, and especially those who expect never to have to fight with it, the short blade often becomes a work of art more than a weapon.
>Kitsuki-san spoke again.
>We will need to search her belongings thoroughly for any clue as to where she may have gone.
>I came to an abrupt halt as we entered the barracks.
>Or, she could have just overslept.
>I find that hard to be...oh you've GOT to be kidding me.
>Shiba Ayame lay on her futon, curled into a little ball and snored softly.
>A daisho stand was at the head of her futon.
>The saya for the wakizashi was empty.
>I knelt down and prodded her gently.
>Behind me I heard her gunso trying to decide if he should have a stroke, aneurysm, or apoplectic fit.
>Hmmm? Whua?
>Hey. Wake up.
>We need to talk.
>She sat up, bleary eyed and with a fairly advanced case of bed head.
>Ayame must be a fitful sleeper as her obi had come undone.
>I coughed loudly to help her wake up faster, and when she looked at me I pointed down a few times.
>GAH!
>She snatched her Kimono closed and began retying her obi.
>Though embarrassed she did a good job feigning aloof dignity.
>You don't sleep well?
>She glared at me.
>I don't see what business it is of yours.
>Who are all you people anyway?
>You didn't come here just on the off chance of catching a peek...
>She finally noticed her gunso.
>And that she was the only soldier in the barracks.
>Uh... gunso? What time is it?
>He decided he would have all three.
>You... YOU IMBECILE! Do you have any idea-
>Mantis-san stepped in front of him, cutting him off.
>Like I said, we need to talk.
>We gave her a moment to make her self presentable.
>Then we played a game.
>Good magistrate, better magistrate, bad magistrate, and keep that magistrate the hell away from me.
>More specifically, Kitsuki-san asked her firm, yet polite questions.
>Monkey would protest on her behalf at times, saying he could see she would not lie about this or that thing.
>Mantis-san took over directly glowering at Kitsuki-san's signal
>While I loomed just behind her, occasionally stepping just inside the edge of her vision for a moment or two.
>The four way assault left Shiba Ayame terribly confused, stammering and stumbling over her words.
>Kitsuki-san had said before that it was desirable for a suspect to be in such a state, as they would have a hard time remembering the little details of any lies they had to make up on the spot.
>She freely admitted that the wakizashi was hers.
>What is going on?
>Are you saying you found this somewhere? That someone took it from the barracks while I slept?
>Kitsuki-san shook his head.
>Are you still maintaining that?
>YES! I went to sleep around 10 last night, and I awoke here and now with you all leering at me!
>That is all!
>This charm here. What is it for?
>It's... nothing.
>Monkey blinked at her.
>Ya sure? Cause I know that I can't see 'nothing' but I can see something on the end of your wakizashi here.
>I could almost see the smoke coming out of ears as she tried to figure out what the hell Monkey just said.
>I sympathized; I wasn't entirely certain Monkey wasn't having some sort of fit myself.
>Kitsuki-san gave a sigh that sounded like a mildly disappointed parent.
>Shiba-san, please do not insult my intelligence.
>As my companion here has pointed out that charm is clearly not 'nothing'.
>I will ask again. What is it?
>It's what you think it is. I have bad dreams...
>She seemed sullen about it.
>Kitsuki-san closed his eyes and considered her words, tapping his fan in his hand.
>Which was the signal for me to get back in her line of sight.
>I did so, and loomed magnificently if I do say so myself.
>That shocked her out of her sullen pout.
>What is the nature of these dreams, Shiba-san?
>Wh- why does that even matter?
>Answer my question.
>Monkey leaned in.
>Hey, I'd like to know too. They're just dreams, aren't they.
>Kitsuki-san turned to Monkey, but I could see him watching Ayame intently out of the corner of his eye as he replied.
>Dreams are never just dreams. They can show us glimpses of the future, or make sense of things we could not in our waking hours.
>Sometimes little things we perceive, but whose significance is lost on us, become apparent in our dreams.
>For example, a Lord once returned from winter court and had a nightmare that he was surrounded by a thousand enemies.
>He chose to heed the warning of his dream and strengthened his castle's defences.
>A week later, a military alliance that was formed during that winter court launched an attack on his castle, only to be repulsed due to his preparations.
>Though he had never even found a hint of the alliance, he nonetheless saw hints in the behavior of the conspirators, that his dream then revealed.
>Ayame bowed her head and shouted.
>I DO NOT REMEMBER THEM!
>Th-they slip from my grasp every time I awaken...
>Only the feeling remains. And it is hard to describe.
>Thump.
>Drag.
>While we had been interrogating her in another room, Toshiro and Naomi had searched her belongings for any clues.
>They must have found something pertinent.
>She looked up as Toshiro thumpdragged in.
>He handed a piece of paper to Kitsuki-san.
>Kitsuki-san unfolded it, and spread it out.
>A single line surrounded by black ink, with only a small space of blank paper around it, was on that paper.
>My painting! What are you doing with this?
>You went through my things!?
>Kitsuki-san ignored her questions.
>Is this...
>He tapped the painting with his fan.
>What you feel when you wake up?
>She looked around.
>Monkey gave her an encouraging nod.
>...Yes. It is.
>Toshiro nodded to me.
>I touched my jade to the back of her neck.
>She yelped and jumped almost high enough to hit the ceiling.
>But she did not burn.
>What was that! Who ARE you people? Why aren't you answering me!?
>She was on the verge of tears now.
>We are magistrates.
>Kitsuki-san replied.
>A crime has been committed, and you are a suspect in that crime.
>That is all you need to know.
>For now, I must ask you to please remain in this room while we continue our investigation.
>She went paler with every word.
>Oversleeping and missing muster was now the least of her worries.
>We left, with Monkey and Naomi both giving her encouraging smiles.
>Once we were alone.
>Do you not think you perhaps were a BIT too harsh Kitsuki-san?
>No Naomi-san, I do not.
>I needed to see the full range of her emotions with my own eyes, to better judge her.
>And?
>And she is telling the truth. She remembers only going to sleep and waking up.
>So then she didn't do it?
>Kitsuki-san shook his head.
>Not necessarily.
>It is possible for some criminals to truly not remember their crimes.
>Many killers drink so much that they cannot remember the night before and kill someone in a drunken rage, for example.
>Kitsuki-san narrowed his eyes.
>And, she harbors a bone deep hatred of the Mantis.
>Huh?
>Her eyes betrayed her, whenever she would look at you Mantis-san.
>Toshiro folded his arms.
>Mantis and Phoenix have had some minor issues in the past.
>Toshiro was rather fond of understatement and one liners.
>In hindsight, I'm embarrassed I didn't realize 'Empty' was his painting.
>Monkey snorted.
>'Minor' yeah. Like the last time we were here.
>Kitsuki-san stared at Monkey .
>There are times, Monkey, when your genius astounds me.
>Want to let the rest of us in that?
>Her hatred is deep, and much more personal than just clan rivalries.
>We need to split up, ask everyone you find about her.
>She has some reason for her hatred; we must find out!
>Naomi cocked her head at Kitsuki-san.
>Are you honestly suggesting that Shiba Ayame is so full of repressed hatred she went into some sort of fuge state and butchered Yohko?
>I'm not suggesting anything at this point Naomi-sama.
>But I will say it's a strong possibility.
>Mantis-san frowned.
>I find that a little hard to believe myself, Naomi-sama, but Yohko DID have all those wounds...
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>And that painting. Ishigaki-san confirmed it was the taint taking hold of her, so it looks to me like madness instead.
>Monkey shook his head.
>I'm with Naomi-sama on this one. I just can't see it.
>Kitsuki-san looked at Monkey and Naomi expectantly.
>You have another explanation, then?
>We split up trying to find out the source of Shiba Ayame's hate.
>I was a bit distracted, wondering if I should have taken Kitsuki-san to task for the tone he took with my wife.
>He could be single minded when pursuing an investigation.
>And very self assured.
>He'd even forgotten Naomi outranked him, briefly.
>Unfortunately, our first day's inquiries revealed only that Ayame was too new to have made many acquaintances yet.
>We ate dinner in our rooms, attempting to avoid questions.
>Oka-san, however, came to speak with us.
>Naomi-chan, how is your investigation going?
>Kitsuki-san interrupted.
>We really should not discuss an ongoing investigation.
>Oka-san gave him a cold look.
>Let me ask you this then. Do you realize what is at stake here?
>I answered.
>The peace talks, yes.
>No, Ishigaki-san, there is more on the line than you realize.
>She looked at Naomi again.
>It was made quite clear to your father that failure in these talks was NOT an option.
>If the death of the Mantis delegate threatens the peace talks, then the Clan is quite willing to atone with the death of the responsible party.
>The realization struck me like a tetsubo to the gut.
>THAT explains Shoji's reaction, and why he was so desperate to find the killer.
>Naomi didn't take the news that unless we found someone more suitable her father was going to be a sacrificial piece in this game of inter-clan politics very well.
>No coughing fit, at least.
>But she was still visibly shaken.
>Who else knows how serious this is, Oka-san?
>The Karo, and the Council.
>It was their decision for Shoji to host the peace talks, since this was site of the last battle between our clans, and the Mantis were defeated here.
>The letter the council sent also let your father know EXACTLY how much was expected of him.
>I scratched my beard.
>Naomi, Toshiro, there's something I'd like to confirm.
>Kitsuki-san looked up.
>You have a thought, Ishiaki?
>Yeah, I do.
>I gathered up all of Ayame's belongings.
>There weren't that many, really.
>Daisho, stand, armor, naginata, kimono, and a spare, basic grooming tools, brushes and ink, a shogi board, a tea set and a few books.
>Alright.
>I started.
>Is it possible to cast a spell on something, and have it take effect later, when condition is met?
>Naomi nodded right away.
>There is indeed a potent water spell that does something like that. I can prepare a spell and set a condition under which the kami will grant it.
>Toshiro nodded as well.
>The Asahina family has a type of magic where they bind spells into objects. 'Fetishes' they call them.
>Hai. And the Iuchi have their gaijin crystal magic, though I do not know more than that some Iuchi use crystals in place of Scrolls...
>I nodded.
>Okay then, if there were a spell that subverted a person's mind...
>Toshiro and Naomi looked at one another.
>Pulled scrolls and began to work their magic.
>Kitsuki-san watched intently, gnawing on the tip of his fan.
>At this point, everyone knew what I was thinking.
>THEM.
>Toshiro let up a cry.
>The Charm!
>It's the damn charm!
>He pulled a pair of chopsticks and pulled the charm off with them.
>Naomi selected one of the scrolls she had spread out.
>Careful, don't touch it directly.
>There's some taint left on this thing. Very faint, but it's there.
>Naomi held her hands just around the charm.
>They started to glow with a soft blue light.
>Yes... yes there was magic in this charm.
>It's gone now though, I can't tell anymore than that. But it was Maho!
>So. We all let the implications of that sink in for a moment and properly terrify us.
>We then went to ask Shiba Ayame where she had gotten the charm.
>Huh? The charm? I bought it, from a traveling merchant.
>Is he still here?
>I don't know, I've been locked up in this room all day thanks to you!
>Well what did he look like?
>Just a merchant, pudgy guy, plainly dressed, big pack on his back full of trinkets to sell...
>What, what's going on?
>That merchant sold you a Tainted charm.
>What, tainted how? Wait. Do you mean Tainted tainted? THAT Tainted?!
>I nodded. "It had a Maho spell place upon it, that brought out your hatred of the Mantis."
>How do you know?
>I jerked my head over to Kitsuki-san.
>So, what is it? Why do you hate them?
>...p...
>What?
>... e...
>Speak up!
>SENPAI!
>Uh...
>Those bastards KILLED HIM!
>Here! Right here in this castle!
>Holy shit.
>Wait. Ayame-san, are you saying that your senpai graduated and was stationed here when the Mantis attacked?
>Yes.
>And now they have the gall to come waltzing back in, making more demands, as though they didn't get trounced the last time!
>We all stared at each other in shock.
>Toshiro said it.
>Destiny is a bitch.
>Bonds of fate.
>Connections to people we didn't even know, or notice.
>Events in out past impacting the present.
>Ayame looked at us in confusion.
>What is it?
>Naomi spoke to her.
>How much do you know of what happened that night Ayame-san?
>Only that the Mantis attacked in the dead of night, like cowards. Senpai died when an arrow struck him. It was one of the first they fired.
>Samurai are supposed to have glorious, honorable deaths!
>He was just standing there when an arrow came out of the night and hit him!
>She was glaring at Mantis-san.
>Had been, the whole time.
>Naomi knelt down beside her.
>Ayame-san, I am a water tensai.
>Huh? But you're a Hida.
>By marriage.
>She glanced my way, and Ayame followed her gaze.
>Oh.
>Before that I was Isawa Naomi.
>Oh
>And I was here that night.
>So was everyone else, save Toshiro.
>Everyone...?
>And we all fought to protect this castle.
>But...
>I don't think they had any idea I was here.
>And no one bothered to tell me they were going to start some shit.
>I see.
>Wow.
>...
>You said I was sold a tainted charm, and a Maho spell influenced me somehow.
>But you touched me with jade, right?
>Yeah. You're clean.
>She looked relieved.
>So. You still haven't told me what I did.
>You killed Yoritomo Yohko, the head of the Mantis delegation.
>Her eyes went wide.
>What's going to happen to me now?
>That was a very good question.
>Kitsuki-san frowned.
>On the one hand, we know what really happened to you.
>On the other hand we have no real testimony to support this.
>Monkey spoke up.
>Wait, wouldn't it be Toshiro and Naomi testifying what they learned with magic?
>That last part is the problem.
>Little different than when we use physical evidence to lead us to the answers.
>Oh. Shit.
>Indeed.
>Mantis-san slipped out of the room.
>Still, in this case there is no testimony to directly tie you to the crime either.
>It depends greatly on the magistrates in question then, but it's not uncommon for the person with the most... apparent guilt to be asked to confess.
>And that would be me.
>Yes.
>The outcome can vary greatly depending on the crime in question, the status of the individuals involved... the list of considerations goes on for quite some time...
>What do you think will happen then, Kitsuki-sama?
>He hesitated.
>Do not lie to me, please.
>The death of the Mantis delegate is a serious issue. The Phoenix clan must make amends with either the life of the murderer, or the life of the Lord who failed to protect the dignitary in his care.
>We all know you are not the murderer, but the tool used to commit the crime.
>The Mantis delegation simply will not accept that. Someone must pay for this. That is all there is to it.
>And right now that someone is either a Shiba hohei or the Isawa who rules this castle. Hah.
>Unless you can find the one merchant I bought a charm from a week ago.
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>Naomi was looking at me.
>I could see the tears welling up.
>I had to look away.
>This was leaving a foul taste in my mouth.
>Ayame looked up at the ceiling.
>And... even if you did catch him, he's just a merchant. I doubt the Mantis would accept he was the real culprit unless you caught him red handed with Maho.
>The pained grimace on Kitsuki-san's face told me she was probably right about that.
>Her shoulders shook a bit.
>Will they at least allow me to cleanse my shame?
>That depends on the judge. For internal matters the highest ranked magistrate or the local lord would fill that role.
>For crimes committed by a samurai from one clan to a samurai of another clan, it would require someone who carries the authority of the Emperor.
>Isn't that you?
>Well, it should be Emerald Magistrates, not Jade, as we are.
>Our being appointed to investigate this matter was originally unusual.
>It is also possible for the Lords of both Samurai, or the ones who speak with their voice to agree on a judgment and resolve the matter themselves.
>That is the most likely I think. Shoji will bow to the desires of the Mantis as it is they who are wronged.
>So my fate, whether I can least die with honor or not, is in the hands of the Mantis?
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>I must have done something truly terrible to deserve this.
>Mantis-san came back in.
>He whispered into Kitsuki-san's ear.
>Really?
>Nod.
>Kitsuki-san looked at Ayame.
>A week ago, you said?
>She nodded.
>He stood up.
>The rest of us straightened as well.
>Hey, what is it?
>I... I do not want to get your hopes up.
>But Mantis-san says the guards report no one leaving the castle in almost two weeks.
>He may still be here after all.
>We headed down to the courtyard.
>This castle was a pagoda.
>Layer upon layer reaching up, a tall thin tower.
>A rectangular wall ran along the outside, creating a long courtyard which contained, among other things, housing for the servants and and lower class guests.
>We went to the building where traveling merchants would stay.
>Rounded up every last one of them.
>And brought them all before Shiba Ayame.
>She looked at each in turn, and shook her head.
>So, the little bastard realized he was in deep shit and is hiding.
>Naomi went to her mother requesting the gates be officially closed until we could find him.
>Her father was apparently going to protest until it pointed out that if he HAD already gotten away that meant that he had done so under the noses Shoji's guards.
>I suggested Kitsuki-san to go to the Mantis delegation.
>He looked taken aback by that.
>Well, we are basically saying a merchant, the lowest class of peasant there is, is the one responsible.
>They might need some... extra persuasion on this.
>Y- you're right of course, but Naomi-sama...
>Is busy dealing with her father. Also, the daughter of the Phoenix lord here.
>It has to be you.
>You want me to go? Or Monkey?
>No. No I see your point.
>He sighed deeply as he took off.
>Leaving Me, Mantis-san and Monkey to question the other merchants in the hopes of learning something about their now absent colleague.
>Toshiro was busy checking around for tainted things. Some scrap that may help prove Maho was at work and give us the authority to judge this case after all.
>While Toshiro found noting, some of the merchants DID remember a fellow who didn't speak to many others.
>We were even able to get a (very) rough description.
>Now we just had to figure out where in this castle he was hiding.

Act XXI: The Hunt[edit]

>Easier said than done.
>Looking for one peasant in this tall castle...
>He could be hiding anywhere.
>Moving about as a servant, who no samurai would spare a second glance for.
>Hiding in a nearly forgotten storeroom while a servant or two he bribed smuggle food to him...
>Moving about in the space between the floor and ceiling...
>Our first day of hunting ended in failure.
>I returned to our rooms to find Kitsuki-san staring at the wall much in the same Monkey had stared when he got the letter informing him of his upcoming marriage.
>I waved a hand in front of his face.
>He jumped.
>Oh, good.
>What's with that look, anyway?
>I was just thinking.
>You looked like you were thinking about your own death poem.
>Do you even understand the concept of tact?
>Yes.
>I don't much care for it though.
>But I do understand it, Kitsuki-san.
>I'm not Monkey, after all.
>True enough.
>The others began filing in at this point.
>All with disgusted head shakes.
>Monkey spoke first.
>So, the only good thing we've got going for us right now is that the Naomi-sama got the gates shut.
>Right. Since our Maho murder merchant expected to avoid suspicion with his indirect means he's trapped here now.
>Ohhh, nice alliteration Mantis-san!
>Thank you, Monkey.
>Toshiro grunted.
>He's figured out we're hunting him now, so I doubt he'll stay in one place and wait for us to find him.
>I nodded.
>This is no Kyuden, but it's still a big castle
>Kitsuki-san, how did things go with the Mantis?
>Hm? Oh fine, fine.
>He brightened as thought struck him.
>In fact, I'd say we may have an in.
>The Moshi woman, Aoi?
>She was not the one to take over the delegation but she IS sympathetic.
>She may be able to persuade the chief delegate to accept the guilt of the merchant once we find them.
>So, I was thinking Naomi-sama would be a fine choice to continue the dialogue while I question the servants more closely.
>Someone must have seen something, after all.
>Naomi smiled at Kitsuki-san's suggestion.
>No, thank you.
>What?
>I have had occasion to speak with Aoi-san several times already.
>You, you have Naomi-sama?
>Indeed.
>Oh.
>The rest of us exchanged glances.
>There was a conversation happening here that we were not privy to.
>Naomi, care to fill me in?
>Of course, Ishigaki-kun.
>Moshi Aoi is...
>I suppose the polite way to put would be to say she is a 'hopeless romantic'.
>You called her a pervert after the first time you spoke to her.
>The others eyes widened.
>Naomi using such strong language to describe someone was the equivalent of another samurai unleashing a string of drunken profanity.
>Naomi was well aware of this, and blushed accordingly.
>She was so adorable when she blushed, better than a basket full of puppies.
>At least to me.
>She fakoughed to reset the mood.
>Yes. Well. Anyway.
>If you are having success persuading her, then it is because she has taken a liking to you, is it not, Kitsuki-san?
>We all turned to stare at Kitsuki-san now.
>Who was blushing himself.
>He was not adorable when he blushed.
>Toshiro leaned over and whispered to me.
>Does he even like girls? I don't think I've ever seen him oggle one before...
>He whispered it loudly enough for everyone to hear anyway.
>Kitsuki-san fired back.
>You're one to talk!
>I'm ugly. What's your excuse?
>I couldn't hold it in.
>Neither could Mantis-san or Monkey.
>The three of us fell over laughing.
>Naomi settled for making the trying not to laugh face.
>Kitsuki-san's eyebrow twitched.
>Well done, Toshiro-sama. I can admit that I walked into that one.
>We needed that laugh.
>Shiba Ayame's life, her reputation, her honor, were all resting on our shoulders.
>It was a heavy burden.
>So, Naomi-sama. You suggest that I continue to work on Aoi, because she will be amenable to my suggestions?
>Yes, that is exactly my suggestion.
>Truthfully that took me off guard a bit.
>Naomi was openly suggesting Kitsuki-san lead that woman on.
>Unless of course, she was secretly playing matchmaker.
>Yes, that last thought made sense.
>While you are doing that, Kitsuki-san, I believe I can help speed up the process of finding our real killer.
>Oh?
>Water IS the element of clarity, after all.
>I arched an eyebrow.
>Naomi, I thought you could only track things and people known to you?
>This is true. But there is something I have not done before and I am willing to try now.
>Divination.
>I had sometimes wondered about that.
>Prophecy and astrology were very important.
>All things had a destiny, and the Heavens gave clues to those who knew how to read the signs.
>But for every story of a destined hero there were many more about false prophets, tricksters who led the ignorant astray for their own gain, and supposedly wise men who misread signs and became the well intentioned villain.
>Naomi caught my look.
>Yes, it can be quite easy to misread the signs the Kami reveal, that is why I have avoided it.
>It is a testament to your skills as investigators I have not needed to resort to it in all this time.
>The spell I have in mind will allow others to see the visions as well, so I hope that with all of you and Ayame present we will be able to interpret the visions correctly.
>Why don't we do it now then?
>I will need to ask my father's permission.
>I need a body of water for this spell, the larger the better.
>And I wish for Ayame to be present, if we see a vision of the merchant I wish for her to confirm it.
>Kitsuki-san spoke up again.
>What about Aoi? She is a shugenja, would not this magic help convince her?
>Hmmmm. Perhaps.
>I do not think it could hurt.
>I think I'm going to ask Katsuie-sama to speak with the rest of the Mantis then.
>All our diplomats are tied up elsewhere.
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>A good plan. I will ask Amano-san to speak with the Phoenix, and appraise them of the situation.
>And get Shoji to stay out of our way?
>Yes, that too.
>Alright. We had a plan.
>I brought the children into our room that night.
>I wanted them close by in a castle a Maho-Tsukai was prowling around in.
>We gathered together around the large koi pond in the castle's garden.
>Naomi, in a long Kimono with no hakama, entered into the water.
>Ishigaki-kun, please help me with the offering.
>When petitioning the kami for their assistance, it was always possible to make offerings to gain their favor by making offerings to them.
>Naomi had already purified herself.
>Now she was offering the water kami a large urn of sake.
>She needed my help getting the thing into the pond.
>It was tightly sealed, so it wouldn't leak.
>No matter how much I wanted to see a bunch of drunken fish swimming upside down.
>I'd also been purified, of course.
>She began to pray.
>The water shimmered, rippled.
>A light came up from underneath the surface.
>The pond became still like a sheet of smooth ice, or perhaps that 'glass' the Unicorn brought back from gaijin lands.
>We saw images in the water.
>A man, bleeding from his palm onto a charm, then another then another.
>Ayame hissed at the sight of him.
>I studied his face intently. Burned it into my mind.
>A wakizashi. The blade was corroded, pitted with rust.
>A boat, pulled up onto a beach somewhere... there were several figures around it. Shadows seemed to cling to them, and they bore weapons.
>The waters cleared, the spell ended.
>Naomi's eyes widened. She swayed a bit.
>I caught her.
>Kitsuki-san spoke first.
>Ayame-san, let me just confirm.
>That man in the first vision, that was the merchant who sold you the charm, yes?
>She nodded. It was.
>Aoi nodded.
>Well, I'm convinced.
>But this won't be enough for Yoritomo-sama.
>Aoi went over to Ayame.
>For what it is worth, I am truly sorry for the loss of your beloved Senpai.
>She bowed.
>But I know Yoritomo-sama will not let this go so easily. He will insist that it was some weakness of spirit on your part that made you vulnerable to the Maho in the first place.
>I know that isn't true, but...
>I was reminded of why I hated politics.
>Alright then. We have confirmed the merchant placed some sort of spell on the charm he sold Ayame-san.
>Why did we see him doing that to a bunch of charms?
>Mantis-san answered.
>Because he has done this before, Monkey.
>The whole reason he's in the spot he's in now is because we're probably the first to look beyond the person he cursed.
>Monkey scratched at one of his sideburns.
>Whoa. You mean there's a bunch of Samurai who were executed as murderers because of him?
>Mantis-san nodded, mouth pursed in a grimace.
>Toshiro spoke up.
>The second image. What do you think that was about?
>Wasn't that just showing the murder weapon?
>No, I don't think so. Divinations are rarely literal.
>Naomi, still pressing into my chest mumbled something.
>I spoke up for her.
>She says that the Kami were quite pleased with her and her offerings, so they were much clearer than usual.
>Kitsuki-san snapped his fan closed.
>I see. He is no merchant at all then.
>Monkey blinked.
>Hah?
>Mantis-san was just as confused, though more eloquent about it.
>Mind sharing how you arrived at that conclusion?
>We saw his hands in the first image quite clearly. His nails were trimmed. Clean. Immaculate even.
>Kitsuki-san held out his hand and looked at his own nails.
>Unconsciously we all did the same.
>Oh. Okay.
>And the short blade holds the honor of a samurai. It is the one used should... ah.
>He trailed off, realizing he had hit a tender subject.
>Ayame finished for him.
>A samurai who must commit seppuku uses his wakizashi. It's why even shugenja and courtiers wear one, and why the wakizashi is even more important to mark a samurai's status than their katana.
>She said all that without so much as a tremor in her voice.
>I wasn't sure if it was resolute bravery or hope that gave her strength now.
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>Just so.
>And the wakizashi we saw was tarnished, corroded. Just like the honor of it's owner that it represented.
>And just like that, between Naomi's magic and Kitsuki-san's sharp eyes I wondered if there would ever come a mystery we could not solve.
>The third one? Are the Mantis going to attack again over this?
>NO!
>Aoi shook her head emphatically.
>Even I couldn't help but notice the sharp motions caused certain parts of her to move in interesting ways.
>I held Naomi a little tighter.
>I may not be our highest ranking courtier, but I'm important enough that I would know if that were the plan!
>Toshiro nodded.
>An escape plan then.
>He may work alone, but he must have allies nearby.
>The real question is, are they hired thugs, or...
>Mixed company. So he couldn't say it.
>But we knew he was referring to THEM.
>This definitely fits their MO.
>Already there was high ranking Yoritomo courtier dead, Shoji could very well be next, and if this incident caused the talks to fail then the war would likely provide much chaos for them to move about in.
>I wondered if Hohiro knew, if this was his plan...
>Shoji was his ally, wasn't he?
>Then again, even when Shoji had been talking Hohiro up last year, Shoji had still insisted HE was the better of the two.
>And he tried to take all the credit for his son's talent.
>It wouldn't surprise me if Shoji had been trying to sit on the council by proxy, giving Hohiro orders.
>It wasn't all that uncommon for a parent to retire, shave their head, change their name, and then continue to administer their lands by remaining on as an "advisor" to their heirs.
>More than a few temples in the Empire were run by a politically minded abbot who was a retired samurai.
>And, while Oka-san had confirmed Hohiro himself wouldn't really stand to gain from inheriting this castle, as its lord, he could always appoint a new Karo.
>Assuming the old Karo was not already in his pocket, of course.
>So, is the boat literal, or figurative do you think?
>I spoke up.
>Does it matter, one way or the other?
>He has to get out of the castle first.
>And now we know the reason we couldn't find him is because we were looking in the wrong places.
>He wasn't hiding among the servants and crawlspaces, he was mingling with the Samurai guests.
>Slow nods.
>Everyone began to head back inside.
>As I moved to go, carrying Naomi if I had to, she stopped me.
>Wait, Ishigaki-kun.
>What, enjoying the koi nibbling at your toes?
>At least, I assumed they must be nibbling her toes. They were certainly nibbling on mine.
>I suspected it would be bad manners to snatch one of your host's fish out of their pond and eat it as a warning to the others that you were higher on the food chain.
>Naomi giggled.
>No it is not the fish.
>I want to tell you something.
>D-did she notice me noticing Aoi?
>The water kami like many things. Motion, helping to create a new flow of water, sake of course, purity.
>You can temporarily sacrifice one of your senses to them.
>And they are also pleased by ensuring and promoting the cycle of life.
>Oooookay?
>So...
>You cannot lie to the kami, of course.
>They knew I was not making an offering in that way. How could I, when I did not even know myself?
>Know what?
>The cycle of life.
>Life, Ishigaki-kun.
>Wait...
>We have been rather, active, lately, have we not?
>It was good thing I had some practice hearing news this wonderful.
>I might have sat down and drowned in the koi pond otherwise.
>My ancestors would have laughed me out of Yomi, had I done that.
>So, you didn't know yet? Then it's early?
>Very. A few weeks at most.
>I tried to guess when, but like Naomi had said we had been a bit active lately.
>She smiled up at me, already glowing.
>Carry me.
>With pleasure.
>I scooped her up like the princess she was and took her up to our room so we could dry off.
>Kitsuki-san was already putting his detailed painting skills to good use, recreating the face of our quarry.
>The plan was to have Mantis-san, Monkey and Toshiro, and Naomi show this to the guards while he and I engaged in some politicking.
>I was never fond of the idea of Naomi being near a fight, now I was adamant she not be.
>The others were confused by it, until Kitsuki-san noticed Naomi's expression.
>What, when?
>This only made the others more confused.
>When what? What what? huh?
>Naomi explained what she had just learned.
>Four faces gave us incredulous stares.
>Is there Hare Clan blood in your ancestry or something?!
>Not that I know off? Naomi?
>Iye.
>Okay then. Anyway, I've got work to do. Ja nee.
>Then I went to see Katsuie-sama.
>I laid out what we had learned, though could not yet prove until we caught the Maho-Tsukai.
>I also let him know what the others were doing.
>Hmmm.
>To be clear, do you wish for me to persuade the Mantis that the killer has been found so that they do not push for as many concessions from the Phoenix, or to divert all blame from Shiba Ayame-san?
>I blinked.
>Both?
>Hmmm.
>I do not know if that will be possible.
>He noticed my surprise.
>Do not misunderstand me. I have no desire to see a young life discarded before it has a chance to bloom fully either.
>He poured us both some tea.
>It tasted like home.
>These tea leaves were grown by our clan weren't they?
>Yes. In fact they came from my own fields.
>Huh.
>Ishigaki-san. We both know that the young woman is not really at fault here.
>Yet the Code of Bushido is very strict.
>It does not make allowance for circumstance, which is why no one can truly live up to it.
>Some people, upon realizing this, choose a few tenants to hold up over others.
>Our clan does this.
>Others become jaded. They allow themselves to compromise their honor at times.
>Only the rare few will continue to chase impossible perfection.
>I understand what you are saying, Katsuie-sama but I don't see how it relates...
>We are sometimes quick to forgive lapses in judgment and matters of honor because we all know we will have them ourselves one day.
>But while we understand, and can forgive, Bushido cannot.
>She was still an accomplice to this crime, unknowing or not.
>I wonder then, how her Lord Shoji will react to this.
>Oh, I could guess. Cover his own ass by making her take all the blame.
>Hmmm.
>I see you already suspect you know.
>For that matter, have you even thought to ask Ayame-san what she will do?
>I looked up sharply.
>It simply hadn't occurred to me, to any of us, that she might feel such shame as to go that far of her own volition.
>I think then, before I make any wasted effort, you had best be certain of her own intentions.
>I bowed, thanking Katsuie for his insight, and ran off to the room Ayame was being held in.
>As I entered she looked up from the paper she was frowning over.
>Ishigaki-san? What are you doing here?
>Shit.
>I mean, I KNEW what I was doing here.
>But "don't kill yourself, you have so much to live for" wasn't really a good conversation starter.
>Ayame saw me struggling to find the right words.
>Oh. You're here about that.
>Ishigaki-san. Is it not dishonorable to be dupped into committing a crime?
>Well, yes but-
>And is it not worse the more severe the crime one commits?
>Yes but-
>No, there are no buts in Bushido.
>Would you SHUT UP and listen to me goddammit!
>She blinked.
>I sat down in front of her, and told her I just found out I was going to have a child. For the third time.
>She smiled.
>That is wonderful news!
>Yeah it is.
>It wasn't really all that long ago, but it seems like forever, that I was like you.
>I thought if I could just help kill a few oni, then that was all I needed to make my life matter, and I could die proud of myself.
>I don't think like that anymore.
>No, I'm not afraid to die, should my time come.
>And I didn't think I was eager to die at the time, but I now know that's exactly what I was.
>Just a quick flash? A spark popping from a fire and fading away in an instant?
>That's bullshit!
>Chasing your own demise is a terrible way to live!
>I have a family, and I have a duty.
>If I die, who stands between them and the thing that killed me? Huh?
>You're a Shiba, you should think about these things!
>I would, if I were a Yojimbo.
>But I am a soldier. I am part of the rank and file of our armies.
>I do not protect one Isawa, I protect all of them.
>Our entire Clan, in fact.
>And soldiers die. I would be nothing but a coward if I ran from that fact.
>Ishigaki-san, I'm happy that you think my life has such value, really.
>And I'm happy that you have such important things to protect you cannot simply give up your life so easily.
>But this is not just a matter of my own dishonor.
>What, the politics? Who cares...
>I care.
>My clan must make concessions to the Mantis to avoid a war.
>The death of their delegate means they WILL ask for more. All the persuasion in the world will not change that fact.
>The courtiers will do what is best for their clan, that is all.
>My life could be one of the things offered up.
>To sacrifice all in the name of one's clan, is there anything MORE honorable than that?
>My Lord Shoji outranks me. He is more important to our clan than I am.
>To sacrifice all to protect one's Lord, is that not also at the height of honor?
>Her arguments were sound. I couldn't contradict anything she had said.
>This was how a proper samurai should think.
>That I didn't only meant I was actually a terrible samurai.
>But I knew that already. Duty and Courage were the only tenants of Bushido I cared about.
>Duty above all, and the Courage to throw away even my own honor to fulfill that duty.
>But I was a Crab. Ayame was not.
>Still though...
>You're absolutely certain it's just your Honor that's making this decision?
>She looked me in the eyes, then looked down.
>No.
>You have someone you love and must protect.
>The one I love has already gone on ahead.
>She looked at her painting, the darkness closing in.
>Would you not have embraced death if the one you love were gone?
>I was about to say no.
>Instead, my hand rose of its own accord to the scar on my face.
>I had lost a part of myself, when Ishigaki Mura died.
>Naomi helped me to find that part again.
>Without her love, I may well have ended up a dead-eyes.
>When it happened the first time, I did.
>She looked surprised.
>I told her how it came to be that I had no family outside Naomi and our children.
>I did then what you are doing now.
>And that is exactly why I can tell you this:
>What you are doing is WRONG.
>You claim you do this for the sake of your honor, and your clan.
>You're so full of shit your eyes are turning brown.
>Her surprise turned to anger at that.
>You're only doing this because you regret what might have been, and you're hiding your sin behind pretty words.
>You think your ancestors won't know the truth?
>You think honor can come from an action taken in the name of one of the Three Great Sins?!
>You may be a good enough liar to fool yourself, but you can't fool me, and you sure as hell won't fool them.
>Her anger had faded in the face of my tirade, slowly replaced with shame.
>I stood up.
>One last thing you should know.
>My wife is very compassionate. If you kill yourself, she'll cry.
>I'm not trying to guilt you or anything, so don't misunderstand.
>I'm just letting you know, if you do make my wife cry, I will find you and beat the shit out of your for it.
>I don't care if I have to make a Kitsu take me into the spirit realms. I don't care if I have to wait until you are reborn. I don't care if I have to wait until I am reborn.
>However long it takes, you'll pay for making Naomi cry. Got it?
>She nodded.
>I left.
>They say that bonds can travel into the next life, even beyond.
>Considering how strong our bond, Naomi and I may very well have been lovers in past lives.
>I was certain that at the very least, we would find one another again in our next lives.
>This wasn't limited to good bonds.
>Bonds of malice could go with you as well.
>I was equally certain I would hate Shoji on sight in my next life, and not know why.
>Maybe such a thing was the source of my distaste for the Mantis, tough my friendship with Mantis-san had done much to dispel those feelings.
>Hah. Everything happens for a reason, they say.
>Still, would making Naomi cry really be enough to lead to my future lives hunting down and beating the shit out of Ayame's future lives?
>I doubted it, myself.
>But the Phoenix were big on rebirth after all.
>So I hoped that at least, Ayame did.
>I went back to speak with Katsuie-sama.
>When I was done relating what had happened he sipped his tea with wide eyes.
>It is amazing, what wonders one will see if they just live long enough.
>To think such wisdom could be spoken in such a crude way.
>He chuckled.
>You MAY have gone a bit overboard at the end there, I think.
>Yeah, you're probably right, Katsuie-sama.
>But I was rather pissed off.
>We both took a sip of tea.
>And yet, you have not really answered my question.
>Saving her takes priority. Amano is working to save her from Shoji, I'll save her from her own regret. You save her from the Mantis.
>Um. Please, Katsuie-sama.
>He chuckled again.
>It is a good thing we are alone, Ishigaki-san.
>Please try to get a better grip on your emotions. There will no doubt be a fight when you catch the Tsukai, and it wouldn't do for your spirit to be so disturbed when you enter battle.
>You're right, thank you Katsuie-sama.
>I left.
>Time to check in with the others.

Act XXII: Blood Magic[edit]

>They had gathered up several of the Shiba to aid them.
>Kitsuki-san's plan was simple.
>Check each floor, room by room. Starting from the bottom and working our way up.
>Our last search was hazardous because we had no idea what he looked like.
>We'd try to be subtle, so he would not go to ground and evade us entirely.
>Now we know his face.
>We will catch him, for certain.
>Since we were going to be loud about this, I went back to my room to grab my Katana and Tetsubo.
>Naomi was there with the little ones.
>And Oka-san and Ashitaka-san.
>There were bowls of water placed all around the room.
>I nodded in approval.
>I'll leave them in your care then.
>Oka-san glanced at my armor on it's stand.
>Do you not have time...?
>We are moving now.
>Ishigaki-kun will be fine mother.
>Daiko and Tetsute were too young to grasp what was going on, but they could sense the tension in the adults. Ashitaka knew all too well.
>Still, my children did their best to be brave. Looking up at me with wide, serious eyes.
>I knelt to tousle their hair.
>I have to leave for a bit, but I promise: Daddy will always come back home.
>Naomi nodded.
>I gave her a smile, pretending to be fooled by her brave face.
>And left.
>Kitsuki-san had memorized the floor plans of the entire castle.
>We searched in a pattern that would force the Tsukai to go past us, if he tried to flee.
>When we moved on to the second floor we had to leave three Shiba at the stairway, in case he came down from above while we were deeper in the second floor.
>We did the same when we got to the third floor.
>That's where we found him.
>His eyes widened as he noticed us.
>We were all armed, with three armed and armored Shiba.
>Kitsuki-san leveled his fan to make his accusation.
>But the Tsukai was faster.
>With a speed born of desperation, he drew his wakizashi and cut his hand in one motion.
>The world became a blood red haze.
>What the hell?
>Damn, I can't see anything!
>Calm down!
>I gripped my tetsubo in a defensive stance, ready to ward off attack from any angle.
>I tried to block out the shouting, and the screams of confused courtiers.
>I heard the Tsukai, chanting another prayer.
>Shitshitshit.
>I took a few faltering steps in his direction, but I still couldn't see anything.
>Does anyone know where he is? Mantis-san?
>Toshiro-sama?
>Monkey?
>The Tsukai had stopped chanting.
>Ishigaki-san?
>Yeah, think I do, Kitsuki-san.
>Good, where is he?
>Oh, before you answer that there's one other thing I want to know.
>Did Naomi tell you I had my way with her the other day? I think your new child might be mine.
>I had no idea why that slimy Dragon had to pick this particular moment to commit seppuku, but I would be more than happy to help him do it.
>As I pulled back my tetsubo some small part of me realized that was wrong.
>The Maho spell was still interfering with my vision. Blind as I was I had no hope of hitting that damn Kitsuki.
>So I tossed my tetsubo aside.
>If I could just get my hands on him, he wouldn't be able to get away.
>I lunged for where I had last heard his voice.
>Caught something. A Haori, it felt like.
>Gotcha.
>The Dragon let out a surprised cry as I seized him, confirming for me I had my hands on the right one.
>I have no idea why he sounded so surprised. What did he think was going to happen, saying something like that to me?
>His cry cut off as my hands found his throat and squeezed.
>I heard some of the others ask him what was wrong, but that didn't matter.
>Hands pulled at me, but that didn't matter.
>What mattered was killing this bastard.
>Messily.
>My thumbs slid up his face, I was going to pop his eyes.
>...Maho...!
>..gaki...
>Sp... damn...
>Oh right... there WAS a Maho-Tsukai around, wasn't there...?
>The others were all worried about me killing the Dragon. Fools.
>Shit, if he got away he might hurt Naomi.
>Goddamnit you fools go after the Tsukai!
>I threw the dragon away so they'd listen.
>I could finish once they left.
>Instead I heard Toshiro chanting.
>The hell is he doing?
>He sounded rushed, that's for sure.
>Damnit, the Dragon can't wait.
>It was still dark, but he was coughing and sucking in air pretty loudly.
>I knocked someone over heading towards him.
>And then I felt calm.
>It was strange. I really could not say why I had been so upset.
>Yes, Kitsuki-san had done something horrible. I was going to have to make him pay somehow.
>But losing myself to rage and murdering him here and now was not the best way to go about it.
>Ah, the mist was finally clearing up.
>I looked around.
>Kitsuki-san was on the floor, a few feet from me.
>His face was quite purple.
>All around were a sea of shocked faces.
>And a heavy weight on my shoulders.
>I glanced back.
>There was a Monkey on my back.
>Odd.
>How long will he stay like that?
>Mantis-san asked Toshiro.
>Hopefully long enough the Maho spell wears off.
>Who are you talking about Toshiro?
>YOU, YOU TWIT!
>Oh.
>We really should go after that Tsukai, I think. Do you not agree?
>I helped Kitsuki-san up.
>You wear your katana. Good.
>I will write a formal letter of challenge to your lord when I get the chance.
>He stared at me in disbelief.
>Monkey's voice came out from behind and above me
>Okay, Toshiro-sama? Don't ever cast that spell on him again.
>Emotionless Ishigaki-san is way scarier than frothing at the mouth murderous Ishigaki-san.
>I wiped at my mouth. I really had been frothing.
>How unsightly.
>The others rushed outside, even Monkey once he climbed off of me.
>I felt no need to do so, however.
>As I arrived I saw the Shiba we had left guarding the stairs picking themselves up off the ground shakily.
>He cut himself, then I felt such pain!
>I am very sorry, Kuni-sama!
>Toshiro waved it away, and everyone began to rush downstairs.
>I kept pace with Toshiro.
>No need to rush, after all.
>He looked at me.
>The expression on his face was very odd.
>I nodded to the others.
>They are just wearing themselves out needlessly.
>Such impatience.
>...and this is why I don't like to use that spell.
>Hmm? What is the mater, Toshiro?
>He looked up, with just his eyes.
>Nothing, Ishigaki-san. Nothing at all.
>Would you mind letting me on your back? My foot is making these stairs a pain in the ass.
>Of course not, Toshiro. We have been friends for a long time.
>I got down a few steps below him and he hopped on me.
>I could sense his impatience, so I decided I would make haste, after all.
>I still thought it unnecessary. But I would do so for my friend.
>The courtyard was in quite the uproar, many people being far too upset.
>Mantis-san saw me and yelled.
>Get over here! What the hell is wrong with you?!
>Nothing. We had many guards at the gates, did they fail to stop the Tsukai?
>YES!
>He pointed.
>Bushels of rice had been stacked up along the edge of the wall, making a staircase.
>How did he do that in such a short time?
>He didn't!
>I saw a Shiba slamming his head into the dirt over and over again in front of Kitsuki-san.
>Oh. So someone else stacked them up for him, and none of the guards who saw the rice bales found them suspicious.
>Kitsuki-san joined us.
>We will have to pursue. The Shiba will fan out and search, we will try to follow his tracks.
>We must make haste.
>He looked at me.
>H. A. S. T. E. Do you understand, Ishigaki-san?
>Yes, I do. I am not stupid.
>I just do not see the point.
>Was not the spell Naomi cast a divination?
>I know the Kami explained to us who we were chasing, but did they not predict we would face them at the boat?
>The others exchanged wide eyed glances.
>Surely, they were not surprised?
>Mantis-san pinched the bridge of his nose.
>How long did you say he was going to be like this?
>An hour.
>AN HOUR!?
>I could cast it on you too, if you're that upset.
>No thanks.
>Just blast that Tsukai before he can do something like that again.
>Let's go.
>Ishigaki-san, keep carrying Toshiro, we still have to catch them.
>Alright.
>It was a lovely winters day.
>The fresh tracks in the snow made it quite easy to follow him.
>I rather enjoyed the sound of it crunching under our feet.
>Damn. We didn't even think about how easy it would be to follow him.
>We sent the Shiba to scout around ahead of us though. In the hopes to find his accomplices or even just cut him off.
>Yeah. Still a few more bodies would be welcome.
>Mantis-san was likely worried because he had not had time to don his full armor.
>Monkey did not have much armor to begin with.
>I would have to rely on my teachings to protect me from harm.
>Well, I would be fine, I'm sure.
>Toshiro.
>Yes?
>You said the Maho-Tsukai cast a spell on me, didn't you?
>Yeah he did.
>Do you have any idea what it did?
>It made you mad with rage, don't you remember trying to kill Kitsuki-san?
>I do. Mad, you say?
>So then, none of the rest of you heard him confess to assaulting Naomi and suggesting our child was in fact his?
>Everyone stopped dead in their tracks and turned to look at me.
>No, Ishigaki. He did not say that.
>Oh.
>Well then, I am very sorry Kitsuki-san. I will NOT be writing a letter of challenge to your lord.
>I would bow, but that might be rough for Toshiro. Could you wait a bit for that?
>Do- don't worry about it Ishigaki-san.
>You were the target of Maho, we were simply unprepared for it. As much my fault as yours.
>That is certainly true. Well, I am glad we could put that behind us.
>We neared the beach.
>It was still early in the winter and the sea had not yet frozen over.
>We saw them, working to knock chunks of ice off of their boat.
>You see? I told you we did not have to rush.
>Those were what were known as 'Angry Glares.' I was certain of it.
>Set me down, Ishigaki.
>Very well.
>Only then did I realize I had not bothered to retrieve my tetsubo after I threw it down.
>So I readied my katana, instead.
>Toshiro glanced at me.
>And pulled out a scroll.
>A tetsubo, formed from the earth and studded with jade, arose before me.
>Oh, thank you.
>I am much better with this than I am with a Katana.
>They had not yet noticed us
>Mantis-san asked.
>How do we want to do this?
>Toshiro answered him.
>By throwing a great ball of flame at them.
>It burst among them, and set their boats on fire.
>I vote we scare the shit out them by killing a few before they know we're here.
>Well, what are you staring at me for? Get down there and kill those bastards!
>Hai, Toshiro-sama!
>Magical weapon in hand, I lead the charge.
>The thugs, expecting to flee by boat were lightly armored.
>There was an astounding assortment of weapons though.
>Masakari, Katana, No-dachi, Nagamaki, Yari. One had a Kusari-gama.
>I settled for striking down any that came too close. In time, they would all be dead anyway.
>My earthen tetsubo shattered bones, pulped organs, and tore great chunks of flesh with its jade studs.
>I was struck from behind by a No-dachi, but thanks to my training it failed to bite deeply.
>Monkey was kind enough to remove that thug's head for me.
>I caught sight of the Tsukai. So did Mantis-san.
>Another blast of flame tossed aside a few thugs, clearing a path for him.
>He moved in, and quickly sliced his kama through the legs of the Tsukai.
>Oop, here comes some more for me.
>I caught the swing of the nagamaki on the length of my tetsubo, and shoved forcefully.
>Then I struck while the thug was getting back into position.
>I felt and heard his hip shater as my blow took him the side.
>He crumpled, bawling like a child.
>It was distracting, so I crushed his skull with another quick swing.
>Kitsuki-san and Monkey were fighting back to back, cutting down their foes.
>Mantis-san brought his kama down on the Tsukai before he could rise.
>The Tsukai twitched once, then was still.
>Meanwhile, a space had opened up around me.
>Everywhere I cared to turn, thugs that had been inching toward me backpedaled.
>It was then the Kasuri-gama came at my head.
>I held my tetsubo out, and the chain wrapped around it's head and went taut.
>The wielder tried to pull the weapon from my hands.
>I jerked back.
>He lost.
>He had the good sense to simply release the weapon before I pulled him off his feet.
>Then, as I was unwrapping my tetsubo, several thugs rushed at me.
>I had been expecting that.
>None of their attacks we able to reach me.
>Monkey and Kitsuki-san cut them down.
>One last blast of flame, and it was over.
>I think Toshiro killed more than all the rest of us combined.
>I walked over to where the Tsukai lay in pool of blood.
>He was quite dead.
>Kitsuki-san came up beside me.
>Mantis-san, in the future could you try to pull your blows when attacking someone who may have valuable information?
>I DID damnit!
>He just used up too much blood working all his spells...
>Kitsuki-san sighed.
>Well, this was far from the smooth operation I had anticipated, but we were successful nonetheless.
>He used Maho in full view of many witnesses after all.
>Mantis-san produced a bag. The shape of it told me it was for a very specific thing.
>He took out some special lacquered chopsticks.
>Used them to grab the Tsukai's top knot.
>Lifted his head.
>And cut if off.
>Then used the chopsticks to place it in his bag.
>Should I get you a board so you can mount your trophy properly?
>It's just to show that we got him.
>Alright.
>We returned to the Castle.
>As we walked Kitsuki-san spoke up.
>Well, at least he used blood magic in front of all those witnesses.
>It now means this case falls under the mandate of the Jade Magistrates.
>Ah, that was good then.
>It meant that Toshiro or Naomi would be the final authority on the outcome of this matter.
>Their word would carry the full weight of Imperial Law, and none present would be able to gainsay them.
>In his current state, the Tsukai would not be able to give a proper confession, so the testimony of the witnesses would be needed to confirm Maho, and thus, our authority.
>While our testimony alone would have carried great weight, the other witnesses assured not even Shoji would be able to object.
>Hmm. Shoji.
>Yes, I still did not like him.
>He was far too flawed and emotional. Easily provoked, if one knew where to press.
>We arrived.
>Mantis-san handed off the Tsukai's head to an eta and a board was brought forth to display it on.
>We went and got purified while the Shiba requested the presence of Shoji, the Mantis delegates, and those who were in the room when the Tsukai cast his spell.
>I was going to go fetch my wife, but Monkey ran off yelling he would do so instead.
>Always rushing about. People really did need to take the time to enjoy things more.
>Prayers were said, and water poured upon me.
>It was very cold. Refreshing even.
>Then some salt was thrown.
>I took a moment to appreciate the complexity of that part.
>There was a correct way to do it, just as there was a correct way to do everything.
>Yet the correct way was to make it seem there was no correct way.
>It must be difficult, to be so deliberately sloppy.
>It made me wonder about the way Toshiro threw salt. It looked even more sloppy when he did it.
>Was his technique better, or worse, than these priests?
>Mantis-san tugged on me.
>Oh yes, we had to go and announce our verdict.
>As I entered the courtyard the Mantis delegates were just arriving.
>Shoji, the witnesses, and Ayame were already there.
>Someone had created an impromptu courtroom.
>Really it was just a patch of white sand, and an officer's chair in place of the dias upon which the judge would sit.
>Ayame was kneeling on the white sand.
>She was wearing a white kimono.
>Shoji was sitting on the chair.
>So, he thought he was going to be passing judgment on Ayame.
>The others exchanged glances. He was moving too quickly, making assumptions as he went.
>How typical of him.
>The Mantis Delegates took their place.
>The Karo stepped forward and unrolled a scroll.
>But Naomi cut him off.
>Wait. This matter is no longer for Shoji-sama to judge.
>What?
>Kitsuki-san pointed to a courtier at random.
>Come forth please.
>The Courtier did. A golden haired Kitsu, by the mon on his Kimono.
>At a gesture from Toshiro the Eta brought out the head board.
>This man here, did you see him work magic today?
>I did.
>Can you describe what you saw?
>Hai. He took out his wakizashi, cut his palm and bled. He spoke blasphemous prayers. Then the room was plunged into a blood red mist.
>Thank you.
>You, please.
>The Soshi woman who asked me about the Dot Battle.
>I would ask the same questions of you.
>She nodded. Yes, I saw the same thing as the honorable Lion. He worked blood magic.
>Kitsuki-san looked around.
>There are many courtiers here, shall I continue to go through them one by one, Shoji-sama?
>Shoji looked upset by this turn of events.
>That will not be necessary.
>He stood up from the chair and joined the audience.
>Toshiro sat down. Naomi was Shoji's daughter, so Toshiro was the better choice for the appearance of impartiality.
>Toshiro motioned for the Karo to proceed, but the Karo waited until Shoji nodded to do so.
>He then read the scroll.
>It was Ayame's confession.
>Mantis-san whispered beside me.
>That bastard didn't waste any time did he?
>Trying to wrap this all up his own the second we were out of his hair.
>I did not nod in agreement.
>Though Mantis-san's assessment of the situation was accurate, it was just rude to speak out loud during formal proceedings like this.
>The confession was quite damning. Ayame admitted her love for her slain Senpai, her desire for revenge. She made no mention of her dreams, or the charm.
>She was adamant however, that she acted alone, deceiving her fellow Shiba to get close enough to kill Yoritomo Yohko.
>The new head of the Mantis delegation nodded, though slowly.
>Very well then. I have no choice but to accept that this woman acted alone, however...
>Toshiro held up his hand, forestalling any further comment
>I've got questions I must ask before I render judgment. So hold on.
>Shoji erupted.
>What could you possibly need to know? She has confessed to everything!
>Toshiro ignored him.
>Shiba Ayame.
>Hai.
>You didn't mention this in your confession, but you said that you were having nightmares lately, is that right?
>...hai.
>And did you do something about that?
>I... I bought a charm to help me sleep better.
>From who?
>She looked down.
>Then at Shoji.
>Don't look at him. I'M the one asking you questions here.
>Who did you buy the charm from?
>That man there.
>She pointed to the headboard.
>Hida Naomi-san, you confirmed that the charm had Maho cast upon it?
>I did.
>Both Shoji and the Yoritomo seemed to be getting more and more agitated as this went on.
>So in reality, you are wrong Shiba Ayame.
>A chorus of shouts broke out. Shoji, the Yoritomo and Ayame all protested.
>NO! I did it, I killed her!
>Are you saying the Phoenix bear no blame for this incident at all? This is absurd! That one is the daughter of the Lord, she is clearly lying on her father's behalf!
>Cease this charade, that woman has disgraced the Clan!
>SHUT. UP.
>Toshiro stood abruptly, knocking the chair back.
>Maho was used by that man.
>He pointed.
>To kill Yoritomo Yohko.
>The Maho in question affected the mind of Shiba Ayame.
>This means her fate is MINE to decide. I have the authority here, NOT ANY OF YOU.
>Toshiro glared as protests died.
>The Yoritomo tried again.
>She still despised our Clan, it was her own weakness that allowed the spell to effect her in the first place!
>Toshiro laughed.
>I hope you have a good champion then.
>What?
>I personally witnessed the Tsukai cast a spell on him.
>Toshiro pointed to me.
>And I know now what that spell did.
>It altered his perception so drastically he tried to kill someone who has been his friend and companion for several years.
>The Yoritomo looked quite surprised by that.
>H-how do you know that was the same spell as was used on her?
>It is my business to know such things. I am a Jade Magistrate. Try to keep up; I hate having to state the obvious.
>The Mantis looked at me.
>I smiled politely at him.
>I want you to know, I do not feel very upset.
>All the same, I must ask you to withdraw your comment about my weakness.
>He looked at me.
>I looked back.
>Sweat began to form on his brow.
>Are you feeling well, Yoritomo-sama? It is winter, yet you are sweating.
>He sputtered a bit.
>Oh dear, I think he believes I was insulting him.
>Oh no! Please do not misunderstand me! I am only concerned for your health!
>I have no doubt your position places great strain on you, Yoritomo-sama!
>Perhaps you should get some more rest?
>I noticed that several of Crane were staring at me as well.
>Not just the courtiers, but the Yojimbo as well.
>One was frowning intently, with his eyes narrowed. His mon told me he was a Kakita.
>However, they dropped their gazes when I looked at them.
>Odd.
>The Yoritomo took note of this as well.
>He looked back at his fellow Mantis.
>Then he bowed to me.
>I must apologize. I had no idea that Maho could be so... potent.
>I waved it away.
>It is no great surprise. Such knowledge is dirty, and should only be studied by those who must know these things to fulfill their duty.
>He sat back down heavily.
>Toshiro nodded.
>Good.
>If you're all done trying to second guess me, I'll pass my judgment now.
>Yoritomo Yohko was slain by that guy, there on the board.
>Shiba Ayame was just a tool he used to do it.
>Shiba Ayame, you are not responsible for what happened.
>Stand up, and get changed. White doesn't suit your complexion.
>She rose, unsteady.
>Naomi went to her side to help steady her.
>The Yoritomo glared at Shoji.
>Still, this happened under YOUR roof!
>The Phoenix were deliberately lax with their security!
>Kitsuki-san spoke up.
>Excuse me a moment, Yoritomo-san.
>You, yes you.
>He pointed with his fan.
>Could you step forward for a moment?
>A Mantis that had been staying near the back came forward.
>May I ask your name?
>Tsuruchi Agito.
>You know this man, don't you?
>He gestured to the head board.
>What, No!
>I've never seen that samurai in my life!
>Ooooh?
>You don't remember meeting him?
>No! Of course I don't remember meeting him!
>That is a shame, one should remember the first time they meet their friends.
>What! He is not my friend!
>Oh, an acquaintance from the dojo then?
>How could I have gone to the same dojo as him?! That's impossible!
>...
>And why, is it impossible?
>Because I would remember...
>The great dojo's train hundreds, thousands of students each year.
>I do not know the names of every one of my classmates, and I never forget anything.
>So why, Tsuruchi-san, are you so certain it is impossible for you two to have gone to the same Dojo?
>I... I...
>The Yoritomo looked at the Tsuruchi.
>What is the meaning of this, Agito-san? Explain, quickly!
>Agito looked down.
>I do know him.
>I served with his brothers, for a time.
>His name is Yoritomo Hirano.
>Yoritomo-sama exploded.
>That is preposterous! Why would a Yoritomo turn to Maho, and kill one of their own!
>Kitsuki-san spoke.
>Perhaps his brothers can shed some light on that.
>Agito shook his head.
>I doubt it. They're dead. They died in the raid on this castle. Crushed by boulders hurled with earth magic.
>I felt like I was hungover.
>It was some time later, and my temples were pounding.
>I was aware, dimly, that my mind had been fucked with. Not once, but twice.
>A ladle of water appeared in front of me.
>Get that shit out of my face, and get me some damn sake.
>It's an affront to the celestial order for me to be hungover without having had the pleasure of being drunk first.
>Toshiro pulled out a small bottle of sake, and made to start warming it.
>I snatched it from his hand and began gulping it down cold.
>Fuck, that's terrible.
>I emptied the bottle and threw it away.
>Seriously, why the hell do I get all the Maho?
>Um. Sorry about that Ishigaki-san...
>Not your fault Toshiro. I get it, I would have killed Kitsuki-san if you hadn't.
>But still... get me some more sake.
>You know there ARE some types of sake meant to be consumed cold, if you don't want to wait.
>Nah, I'm feeling a little better now, I can wait for you to warm up the next one.
>Kitsuki-san looked over.
>Perhaps Toshiro should cast that spell on you more often.
>Monkey.
>Yeah Ishigaki?
>Did that moron just say that out loud, or did some Maho-Tsukai cast another spell to make me want to kill him again?
>No I heard him that time.
>K.
>Kitsuki-san, however, was on the other side of the room.
>Dammit. Get over here so I can kick your ass.
>He chuckled.
>Ishigaki, do you not remember anything that happened?
>It's all kind of fuzzy. I remember it, but my mind was all wrong, so I was paying attention to the wrong shit.
>When Toshiro suggested Yoritomo-sama was insulting you, some of the Crane were trying to see if they could take you.
>But your unnatural calm fooled them.
>It was like the first duel between Kakita and Mirumoto Hojatsu!
>... how do the Dragon tell it?
>Kitsuki-san smirked.
>You know the two faced one another without striking, yes?
>Yeah, everyone knows that part.
>Hojatsu later admitted that Kakita had the better technique and would have won.
>But Kakita himself was not certain of that fact, and so did not strike.
>Monkey looked surprised.
>Are you saying Cranes only duel when they know they can't lose?
>Toshiro returned with sake.
>I decided to be a bit more civilized and drank from a cup this time.
>I was still going to drink the whole bottle myself though.
>Oh yeah, Kitsuki-san.
>How in the hell did you know that Tsuruchi knew the Tsukai?
>I happened to notice his face when he came in and saw the head. I could see he recognized Hirano.
>Luck, really.
>So, Hirano, whose brothers were killed by Shoji's magic, decided to use Maho to kill the Mantis delegate so war would break out.
>And the person he used as a murder weapon was having bad dreams because the person she loved died in that same battle.
>That we were a part off...
>Yes, Ishigaki-san that is an excellent summary.
>For fuck's sake. Someone in Tengoku is laughing their ass off at this.
>That night, Ashitaka came to see me.
>I have my answer now, Onii-sama
>Oooh?
>Yes. I want to protect people, like you do.
>I don't want to be the one protected.
>I am going to become a bushi.
>I stared.
>Then laughed out loud.
>How's that taste, Shoji?
>You are certain this is what you want, nii-san?
>Hai, onee-sama.
>I can not bear the thought that there would be a person whose life existed solely to die in my place.
>When did you come to this realization?
>When Ishigaki-sama left the room we were in.
>I realized then I wanted to be strong like him.
>Naomi, Oka-san, Ashitaka and I were sitting around a table, discussing his future.
>Oka-san was shooting me glares over her fan.
>Naomi didn't seem to thrilled either, for that matter.
>Ashitaka, being a bushi is very dangerous and demanding...
>Aren't Daiko and Tetsute going to be bushi?
>Why is it fine for them to face that danger and not me?
>Ah, well...
>I spoke up.
>Because it's highly unlikely either of them will have the ability to become shugenja. You do.
>Ashitaka looked up at me in surprise
>Don't misunderstand. I just want to make sure you've thought this out carefully.
>You're deciding the course of your entire life.
>It's a big decision.
>He nodded.
>I understand Onii-sama.
>More glares from Oka-san.
>I understood their concern.
>Most young bushi died in their first battle.
>Seeking glory, they rushed headlong into battle with the strongest opponent they could find.
>Only to be cut down effortlessly by one far more skilled.
>Because of my Crab upbringing, I saw that as a waste.
>But such things would happen even among the armies of the Phoenix and Crane.
>When you're raised on stories of great heroes you want to emulate them.
>Rokugan's greatest heroes often died in glorious ways.
>I did want to make sure Ashitaka wasn't thinking like that.
>I'd had enough of that crap with Ayame.
>Alright, Ashitaka-san. Let me ask you something.
>He sat up straighter, recognizing that I was about to test him.
>Do you know what the most important thing for a protector is?
>He frowned in thought.
>Keen vision! They cannot protect people if they do not see a threat for what it is!
>I nodded. That is very important, yes. But not the MOST important.
>In order to protect someone else, you must be able to protect yourself first.
>He blinked at that.
>If you are what stands between the person you are protecting, and danger, what happens if you die?
>Ah, I see Onii-san! A Yojimbo must be able to see threats truly, remove them with superior skill at arms, and stay alive to deal with future threats!
>Right, it's not enough to just jump in the way of one arrow, when there's an army out there intent on taking the life of the one you're protecting.
>Oka-san's glare softened, a bit.
>Naomi smiled a thank you at me.
>She didn't need to thank me.
>Ashitaka had a point when he mentioned Daiko and Tetsute.
>I was going to have to have this talk with them one day as well, so this was good practice.
>Do you think I will be able to enter Sunda Mizu?
>Whoa.
>All three of us were caught off guard by that.
>I made a show of considering the question.
>I didn't know if I had enough pull to get him into Sunda Mizu. I was one of their honor students, having moved on to advanced schooling as a Defender, but I wasn't really high ranked.
>But even putting that aside...
>Ashitaka, could you stand up for a moment?
>He did so.
>Hold out your arms for me.
>Okay.
>That's it, just hold them there.
>I felt his muscles.
>None at all.
>He wasn't overweight, but he was still a plump child. His earliest education in the home had focused on intellectual pursuits, rather than physical ones.
>In contrast, my children were roughhousing and running around until they were exhausted even before they could speak.
>Training and play were one and the same for Crab children.
>I didn't think one of the Empires harshest dojo would suit Ashitaka at all.
>You don't think I should, do you Onii-sama?
>Sharp kid, like Toshiro said.
>I sat down in front of him to look him in the eye.
>No, I don't. You have a keen mind, but your body is currently lacking.
>Nothing wrong with that. Training and time will take care of it.
>But Sunda Mizu is unforgiving. Even Crabs who are naturally hardy have a rough time of it.
>And, you have a keen insight.
>I do?
>Yes, you do. Toshiro noticed it, and I agree with him. You see things others do not.
>I had the pleasure of working alongside a Shiba trained bushi for some time, and I got to see some of their techniques first hand.
>I really do think their teachings would be able to bring out your full potential, whereas Sunda Mizu would be training you to be something you just aren't.
>He nodded gravely.
>I understand, Onii-sama. If you say that I am better suited to the ways of the Shiba, then I will go there.
>One day I will stand beside you as an equal!
>I arched an eyebrow.
>Try and surpass me kid.
>He blinked.
>I've got years of training on you, and I'm not about to slack off in my own training. You'll need to work very hard indeed to catch up.
>So only by aiming to surpass you can I ever hope to catch you at all... I see!
>He really was quite sharp.
>Ashitaka left to go and bathe before going to bed.
>Oka-san put down her fan and spoke.
>I cannot say I like this.
>He is an Isawa!
>That's not why you're upset and you damn well know it, Oka-san.
>She stared.
>I was willing to give her a chance, but that meant I was going to be as open with her as anyone else in my circle.
>Oka-san was having difficulty... adjusting to my blunt words.
>You just can't say it because it flies in the face of Honor, glory, and what's expected of proper Samurai.
>But no parent wants to attend their own child's funeral.
>Oka-san looked at Naomi.
>Yes Mother, he really did just say that. Have I not told you before Ishigaki-kun is much more aware than you give him credit for?
>I shrugged, a little embarrassed by the compliment.
>I keep saying you overestimate me Naomi. It's just you have time to think about things when your standing a post on the wall is all...
>Your father will be incensed by this.
>It was a struggle, but I managed to keep the smile off my face.
>Father will just have to accept that Ashitaka is his own person, and not some doll for father to dress as he pleases.
>Oka-san and I were both taken aback by Naomi's firm resolve.
>Outnumbered, Oka-san sighed and gave in.
>I still do not approve, but I will allow him to decide his own future. I will do what I can to mitigate Shoji's wrath, but...
>I understood. Mitigating Shoji's wrath was like mitigating the damage of a typhoon.
>One simply built their house out of easily replaceable material and simply rebuilt once it had passed.
>She narrowed her eyes at me.
>There are no bushi in our family, save you Ishigaki-san. I expect you will give him proper guidance.
>Of course, Oka-san. I want him to have a long and glorious career.
>She nodded and left.
>Once we were alone, Naomi came and sat in my lap.
>It is hard, to imagine him swinging a sword, taking lives, being in danger.
>I have tried not to think too much on it, in regards to our children...
>She rubbed at her tummy.
>I placed my hands on her shoulders comfortingly.
>They really must enter the shadowlands alone? And come back with a kill?
>Yes. All the bushi do, and most Shugenja as well.
>Even some of the Kaiu go out.
>It isn't as though we do not prepare them to the best of our ability Naomi.
>But still, some never return.
>No. Some never do.
>I wasn't about to tempt fate by asserting our children would all come back, so I tried changing the subject.
>What was that, back there?
>Hmm?
>When you so thoroughly put your foot down about your Father's say in the matter of Ashitaka.
>Oh that?
>I am disgusted with him. How he treated poor Ayame...
>He was going to throw her life away because it was the most expedient solution to the problem!
>Ishigaki-kun... has my father always been like that?
>Have I been blind to his faults for so long?
>Yes. You have Naomi.
>But that's okay.
>He's your father, it's expected you turn a blind eye to his faults and obey him without question.
>It's just that Shoji is one of those who such loyalty is wasted on, that's all.
>Naomi nodded sadly.
>What do you suppose will happen with Ayame now?
>Well, she will not continue to serve here in this castle, that is certain.
>Beyond that though, I cannot say Ishigaki-kun.
>You don't think he'll strip her of her name, do you?
>No, Toshiro found her innocent of any wrongdoing. Her Honor is a little stained but nothing that severe. Someone else in the Clan will take her in, I'm certain.
>Good. Good.
>Tomorrow there will be a kyujutsu tournament.
>Will you be participating Ishigaki-kun?
>Your father loves competition, doesn't he?
>Yes, it is because he expects to win all the time.
>So, will you?
>I was actually a moderately decent archer.
>Many Crabs were.
>On the Wall, lame ponies would be staked out beyond the River of the Last Stand, to lure in live targets for practice.
>After all, the more you killed with arrow volleys and siege engines, the fewer you had to fight up close.
>Yes, I think I will.
>Good. So will I.
>Huh?
>Did you not know? I have practiced Kyujutsu from time to time, as a meditation exercise.
>I had seen her paint, arrange flowers, play music, tend her garden, perform the tea ceremony, and dance.
>I had never seen her fire arrows into straw targets.
>I was going to enjoy the looks on the others faces tomorrow as much as she was enjoying the look on mine now.

Act XXIII: Games[edit]

>The kyujutsu tournament was going to be a simple affair that would last the whole day.
>Each contestant would be given five arrows, and allowed to pick their targets.
>Each target had a 'kill' zone, and was worth a number of points determined by the difficulty of making the 'kill'.
>The targets were quite innovative, however.
>They were arranged like soldiers on a battlefield.
>The closest ones at twenty yards were just bundles of wet straw, You only needed to get your arrow to stay in the target to earn the points for a 'kill'.
>Behind those were an array of targets with more exacting kill zones, and getting further away.
>The most valuable target was not a straw dummy, but a set of Oyori, stuffed with straw.
>It was placed on a stand, seated, with a tessen gripped in it's hand.
>It represents the commander, a full 100 yards away.
>Just getting an arrow to it would be difficult with the Yumi we would be provided with.
>But you only got points if your arrow managed to penetrate deep enough to to hit the heart, lungs or brain.
>A literal kill shot.
>Tsuruchi Agito was called upon to act as the judge in this completion.
>Simultaneously throwing a bone to the Mantis, by giving the prestige of judging the completion, and removing the one most likely to win from the competition itself.
>After all, a judge should never be allowed to participate in the same competition they are judging.
>To allow such a thing would guarantee such judges would make biased calls favoring themselves, and strip any such competition of all integrity.
>I saw Chibicorn was going to be competing in this event.
>The Lion put forth several competitors.
>As did both the Crane and Phoenix
>A Mirumoto I had not yet seen was joining in.
>With the exception of Toshiro, our entire party would enter.
>Naomi would be the first to compete.
>I enjoyed watching them all pick their jaws up off the ground when they learned Naomi could shoot a bow.
>A servant brought her a bow and her arrows.
>Agito had already examined the bows and arrows to be used, and removed several of each he said would be 'better off used as firewood'
>So the playing field was as level as possible
>It was up to each competitor to know their own ability and use it to its fullest potential
>Go for too many easy shots, and you would not score well
>Go for too many shots you were likely to miss, and the higher point value would not make up for the wasted arrows
>This was as much a test of self awareness as it was ability.
>Naomi assumed her stance.
>She drew.
>And released.
>Her arrow buried itself to the feathers in a target 50 yards away.
>That's right, Naomi was strong. Stronger than even myself or Mantis-san.
>Her slight frame belied her impressive strength, due to her affinity for water.
>I suspected that while Daiko had her looks, Tetsute had some of her impressive strength.
>Naomi drew and fired again, and again.
>A smooth, steady pace.
>Each arrow found a target of moderate difficulty, giving her a very solid score when she was done.
>She hadn't set the opening bar terrifically high, but I was forced to admit I'd need a bit of luck to do much better.
>There were a lot of people watching, so I settled for simply congratulating her on her showing rather than hugging her like I wanted.
>An Akodo was up next.
>He drew his bow and then slowly moved it from left to right.
>As he did so he released.
>Ah, I think I see what he's doing.
>Rokugani do not 'aim' their shots.
>Rather, the arrow knows the way.
>We simply give it flight, and allow it to find what it seeks.
>If our technique is poor, we end up hindering the arrow, obstructing it's spirit so that it cannot find the target it was meant for.
>This Lion was listening to his arrow intently, releasing when he felt it's desire.
>He listened well, and his technique was solid. He just edged Naomi out by a single point.
>Archery was an art of the air, not the water.
>For Naomi to do so well as a meditation exercise against a trained soldier...
>I said as much, to cheer her up.
>I am not so fragile, Ishigaki-kun.
>Besides, I would never want to shoot a living person.
>I know, I'm just saying that if we ever end up staring down another horde of zombies I want you with a bow and some flaming arrows.
>Naomi shuddered.
>It it is all the same to you, I would rather avoid another zombie army...
>Seconded.
>Mantis-san said.
>Also seconded.
>Said Monkey.
>Up next was Kitsuki-san.
>This should be interesting.
>I was looking forward to seeing if his sharp eyes could help his archery.
>I knew the Kitsuki school did not emphasize kyujutsu the way it did kenjutsu.
>How far had he trained then?
>It turned out, not very far at all.
>He placed three arrows into the front rank of targets, one into a target at 40 yards, with only the top of the target a 'kill' and tried to hit the Commander.
>His arrow fell short, however, landing between the feet of the armor.
>Kitsuki-san returned to us with a sigh.
>I expected as much. Perhaps I will put some more effort into my training. We cannot rely on Toshiro-sama to do all the work when our enemy is not within arms reach.
>Glad someone finally noticed.
>Toshiro grumbled.
>It would be a bigger issue if you weren't a wal...breathing siege engine.
>I grinned over my shoulder at him.
>'Accidental' insult followed immediately by a sincere compliment.
>I was getting much better at the word games played so often in court.
>Toshiro scowled, then let out his half snort half laugh.
>It was Chibicorn's turn next.
>His stance was all wrong.
>Instead of lifting the bow up and pushing forward, he brought the bow up to shoulder height and left it there.
>Then he drew back, not to his rear shoulder, but his cheek
>So, this then, is the Yomanari of the Unicorn Clan.
>When the Unicorn returned to Rokugan after 700 years away, the brought many strange gaijin things with them.
>The large horses that dwarfed Rokugani ponies were the most obvious, but saddles made of dead flesh, stirrups, and glass were just some of the things introduced to the Empire.
>Yomonari was another. It was a gaijin technique for firing a bow, that involved looking down the length of the arrows shaft.
>To me, it sounded like rather than properly releasing an arrow so it's spirit could fulfill its purpose, the Unicorn completely subdued the arrow's spirit, bending it to their own will.
>I was curious to see just how effective such an approach could be.
>He held the draw for too long, and when he released he did so by only relaxing his fingers, without pulling his arm back as you should
>His arrow went straight through the do on the commander.
>Well...
>Agito ran out to check the penetration.
>After a moment, he held up his arms, crossed in front of him.
>The arrow didn't go deep enough to score.
>Chibicorn drew and fired again. Again striking the commander.
>Agito checked and signaled a 'kill' this time.
>Satisfied with that the Unicorn sent his last three arrows into the very back rank of targets.
>Even with one arrow failing to score, the bar had been raised quite considerably in this competition.
>Next, a Daidoji woman.
>Her white hair was cut very short, so someone close to her must have died very recently.
>Unlike Naomi, she wore her kimono in the traditional fashion for archery.
>With her arm that would hold the string out of it's sleeve, and her right side bared.
>She wore a sarashi to preserve her modesty.
>Her arm and shoulder I could see were thickly muscled, and a scar ran over her shoulder.
>It's shape implied a blade had come down on her shoulder at some point in the past, but failed to sever her arm.
>The Daidoji were known to produce many skilled archers, and this woman was clearly a veteran of several battles.
>Her arrows flew, all striking the same target.
>One in 50 yards back, with a thin line of paint for the 'kill' zone.
>The shafts of each were practically touching each other.
>It was a good score, and with all five arrows getting points she was able to beat the Chibicorn.
>But I suspected the display of precision was her true goal. It didn't count for her score, but it DID showcase the impressive archery of the Daidoji.
>Did you just now catch on, Ishigaki-kun?
>Hm?
>There is more going on here than just a test of one's skill.
>Kitsuki-san nodded. Think about it. The Mantis are synonymous with their Navy, aren't they?
>Oh yeah. And naval battles are like sieges. Arrow volleys are very important until the ships close with one another, or their reach land to the infantry can come to grips with one another.
>My father is trying to impress upon the Mantis that the Shiba alone can do great damage in such battles,and also looking for who might make the best allies to seek should it come to that.
>Huh.
>I thought I understood now, how some courtiers claimed court was a battle like any other.
>Oh, looks like I'm up next.
>As I scanned the field I saw several targets that had their kill zones painted very low.
>One was even touching the ground itself
>Not an accurate representation of a person, but a tricky shot to make.
>The inexorable pull of the earth might seize the arrow, crushing it's spirit and pulling it down before it struck home.
>Hah. Just like shooting at those little goblins.
>ThwakThwakThwakThwakThwak
>My trick shooting got me a respectable score, no more.
>I got nods of acknowledgment from the Daidoji woman and the Lion.
>Mantis-san gave me a look when I came back
>What was up with that.
>Toshiro answered him, holding his thumb and forefinger slightly apart.
>Goblins.
>Oh. Yeah they are pretty small aren't they?
>Never really thought about that before.
>Hey, Kitsuki-san! Your lover is coming up
>She is NOT my lover Monkey.
>Really?
>Cus I think she just winked at you.
>Moshi Aoi was wearing her usual attire.
>Unlike the Daidoji woman, she had not bothered to secure herself.
>As she released the string passed her chest and set events into motion.
>Her arrow found a target in the front rank
>Kitsuki-san hid behind his fan.
>She lifted up her arms and bow a bit slower than she should, then drew and fired.
>I believe she is doing that on purpose...
>I thought you said the water kami were pleased by constant motion, Naomi.
>Ishigaki!
>She struck a target a bit further back.
>Aoi drew again, and fired.
>Mantis-san leaned in to Kitsuki-san.
>Face it, you're being courted.
>Toshiro spoke up.
>Nah, she wants me. Clearly.
>Kitsuki-san fluttered his fan at our teasing, his face going red.
>Which Aoi seemed to mistake for a sign of success.
>So she stretched a bit, working out stiff joints to limber herself up.
>It was getting to be too much even for me. I had to look away.
>Naomi's hand found mine, down low and hidden from view.
>She said nothing, however.
>I head a thwack of an arrow hitting it's mark.
>And Kitsuki-san made a choking sound.
>Monkey and Mantis-san were giggling.
>Then another thwack.
>Up next was a Bayushi, his mask a demonic mempo split down the middle vertically, so the entire right side of his face was covered.
>The Bayushi walked up, to his stance drew and fired drew and fired drew and fired drew and fired drew and fired.
>His hands blurred, the last arrow struck before the first stopped quivering.
>And he returned to his seat even before Agito had time to announce his score.
>His targets were on the smaller end of the kill zones, spread out across the width of the field.
>A very good score, but several had better already.
>Still, his message had been quite clear
>Then it was Monkeys turn.
>He shot all his arrows into the commander.
>One planked off the crest of the helm.
>Another struck the knee.
>Two more struck the do.
>The last one jutted out of the eye of the mempo.
>...
>Monkey was a proficient archer. He was not an expert.
>He had done exactly the thing you should not have, gone for too many difficult shots and hoped his score would not suffer from too many misses.
>Agito moved up and checked the penetration.
>Both hits to the do had gone in far enough.
>One hit heart instead of lungs, and was worth more points. The brain was worth the most points.
>Even with only two non scoring arrows, no one would be able to match him without at least a Lung hit on the commander.
>Mantis-san whispered to me.
>How the HELL does he do that?!
>I shrugged. Better to be lucky than good?
>Kitsuki-san offered his own opinion.
>Rather, luck is a skill all it's own, and the Toku seem to have mastered that skill...
>He reminds me of the students of the Dark Sword of Bitter Lies.
>Gyah!
>When the fuck did Amano-san join us!?
>I scowled at him.
>Don't ninja around me like that, dammit.
>I'm jumpy; you might get hurt.
>Ah yes, the old saying: 'when you wake a Crab, use a stick'.
>I will remember that, Ishigaki-san.
>He smiled to assure me there was no malice in his returned banter.
>You know that guy who went before Monkey?
>Bayushi Kentaro. My cousin.
>That was some impressive speed.
>It is the motto of the Bayushi dojo: Strike First' Strike Last.
>I grunted.
>So who is next?
>It was a Shiba. The Gunso who had taken us to see Ayame.
>He fired his arrows in smooth deliberate rhythm, as Naomi had done.
>Thwack.
>Thwack.
>Thwack.
>Thwack.
>Thwack.
>Each shot scoring high.
>His last arrow found the do of the commander.
>Heart.
>He had passed Monkey's score.
>Awww. That fast?
>That's the danger of a tournament like this. If you take the high score everyone after you will try to beat it, even if only by a slim margin.
>And you've guaranteed that everyone will aim for the commander now..
>Agito waved a flag.
>There would be break while the commander was fitted with a new do and re stuffed
>As good a time as any for lunch then.
>Amano joined us, as did his cousin.
>Naomi gave me a discrete elbow when she saw me check my riceball for ninjas.
>Aoi decided to join us as well.
>She sat next to Kitsuki-san.
>Every time someone asked her to pass something she used it as an excuse to lean against him.
>He kept a stony face up the whole time, which only served to encourage me to ask Aoi to pass more food my way.
>He glared at me the third time I asked for some more shrimp.
>Monkey, oblivious to the danger he was in, spoke freely with the Scorpions in our midst.
>That was some impressive shooting, Kentaro-san!
>Yours was better though.
>Only my score. I think you'd do better on a real battlefield though...
>Kentaro smiled at the compliment.
>It was unnerving, given I could only see half his face.
>Oh my, I can see why you keep asking for more of this Shrimp, Ishigaki-san!
>That's because it's done in proper Crab style.
>Crabs enjoyed food covered in batter and cooked by immersing it in hot oil.
>They even had a proper dipping sauce.
>Aoi held out a piece, dripping with juice, to Kitsuki-san.
>You should try this! It's delicious!
>Naomi hid a titter behind her sleeve as the rest of us just grinned.
>Kitsuki-san tried to murder us all with his glare as he ate the piece.
>It is very good shrimp. Thank you Aoi-san.
>My pleasure!
>After a pleasant lunch we returned to witness the end of the archery contest.
>Mantis-san was up next.
>He first put three arrows into some moderate targets.
>Then fired his last two shots at the commander.
>He arched his shots up high, the first was taken by the wind and overshot the commander.
>The second came straight down and punched through the kabuto, burying itself halfway up the shaft.
>It was close, but he ended up falling shy of the Shiba Gunso's score.
>After several unsuccessful attempts to remove Mantis-san's arrow it was decided the kabuto would be replaced.
>Mantis-san was allowed to keep the helm, arrow and all.
>I know right where I'll put it, too.
>He grinned.
>After that it was another Lion, followed by an Utaku. Strong showings from both, but neither was able to take the lead.
>Then Crane stepped up. They were very young, and I couldn't tell if I was looking at a pretty boy or a young girl.
>Amano spoke up.
>I know that one. Doji Rei.
>Well. Thanks for clearing up the mystery.
>She fired off two shots almost as fast as Kentaro had.
>And took out both eyes on the commander.
>Her other three struck the back ranks of straw targets.
>Well, that's damn near unbeatable.
>As the rest of the contestants took their shots, damn near became completely.
>Doji Rei was declared the winner of the Archery contest.
>Hey, uh, Ishigaki-san?
>Is that a boy or a girl?
>I'm married Monkey, I don't need to concern myself with such things.
>Oh, yeah. Guess you've got a point.
>I was just curious, is all.
>Naomi and I ate dinner with our kids, private family time.
>Neither of them had gotten the hang of chopsticks yet, so it was bit messy. Lots of grab and stuff and giggle.
>Yummy!
>Tetsute's first word had been HUNGRY
>And much of his vocabulary centered around food.
>Even as an infant his I'm hungry cries were clearly different from any other crying.
>In that they could probably hear him all the way to the Wall.
>Naomi took the children for a bath, and headed down to the men's baths.
>They were empty, save for one other.
>Shoji.
>He looked up as I entered, then down. Then away, angrily.
>So, I win again.
>I sat down and began to wash, not giving him any satisfaction by noticing him.
>Silence, for a time.
>Then.
>It is not enough for you take my daughter, now you want my son as well?
>Don't give me that bullshit, you never wanted your daughter to begin with.
>She still had value to this family!
>I dumped my bucket over my head and stood up.
>I looked him dead in the eyes.
>You really don't understand, do you?
>THAT is why your son doesn't respect you enough to follow in your footsteps.
>I got in to soak, as Shoji choked back his rage.
>You all took a great risk with the incident the other day!
>You were lucky it worked out so well!
>You fools think with your hearts too much, do you know nothing of Duty or Honor!?
>I surged across the bath at him.
>And pinned him to the wall, my forearm across his neck.
>Not quite choking him, but close.
>Do not DARE speak to me of duty little man.
>You have spent your whole life hiding behind others, letting them take the risks for you.
>I have stood at the forefront of every battle I have ever been in.
>You use others to further your own goals.
>You throw away their lives when it is convenient.
>You have never risked you own life, not once, on purpose.
>For an earth tensai, you're pathetic. A sniveling coward afraid to be hurt.
>And you would lecture me about honor? about duty?
>Say something like that again and you'd better pray to every fortune, kami and ancestor you can think off that one of those Crane steps up to defend you.
>I let him go.
>And left.
>I will make you pay for these insults! One day I will take something YOU hold dear!
>Ichi.
>Ni.
>San.
>Shi.
>Go.
>Roku.
>Shichi.
>Hachi.
>Kyuu.
>Juu.
>Nope. Still mad.
>So I returned to punch Shoji in the face.
>I felt his cheekbone crack.
>Shoji was not much of a brawler, and naked while sitting in water up to his waist wasn't helping him any.
>So I decided to give him some tips on swimming by shoving his head under the water.
>Plus, he couldn't scream for guards to come help that way.
>It occured to me that I was having a naked fist fight with my Father-in-law, and seriously trying to kill him.
>This... this probably won't go over very well with Naomi.
>He might be a coward, but Shoji was still an earth tensai.
>The human spirit is tethered to its body.
>Damage the integrity of the body, and the spirit's grip loosens.
>Damage it enough and the spirit is no longer bound.
>The most basic 'healing' spell did not actually close wounds. Rather it simply reinforced the damaged bonds.
>At least, that's how Naomi explained it to me.
>The strength of one's earth most determined the strength of those tethers.
>In other words, this could take a while.
>It was then that I heard voices nearing the baths.
>Well.
>Shit.
>So I pulled Shoji up.
>As he gasped and sputtered I yelled loudly enough to be heard outside.
>Shoji-sama! Are you alright! It is slippery!
>The people outside rushed in.
>He glared at me even as I slapped his back.
>To help him get all the water out, of course.
>I... I am fine now!
>Good, good.
>Oh, it looks like you hit your face when you slipped!
>Yes, it is nothing though. I truly did not feel it.
>Of course, Shoji-sama, you are durable, if nothing else!
>I left, before I lost my temper again.
>I decided not to tell anyone about that little exchange.
>I joined my family and went to sleep.
>There were a few days of more basic courtly activities.
>Shoji was 'resting' due to a mild 'illness' and would resume hosting soon.
>In the meantime, we enjoyed watching Aoi pursue Kitsuki-san.
>I wondered if he was serious about his protestations.
>After Shoji recovered from his 'illness' he announced the next competition.
>A Go tournament.
>I was beginning to see a pattern here.
>There were many entrants for the Go tournament.
>So many that even though it was single elimination, it would likely take a day or two.
>There was no time limit imposed on the individual games themselves.
>No one liked the weak fools who would play poorly but try to be ahead when time ran out, after all.
>My first opponent turned out to be the Shiba Gunso.
>I drew white.
>He placed upon his left corner star.
>I mirrored his move.
>I played conservatively after all, building up my territory and only then attacking enough to nudge my opponent off the board.
>We placed quickly at first, both of us ignoring the other in favor of developing a strong base.
>But while I was still moving up the sides, he took the Origin of Heaven.
>Bold.
>Was he trying to fight for the center, while sneaking around the sides?
>Hoping that a battle on all fronts would confuse me?
>If he was, he was in trouble.
>I was not a smart man, but I knew how to defend my territory.
>I continued on with my development, pretending to ignore his audacity.
>He grew bold and struck at my territory before fully consolidating his position.
>I then sallied forth, harrying his flanks while he tried to push against me.
>He wheeled in response.
>Only for me to strike a hammer blow to the center crushing his line.
>He frowned over the board for a moment.
>Then bowed.
>A good game. You are better than I gave you credit for, and my recklessness cost me.
>I'd like to think I had something to do with my own victory, but he was right. I had won because he made a few costly mistakes.
>A good game. Maybe we can play again sometime, and I'll see what you're truly capable off.
>Indeed.
>There were several games still ongoing, so I meandered about and observed.
>Aoi was still playing.
>She was leaning forward studying the board intently.
>Her opponent was also studying intently.
>Just... not the board.
>I took a glance down at the board.
>With a frighteningly cute 'Yosh!' Aoi placed her piece.
>I could see she was going to win.
>His pieces were scattered; she had waltzed into his territory practically unopposed.
>Monkey was sitting across from Katsuie-sama.
>Monkey was telegraphing just how much trouble he was in; sitting with his ankles crossed and arms folded.
>I came over to see just how bad it was.
>Oof.
>Katsuie-sama had successfully pushed into the center and was currently ahead in the battle for one of Monkey's sides.
>Only a measly strip remained of Monkey's once proud empire.
>And given how decisive Katsuie's victories had been on the rest of the board, he might even be able to take more of that.
>Monkey made a frustrated noise and placed his piece, seemingly at random.
>Ohhh, good move!
>Though Katsuie-sama praised Monkey's placement, I couldn't see how it helped him win.
>Katsuie-sama aborted his attack, placing to defend against Monkey's last move.
>Monkey placed.
>Then Katsuie-sama.
>Then Monkey.
>Then Katsuie-sama.
>Then Monkey.
>Then Katsuie-sama.
>Then Monkey.
>Then it was over.
>Monkey had managed to, in the last few turns take back just a bit of his territory, reclaiming one of his sides.
>Katsuie-sama thanked Monkey for the good game.
>I am pleased to have seen such determination.
>Many will simply concede when they think they have lost, but you kept fighting back, until the very end!
>I would have been more impressed were I not certain that Monkey had not planned any of that
>The first round was over.
>From our group, only Monkey failed to advance.
>Guess it takes more than just luck to win a game of Go, neh?
>Toshiro spoke up.
>Katsuie-sama is renowned throughout the Crab clan as a great Go player.
>I looked over at him.
>Really? I didn't know
>That's because you don't pay attention to things like that.
>I grunted.
>Round 2 began.
>Mantis-san and I got to have our showdown.
>In our first games, we were lopsided in our styles.
>He focused too much on attack, I focused too much on defense.
>We had improved one another considerably in our previous games.
>Now an invincible force would collide with an immovable object.
>And all of Rokugan would tremble.
>I drew white again.
>The two of us chose our ground for our basecamps, and began deploying our forces.
>He sent scouts along his sides, testing to see how I would react.
>I began laying traps just outside my territory.
>I also gave up a few pieces, sacrificing them to his sides, just so he didn't focus too much on what I was really up to.
>He secured the flanks, and began to bring up his forces, preparing to crush me in a pincer.
>Too late; I had prepared the center.
>I struck deep into his territory, charging his base camp.
>He responded swiftly, and I lost more force to his defense.
>I fell back, trying to salvage the assault.
>He pursued, thinking I had overreached.
>Right into my traps.
>It wasn't long before he found himself cut off.
>I fell upon the center with all my might.
>But Mantis-san wasn't about to give up so easily.
>He marshaled his forces and drove a wedge through my encirclement.
>Breaking free, he wheeled.
>It was nearing the end now.
>He kept up a constant motion, slashing away wherever he could do the most damage.
>Rather than chase after him and try to stem the bleeding, I began to set up ahead of him blunting his assault.
>When the last pieces were played, it ended up being very close.
>He had two sides, I had one. We contested the fourth. But I had the center.
>I had won, though by a slimmer margin than I had expected.
>Well done Ishigaki-san.
>You too, Mantis-san.
>We grinned at one another, both pleased with the ferocity and skill of our rival.
>I looked up to see Kitsuki-san staring down at our board
>He looked between the two of us.
>How is it possible the two of you are so bad at this game?
>Huh?
>I've heard of beginner's luck, but how did you BOTH manage to get past the first round?!
>Well, the Shiba I played did fall for my ploy and become overconfident.
>I played against a Lion, he fell for my taunting attacks and left himself open.
>So really, how do you figure we're bad?
>Kitsuki-san just buried his face in his hands.
>It turned out, though, that Kitsuki-san had lost his match.
>Aoi had bested him soundly.
>And so, proved that playing one's opponent was just as viable as playing the game itself.
>I really didn't know where he got off, saying we were bad at Go.
>I was annihilated in the third round.
>I sat across from an Akodo.
>As we bowed he spoke.
>Some say that Go is the superior game, others claim Shogi.
>I say both are good.
>In Shogi, one must capture the opponent's king, removing enemy pieces and pinning down his forces.
>It teaches one to think tactically, to see the strengths and weakness of each unit and use them to their best potential.
>Shogi simulates a real battle well.
>Go, however, is about controlling territory.
>Each piece is the same as any other. Their individual abilities do not exist, because at this level it is irrelevant.
>Only by working together can they achieve victory.
>Go teaches one about strategy.
>I think this guy takes these games waaaay too seriously for his own good.
>But, while his obsession may be unhealthy, it proved it's worth quite handily.
>He fell for none of my traps, simply placing his pieces with precision almost as soon as I decided on my own placement.
>He didn't respond to my feints, when I tried to begin setting up a trap he dismantled it before I was finished.
>By the time I was done, a full 3/4 of the board was firmly in his control.
>As we bowed after it was over he spoke again.
>You have potential.
>But you forget this is a game.
>Go can teach one strategy, but only if one is broad minded and able to understand the analogies.
>You treat this as a literal battle and so your placement is amateur at best.
>Well.
>Maybe Kitsuki-san was right after all.
>But he still lost before I did.
>No, I did not lose.
>But you were out of the tourney? So you must have lost?
>I conceded, but not because I could not win.
>Then why?
>I found her playstyle offensive.
>Folding her hands in her lap to push herself up.
>Leaning forward all the time.
>Nibbling at her thumb while she thinks.
>Shrugging before she placed a piece.
>I could not think straight.
>So, what you're saying is, she didn't beat your army, she fired an arrow with a letter into your camp that got you so worked up you beat yourself.
>NO!
>Monkey fell over cackling.
>...buh....beat!
>Beat Himself!
>Kitsuki-san and Naomi were confused as to why that was so funny.
>Toshiro just responded to their confusion.
>If we have to explain it, it's not really funny anymore.
>I hadn't intended to make that joke, but whatever.
>I'd let them think I was clever.
>The final turned out to be Katsuie-sama vs Akodo Gocrazy.
>Hey, you played him didn't you Ishigaki-san?
>What's his name?
>Akodo Gocrazy
>No it isn't. His name is Akodo Akira
>I like mine better.
>What if he hears you?
>Bah. I could take him.
>In a first blood duel over a minor insult? YOU?
>I had no idea why everyone keeps thinking I'm a terrible duelist.
>That's it, I'm going to get my own headbag so that the next time we get caught up in a war I could go looking for duels and put an end to that once and for all.
>The real question is how to hide a head bag from Naomi.
>Gocrazy made the same speech to Katsuie-sama that he made to me.
>Katsuie-sama offered some of his own Go related wisdom.
>Go is indeed a fine game. You can learn much about a person from the way they play.
>But it is best to dispel all notions of them from your mind before you begin.
>If you have preconceptions, and they turn out to be wrong, you may outsmart yourself and play poorly.
>Katsuie-sama drew black.
>He placed his first piece.
>The Akodo followed with quick certainty.
>As they developed their openings, Kitsuki-san hissed beside me.
>A fuseki!
>Kitsuki-san whispered so as not to be overheard by the players.
>Katsuie-sama is going for a far more open and relaxed game.
>I watched.
>Relaxed is right.
>Katsuie-sama was placing his pieces all around the board, isolated and alone.
>I was sure he was setting up traps, except I couldn't see how they could form yet, or be closed in time.
>Was he thinking of the endgame already?
>Could he really see that many moves ahead?
>Gocrazy's hand paused for the first time.
>Naomi whispered to me.
>He had been going with a traditional opening, building up his more easily defended sides and corners.
>Now he wonders if he should respond to Katsuie-sama or if he should continue.
>Akodo Gocrazy placed his piece. Next to one of Katsuie-sama's.
>Oooooh.
>So, it is now then?
>Very well.
>Katsuie-sama placed.
>Then Gocrazy.
>Katsuie placed with great speed.
>So did Gocrazy.
>Tak.
>Tak.
>Tak.
>Tak.
>Their hands were almost blurs.
>Neither was looking at the board much.
>They were looking at each other.
>The Akodo was stone faced and stoic.
>Katsuie-sama wore a faint smile.
>Whether he was enjoying the game or just knew something the Akodo did not was not clear.
>Maybe it was both.
>The Akodo paused again.
>Hand hovering over the place he was about set his piece down.
>He looked at the board.
>For some time.
>Slowly, he moved his hand.
>Placing the piece somewhere else.
>Tak.
>Katsuie kept right with his certain, rapid placement.
>Akodo Gocrazy closed his eyes.
>And bowed to Katsuie-sama.
>It was an honor to face such a skilled opponent.
>Katsuie-sama returned the bow.
>Likewise. I have learned much from you this day.
>Your strategy is strong, sturdy and reliable.
>You are easily the finest player I have ever had the fortune to face.
>At the end of the second day, Hida Katsuie was declared the winner of the Go tournament.
>Later on, I caught Kitsuki-san staring at a Go board.
>What's up?
>This is the state of the board, just before Akodo Akira made his last play.
>Oh?
>If the Akodo couldn't see a way out at that point, I doubt there was one.
>I am not so certain, Ishigaki-san.
>I sat down and stared at the board with Kitsuki-san.
>Hey, what are you guys doing?
>Kitsuki-san is trying to figure out if there was still a way for the Lion to win before he made his last play.
>Oh.
>Monkey sat down next to us.
>Before I knew it, we were all sitting around the board, staring it hard enough to set it on fire.
>Toshiro got up, and thumpdraged off.
>We continued to stare at the board.
>What about here?
>No, that wouldn't work either Monkey.
>See, then Katsuie-sama places here.
>Oh yeah.
>Mantis-san nodded. Yeah, it really is just impossible.
>Are you so certain?
>We jumped.
>Katsuie-sama came into the room, along with Toshiro.
>So that's where he went.
>Here, let me make you all some tea to clear your minds.
>He did so. It was a fine robust tea.
>May I?
>Of course Katsuie-sama
>He placed a piece for the lion. Where the Lion had been about to place.
>Then he placed for himself.
>He played out the rest of the game, down the very last placement.
>We looked.
>The Lion had won this game.
>You see?
>It is important to never give up, no matter how bleak things may look.
>He sipped his tea calmly.
>More people lose because they tell themselves they have lost, then have well and truly lost.
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>Conversely, one could say it is just as important to convince your enemy he has been defeated as it is to actually defeat them.
>Indeed, Kitsuki-san.
>Such is the weight of reputation.
>The Akodo are feared as tacticians, the Kakita and Mirumoto feared as Duelists.
>All fear to anger the Scorpion, or to deal with them more than necessary.
>They forget that even Cranes can fall in duels, that sometimes the Scorpion cannot sting you, that even the Lion are not invincible in war.
>Monkey spoke up.
>I thought that no army led by an Akodo has ever known defeat? Or something like that, anyway.
>Katsuie-sama chuckled.
>If that were true, then why have the Lion not conquered all of Rokugan?
>Or at least, destroyed the Crane and Scorpion they so openly despise?
>No, that is kind poetry. Just as there will always be gaps in even the finest suit of armor, so will there be flaws in every man.
>It was at this point that Bayushi Amano, Kitsui-san's friend, entered the room.
>I lifted up one of the Go pieces.
>No ninjas under that one.
>Naomi elbowed me again.
>Ah, Katsuie-sama, you're here. This is fortunate, I have news and you must hear it as well.
>Katsuie-sama took in Amano's countenance.
>Sighed.
>I think I will need more tea before I hear this.
>You might, yes.
>I have managed to learn of the next move the Crane and Mantis plan to make.
>Oh?
>The Crane secretly wish for the war because they see an opportunity to inflate the value of their rice, by damaging the Phoenix surplus.
>The Crab, of course, stand opposed because they rely so heavily on Crane rice.
>I didn't like that he was bringing up the Crab now.
>The Crane clan made a proposal to the Mantis, gift the rice taken from the Phoenix to the Crab, the Crane will compensate the Mantis.
>Monkey spoke.
>Wait, doesn't that defeat the whole purpose of driving up the value of their rice?
>I shook my head.
>The Mantis aren't going to capture enough stores of grain and rice to cover all our clans needs.
>Mantis-san considered it.
>Most likely with value of rice up, the Crane get the same amount of return on their rice as they usually do in a given year, except they don't have to give up as much.
>So they'll have more surplus to trade elsewhere.
>So they still come out ahead.
>Just a little more complicated way to do so.
>Katsuie-sama sipped at his tea.
>Well, hey. It's not like we've got anything to worry about there, right?
>It's not like Katsuie-sama would take their deal.
>Monkey noticed that Toshiro, Katsuie-sama and I were all looking down.
>...Right?
>There is a Yasuki in my entourage. He would have to look over the proposal.
>Monkey didn't understand.
>The Crab maintained the largest standing army in Rokugan.
>At times the Lion would keep more, other times they would include the number of Ashigaru and reserves they could muster to make their force seem even larger.
>But logistical relies kept the Lions actual army smaller than most thought, and because they really didn't need that many troops since large scale war between the Clans was forbidden by the Emperor.
>The Crab, on the other hand were in a constant state of war.
>And our enemy was NOT a Clan.
>And we wouldn't be able produce enough rice in year to feed even half of the force we maintained.
>If the Crab would come ahead in the deal proposed by the Crane and Mantis, even by a slim margin...
>Katsuie-sama wouldn't like it, but he would have to take their offer.
>Toshiro explained the reality of the situation to Monkey and the others.
>Katsuie-sama left to return to his own rooms, no doubt to prepare for the official offer.
>Well, this left a bitter taste.
>I shuddered to think what a Mantis Kobune carrying a Kaiu made siege engine could do.
>Heaven forbid some siege masters be sent to assist the Mantis directly.
>The Kaiu knew how to build the best fortresses in Rokugan.
>That meant they also knew the best ways to take one apart.
>This could get very ugly soon.
>Naomi hugged me fiercely that night, worried for the future of her birth Clan.
>I didn't blame her. I hated Shoji and Hohiro, true, but I didn't hate the whole Phoenix Clan.
>Given Shoji's pattern for events, the next one would be physical challenge of some sort.
>I was right.
>A kenjutsu tournament was announced.

Act XXIV: Kenjutsu[edit]

>The Karo began to announce the rules.
>Single elimination.
>Using bokken.
>Those trained in the way of Niten would be permitted a second, shorter bokken.
>This is a challenge of Kenjutsu, after all, not Iaijutsu, and the second blade is the core of the Niten style.
>It was at this point that Shoji stepped up beside the Karo and whispered into his ear.
>The Karo's eyes widened, but only for moment.
>A contestant will be eliminated if they are disarmed, fall prone, surrender, or are rendered unconscious.
>Those of ill health or frail bodies are encouraged NOT to participate, for while the best shugenja from the assembled clans will be on hand to treat the competitors, serious injury is still possible.
>...and death, for that matter.
>Though it wasn't said out loud.
>Killing someone with a bokken wasn't easy.
>Deep, heavy bruising and cracked bones were the most common injuries.
>But it was possible to crush an eye, a larynx or to break a neck or crack a skull.
>Of course, such a lack of control would be a shameful display, but not criminal.
>For that matter, most Kenjutsu tournaments included a certain number of hits as a qualifier for victory.
>This was done specifically to reduce the likelihood of injury, since you only needed to touch your opponent to win.
>It was as though Shoji wanted people to get hurt.
>I glanced up at him as the thought struck.
>Our eyes met.
>He was looking straight at me.
>Oh. He DID.
>So, this is the best you've got then Shoji?
>Fine. I can handle this much.
>The first match was Chibicorn against Doji Rei, the winner of the archery tournament.
>They were both so small I thought we were sitting further back than we actually were at first.
>Chibi battle, round one. FIGHT!
>...fight?
>Any day now...
>Yet the two combatants just shifted stances at one another, occasionally taking a step and counter-step.
>Hm, yes I see.
>Kitsuki-san, of course.
>Please, do enlighten us.
>Rei is using a Daidoji style I think. It fits with her skill at Kyusutsu.
>Monkey spoke up.
>Yeah, you're probably right.
>They have two they teach, don't they?
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>One is for the battlefield, the other for Yojimbo.
>Both are very defensive in nature.
>The more battlefield oriented one teaches techniques that take advantage of allies.
>One exposes themselves when attacking, so the Daidoji teach a style that limits that exposure.
>Mantis-san snorted.
>I decided I wasn't going to be shown up by Monkey of all people.
>So I looked over Chibicorn.
>Classic stance, almost archaic. And he wasn't a woman.
>He's trained in the Shinjo style then.
>Oh?
>Yeah. If you saw the Moto style you'd know right away.
>And the Utaku wouldn't teach men their Kenjutsu.
>Right.
>What do you know of the Shinjo style Ishigaki-san?
>You know how Shinjo beat Hida? Run around, dodge, tap him a few times and call that a win?
>Yeah, it's that with a few Gaijin tricks added in.
>I was getting some cold stares from Monkey and Kitsuki-san.
>So these two are both trained to defend and counter. Which is why this fight is so boring.
>It will become very interesting once one makes a move, though.
>Snort.
>Chibicorn made the first move
>He took the high stance, and Kiaied loudly.
>Then struck.
>Rei deflected, pushed back and followed through with a strike.
>But Chibicorn fell back holding his bokken in one hand and twirling it in a circle.
>It connected with Rei's blade, pulled in into the circle, and yanked the blade around.
>What is THAT?
>Gaijin tricks. Like I said.
>Now Rei was the one exposed.
>Chibicorn took proper hold of his bokken and thrust the point forward driving it into Rei's sternum.
>There was a loud whuff as the air was driven from Rei's lungs.
>Rei tried to sidestep and swing, but Chibicorn was already moving in his own sidestep.
>He spun as he moved, bringing his bokken into his opponent's hip.
>Rei went down to one knee.
>Chibicorn looked at the referee who signaled him to keep going.
>You had to be fully prone to be eliminated, not just on a knee.
>He took a high stance and brought his bokken down.
>Rei didn't try to deflect.
>Instead she rolled backward onto their feet.
>As chibicorn's bokken struck the floor Rei lunged forward hitting him in the temple.
>Chibicorns head snapped sharply to the side, his whole body leaning over.
>Blood dripped from the gash opened in his head.
>Then he fell.
>Naomi was the first one to reach him.
>Kitsuki-san frowned.
>That was dangerous.
>Such a heavy blow to the head like that?
>I could see Naomi using a more advanced healing spell, one that did actually repair a damaged body.
>Chibicorn was able to stand.
>The two contestants bowed to one another and returned to their seats.
>Our next contestants were Bayushi Kentaro.
>And Kitsuki-san.
>Oh, oh boy.
>I am not certain who to root for.
>GYAH!
>Seriously, stop DOING that!
>Bayushi Amano, that ninja fuck, had one again joined us without anyone noticing.
>Well, I know who will win!
>Okay, this is ridiculous.
>The Bayushi joining us without anyone noticing was one thing, but the MOSHI?
>It is obvious that Kitsuki-san will be victorious.
>I mean no disrespect, Amano-san, the Bayushi train fine swordsmen.
>But the infamous Scorpion Feint will not work against Kitsuki-san's all seeing eyes.
>No offense is taken, Aoi-san.
>In truth, I suspect you may be right.
>The two contestants bowed and took their stances.
>Kentaro did not bother with a basic stance, but held his blade parallel to his shoulders, with his weight on his back leg.
>Amano smiled.
>Yes cousin, he will not fall for simply pretending you are a novice.
>Now then old friend, how will you respond?
>Kitsuki-san took a low stance, his wooden blade held along the length of his waist, tip pointing behind him.
>Oh! Wonderful!
>I wondered at first what Amano was fussing over, then I saw.
>Kitsuki-san was leading with his LEFT foot.
>His body was covering his hands.
>He was hiding his intentions from his opponent.
>Kitsuki-san was trying to deceive the Scorpion.
>So, this was now a battle of deception vs perception, and the winner would be the one better at BOTH.
>Is that about right?
>Yes, exactly that Ishigaki-san.
>I don't see how that helps Kitsuki-san though, do you Amano-san?
>There was always a feeling like something was very wrong whenever Monkey managed to say exactly what I was thinking myself.
>Well, we would not expect to see such things save when sparring against a fellow Bayushi...
>You're saying the Scorpion are better at tricking people than spotting tricks?
>It may give the wrong impression, but I suppose you could look at it like that, yes.
>Indeed, the staredown between those two was quite intense.
>I could almost feel their spirits colliding.
>People have said things like that before.
>Some of the great treatises on the art of swordplay were often spiritual as well as practical.
>Maybe I was finally starting to see the spiritual side of Rokugan.
>Maybe I was just deluding myself with sweet poetry.
>Kentaro stepped in quickly.
>Strike First, Strike Last.
>He held his blade parallel to his shoulders, tip pointing toward his right side.
>Pulling back on his rear hand and moving forward with his front, he slashed at Kitsuki-san's eyes.
>Then abruptly reversed his momentum.
>Returning his blade right where it was, he spun to his right.
>Driving the tip of his blade straight at Kitsuki-san's side.
>Kitsuki-san leaned back from the slash to his eyes, and closed in.
>He brought his blade up from the low stance.
>And struck precisely where Kentaro's wrists were.
>Hands numbed from the impact, Kentaro dropped his blade before it could reach Kitsuki-san.
>Both contestants bowed as a Shugenja came over.
>Kentaro waved him away, simply massaging his wrists.
>Kitsuki-san returned to us.
>You damaged his ego more than his body, I think, my friend.
>To read him so perfectly, and convince him his feint had worked.
>Then it was my turn.
>I'm Matsu Keiji! Glad to meet you!
>A bit informal. Not that I minded in the slightest.
>Likewise, I'm Hida Ishigaki.
>I've been hoping for a chance to fight you since the Sumai Tournament!
>Matsu Keiji was a big fellow.
>Only shorter than me by a few inches.
>We both took high stances.
>Surprisingly, Hida and Matsu Kenjutsu look very similar to one another.
>But that is only what is on the surface.
>The Hida style of swordplay leaves more openings than one would expect, intent on delivering powerful full swings that can cut even a horse and rider both, or an ogre.
>Just like the Matsu.
>But why they do this comes from two very different places.
>The Matsu see no need to protect oneself when your foe should be lying dead at your feet.
>The Hida style assumes it's students will be in heavy armor.
>The Openings we leave will be covered by our armor.
>Also, while the more advanced techniques of the Matsu continue to hone an invincible offense, the Hida style begins adding deflections, warding stances, and strikes meant to force your opponent back as one advances in the school.
>Of course, I had yet to advance to those levels of Kenjutsu.
>So Keiji and I were likely going to just hit each other with wild abandon and see which one falls over first.
>The wild grin on his face told me he thought the same thing.
>And he liked the idea very much.
>Matsu. Crazy, all of them.
>At the referee's signal, Keiji rushed at me.
>I allowed him to make the first move.
>I watched and waited as he rushed at me, and turned my blade just a bit.
>His one blade came down, hitting mine.
>My hands stung from the strength of the impact, but I tensed up my shoulders and held firm, letting his blow slide down my bokken, and away from me.
>I could see he was surprised.
>It was true I did not know any advanced kenjutsu techniques to defend myself.
>Only the basic deflections.
>But, I knew how to use them very well.
>Some people do not put as much stock in the basics as they should.
>Keiji laughed out loud.
>GOOD! How about THIS then!
>He whirled while back stepping, snapping his blade at my exposed side with one hand.
>The circular motion added momentum to his attack. A crushing tidal wave.
>I pivoted my hips, bringing my bokken quickly to my side.
>As per the principles taught by Kobo Ichi-Kai, straight force must be turned aside, round force must be blocked.
>However he dipped his blade at the last moment, striking the very end of my bokken.
>I did not have the strength to hold back his assault.
>And his blade passed by mine and into my hip.
>He blinked as my body tensed under his attack.
>He was too far back for me to attack.
>And my feet would not move.
>This is not good.
>He flexed his own hands, and shook his head.
>That was a neat trick there!
>What did you do, when I hit you?
>I borrowed some of Hida's Strength, that's all.
>HAH!
>Well then, I'm coming again!
>His attacks were too good, he struck with the force and then moved away like a river that rushed inexorably toward the ocean.
>Though I had no idea HOW he could do such a thing, his blows rooted my feet to the ground.
>A chill ran along my spine.
>Fear?
>This man made me afraid?
>I could not hope to stop his relentless assault.
>Then there was only one thing to do.
>I closed my eyes and focused upon the kata I knew.
>I would become as the earth itself, and endure his assaults until I had an opening to strike.
>He struck my blade, passed me and hit me across the back as he did so.
>It was all I could do to turn and face him.
>Hmm. You know it's no fun if you can't even fight back a little...
>Or what? Is your plan to break my bokken on your body or something?
>I managed to keep the tremble out of my voice as I returned his banter.
>Oh, I'm sorry were we fighting for real now?
>I was just waiting for you to finish running around like a decapitated chicken.
>His eyebrow twitched.
>BWAHAHAHAHA! Man that's good!
>I like your attitude Hida Ishigaki-san!
>Fine then, I'll crush you with my next attack!
>I could see him begin to empty his mind.
>Keiji was still out of my reach so he could take his time.
>My defense, though basic, was very solid.
>He hadn't been able to land any decisive blows, only barely reaching me.
>He intended to change that.
>I had heard the Matsu could paralyze a foe with fear due to the ferocity of their assault.
>Until this day I did not realize how powerful that technique truly was.
>I knew though, that I could not let his next strike land.
>But I was already doing everything I could to cover up, yet he was still breaching my defense.
>Very well then. I would have a very narrow window in which to attack him.
>I had to make it count.
>I shifted my stance, letting my own Fire burst forth.
>He came at me, and I struck in between his steps.
>I heard bones crack as I struck his right shoulder.
>I followed through and then pulled my blade back, hitting a second time in the ribs.
>It was not enough to bring him down.
>It was enough that his own attacks were thrown off.
>His blows landed, and I could tell he had broken several of my own bones.
>He did...something as he struck me.
>From my vantage point on the receiving end, I couldn't tell what.
>My vision swam, but I remained standing.
>We turned to face one another again.
>He had not moved far enough that I could not reach him this time.
>I could see his cracked and bruised ribs were making it hard for him to breath.
>He panted at me.
>Damn! You're a hard one, aren't you?
>A bit, yes.
>Heh.
>We both struck each other again.
>I could tell he was used to doing battle while injured, and that he had some technique to further that ability.
>As did I.
>We were both on our last legs it would seem.
>Our strikes fell upon one another.
>I tasted blood.
>It was harder to breathe than ever.
>I suspected, dimly, that a rib had pierced into one of my lungs.
>I planted the tip of my bokken into the floor to hold myself up, coughing up the blood in my mouth.
>I looked around.
>Where was he, where was Keiji-san?
>I found him, face down.
>I felt a cool gentle rush.
>An unpleasant, but not painful, sensation accompanied my bones sliding back into place.
>I hacked up some more blood, until I could breathe again.
>I glanced down and saw the bruises fading from my body.
>My Hana-chan was seeing to my injuries.
>I glanced over my shoulder and was relieved to see Keiji-san sitting up, a Kitsu helping him to his feet.
>He let out a whistle.
>You hit pretty hard yourself there, Hida Ishigaki-san!
>I gotta say though, I thought I shouldn't use that technique, that I'd kill someone for sure with it!
>Not did I not kill you, you were still standing!
>Matsu Keiji-san, you're a beast. I couldn't afford to hold back my blows either. Believe me when I say this: You hit harder than an Ogre.
>That's some compliment! Thanks!
>We bowed to one another and returned to our seats.
>All the others, even Amano and Aoi-san, were staring wide eyed at me.
>I closed my eyes.
>In a real fight he'd have killed me.
>No way.
>It's true. He was able to wound me that much with a bokken.
>With a real blade in his hands I'd be dead.
>Why didn't you move and hit him?
>Amano, of all people was the one who answered that.
>The Matsu teach a technique that causes their attacks to bring forth fear in those they strike.
>It leaves them unable to move.
>Truthfully, I do not know of many Matsu who would even think to use it the way Keiji-san did though.
>Monkey san scoffed.
>Oh come on, I've seen Ishigaki-san stare down Oni!
>He's telling the truth Monkey.
>He scared me.
>I'm not immune to the emotion, after all.
>I said nothing more.
>I was certain my opponent was not determined by random draw.
>But I had overcome Shoji's first, and likely, best challenge.
>If there was another warrior in the Empire more deadly than Matsu Keiji-san I had no desire to cross blades with them at least.
>The next bout was the Shiba Gunso.
>Against Shiba Ayame.
>We exchanged confused looks.
>I thought Ayame-san was going to keep a 'low profile', after the issue with my father?
>We all did, Naomi-sama.
>Amano unfolded his fan and cooled himself while he thought.
>Mantis-san growled.
>I don't like this.
>The competition is rough, she shouldn't be in here.
>Monkey pointed out something else.
>If she wins, she's going to have to fight Ishigaki.
>That was true. The first match of the next round would be Kitsuki-san against Doji Rei.
>I would have the winner of this match.
>Kitsuki-san frowned, putting his fan to his lips.
>She faces her own Gunso, who is likely far more advanced in the Shiba style than she is.
>Monkey commented again.
>It'll be a battle of footwork.
>Shiba's style teaches more steps than any other school, to maximize positioning.
>I looked over at him, incredulously.
>Just watch, Ishigaki-san. I'm right.
>I wasn't doubting what had been said, I was doubting that it was Monkey who said it.
>The fight began, and Gunso stepped forward.
>Ayame stepped back.
>They did this again.
>They each stepped to the side, switching their stances up.
>Gunso pulled back his blade and let loose a Kiai.
>Ayame fell back several steps.
>He simply returned his blade.
>So that's his plan. Make her waste energy with excessive maneuvering.
>He took calm forward steps, sliding his rear foot so he would always have stable footing.
>Kitsuki-san, do you see that?
>Yes. The variance is subtle, but that is definitely a distinct step.
>Ayame took a short, quick step of her own to close the distance and strike at her gunso.
>He anticipated it though.
>No, the speed of his deflection... he baited her in.
>He then struck, a slow overhead that she caught on her own blade.
>The wooden swords ground together as he pushed strongly.
>He over balanced her, and a scrape as his bokken slid along hers.
>And into her eye.
>The referee threw himself between the two instantly.
>Ayame fell, holding her hand over her eye in shock.
>Blood leaked from between her fingers.
>Naomi rushed in to help her.
>Another shugenja interposed himself.
>Hida Naomi, please leave her to her own clan.
>But I am a water tensai!
>Nevertheless, the Phoenix Clan looks after it's own.
>The gunso threw himself down in front of Ayame, head to the ground in a dogeza.
>Forgive me!
>That sounded like a real plea to me.
>I looked over to Kitsuki-san, arching my eyebrow.
>He means it.
>Monkey snarled.
>Monkey.
>SNARLED.
>That bastard! The gap in their skills was too obvious, he did that on purpose!
>Kitsuki-san grabbed Monkey's wrist.
>It looked just enough like an accident, though.
>Ishigaki-san.
>Yeah?
>This is Shoji's doing, isn't it?
>...
>Yeah.
>And now you will face the Gunso next...
>You will need to restrain yourself, Ishigaki-san.
>Amano nodded.
>I can assure you, by the time you face him the whole court will know that you were friends with Ayame-san, and that you hold this against him.
>I shot the Scorpion a glare, though out of respect for Kitsuki-san I said nothing.
>I could not see his eyes of course.
>Amano faced me directly and said, simply.
>It has been done before.
>A break was called, so the arena could be cleansed of any negative karma that may have been brought about by the 'unfortunate accident' and to allow the spectators time to collect themselves.
>We went to visit Ayame-san.
>A bandage wrapped around he head diagonally.
>Blood stained it over her eye.
>She gave us a brave smile.
>It doesn't hurt, the shugenja's magic saw to that.
>But, they said it was completely crushed, and I will not see out of it again.
>Naomi threw herself down before Ayame with a cry.
>Forgive me! I could have saved your eye, I know it!
>No, Naomi-sama! No one blames you for this!
>But, my father!
>No. A Phoenix did this to me.
>My Clan, did this to me
>You are a Crab, Naomi-sama. Not a Phoenix.
>I sat down heavily.
>And cupped my face in my hands
>I had completely underestimated the depths of Shoji's vindictiveness, the depths to which he would sink.
>And to think, I had been worried that it was irresponsible of me to take my friends and family to Kyuden Hida.
>The full depth of my folly was made clear to me, when the people close to me were in less danger within spitting distance of the shadowlands than my Father-in-law's castle.
>Hana-chan. It is not your fault.
>It is mine.
>I told them about the 'conversation' I had with Shoji.
>I couldn't quite bring myself to elaborate on the messier parts.
>But I conveyed the important part.
>We had argued, and I had antagonized him.
>Amano shook his head.
>I believe Isawa Shoji must have a copy of Tangen's Lies in his library.
>If you cannot kill an enemy directly, infuriating them by attacking those close will cause them to make a fatal mistake.
>Ishigaki-san.
>I do not blame you, either.
>I looked up.
>I would not even be alive now if not for you and your friends.
>Shoji is a vindictive man. He would have punished me for not following his plan even without your fight.
>I couldn't help but notice she used no honorific.
>If there is anyone I will hate for this, it is my gunso, who did as he was told even though it was wrong.
>And the Shugenja, who made sure this wound would be permanent.
>I thank you all for your concern, please, let me rest now.
>We filed out, I was the last to go.
>Leave him intact, for me, Ishigaki-san.
>Okay.
>The next battle was Monkey, up against Mirumoto Kokoro.
>No question what style Monkey's opponent would use.
>They bowed.
>Monkey assumed his stance.
>Kokoro did not.
>Kitsuki-san hissed "The Eight Directions!"
>What.
>Oh? You know this stance, Kitsuki-san? You are well versed, aren't you?
>What stance.
>What the the hell are you talking about you crazy woman.
>He's just standing there.
>At the referee's signal, the Mirumoto walked up to Monkey.
>He did not step. He walked.
>And Monkey stepped back.
>Kokoro snapped his blade at Monkey's neck in time with his own stride, stamping down with his foot as he attacked.
>Monkey got his own sword in the way stoping Kokoro's attack.
>Only for Kokoro to get closer and stab his short blade at Monkey.
>Monkey leapt over the attack.
>Okay. What the hell.
>This didn't look like Kenjutsu, it looked like two untrained brawlers going at it.
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>Such is the simple grace of the Niten style. It seeks to make the swords one with their wielder, so that every movement and action is as normal as walking.
>Amano agreed.
>And the Toku teach that one must always strive to do what must be done.
>It will be a wonderful match, each a natural fluid expression of their art.
>I leaned in to Mantis-san.
>Those two are out of their minds, aren't they?
>Yeah.
>Just checking.
>Monkey made several rapid thrusts, but Kokoro spun his blades in circles.
>Though Monkey was able to make two thrusts in the time it took for one blade to make a full circle, Kokoro had two blades.
>Every blade was pushed aside as Kokoro closed the gap between them again.
>Then, when his blades were both outstretched to his sides, he brought them quickly together attacking Monkey in a pincer maneuver.
>Monkey leapt back out of the way of the blades as they whistled past one another.
>Then launched himself forward and struck at the Mirumonto as soon as he landed.
>Thwack.
>Monkey hit Kokoro across the chest.
>As Monkey passed him, Kokoro whirled.
>His body twisted in the direction of Monkey's strike, softening the blow.
>As he spun, Mirumoto Kokoro brought up his blades.
>Then brought them down.
>He caught Monkey on both shoulders.
>The force of the strikes pushed Monkey down onto his right knee.
>Unlike Doji Rei, Monkey's opponent did not pause to look at the referee.
>Kokoro knew full well the match was not over.
>Kokoro was behind Monkey, who was on one knee and unable to move well.
>And poised to strike again.
>I could hear Kitsuki-san whisper.
>'If the enemy attacks first, kill them'.
>'If you attack first, kill them'.
>'If you and the enemy attack at the same time, kill them'.
>Though I had actually never read Niten, I assumed that must be what Kitsuki-san was quoting.
>I realized I had misconceptions about the Mirumoto style.
>I had assumed it a defensive style, as it taught the practitioner to shield oneself with their wakizashi, their honor.
>The opposite was true.
>As the Hida style taught one to let their armor cover the openings left when one attacks, the Mirumoto style used the short blade to do the same.
>Kokoro had kept up a constant attack, putting pressure on Monkey from the moment the match began, let leaving Monkey no opening to safely attack.
>And now, this match was over.
>As Kokoro began to bring his long blade down, Monkey snapped his hips.
>Switched from being on his right knee to his left knee.
>And brought his bokken into and through Kokoro's ankle.
>The Dragon's feet crossed over one another, and he fell, spoiling his own swing.
>Still, Kokoro lashed out with his short blade even as he neared the ground, and struck Monkey on top of his head.
>Kokoro hit the floor.
>Monkey's head snapped down.
>But he remained on his knee.
>As the referee declared him the winner, he looked up with that stupid grin of his.
>Monkey's Kenjutsu was nothing special.
>Like most minor clans, it covered the basics yet lacked much of it's own personality.
>But once again Monkey showed the Toku bushi was at his best when he had no chance of victory.
>I heard Mantis-san's whisper plainly
>Seriously. HOW does he do that?!
>Shugenja came up to the contestants, but Monkey whirled and glared at the Isawa nearing him.
>He exchanged bows with Kokoro, who still wore a shocked expression of his own.
>Then, Monkey came over and bowed to Naomi.
>HIDA Naomi-sama, please.
>Monkey spoke loudly enough for many nearby to hear.
>The Phoenix shugenja are poor healers; they could not save the eye of one of their own.
>I would rather place myself in your care.
>Amano fluttered his fan.
>Kitsuki-san just closed his eyes.
>Of course, Toku-san. It is my honor.
>So...
>Monkey just snubbed the entire Phoenix clan, by suggesting the Hida family was able to produce Shugenja better at healing magic.
>That went over about as well as you would expect.
>The Isawa Monkey had turned down stormed over and began yelling.
>Just what is that you are saying, Toku-san?!
>Monkey looked over even as Naomi healed him. Not bothering with a scroll. She was showing off, just a tiny bit.
>Did I stutter, Isawa-san?
>Or am I wrong about Shiba Ayame-san losing the use of her eye forever?
>Monkey.
>With just a little help from my Hana-chan.
>Was making the Isawa look incompetent.
>And they were doing it on purpose.
>As if that wasn't strange enough, I found myself exchanging incredulous glances with Bayushi Amano.
>It wasn't the fact that Monkey, and my wife, were upset. We all were quite furious.
>Nor did I find it all that odd that they would choose to strike back in some way.
>Naomi would endure great abuse without a word of complaint.
>But should she see someone else being abused she was often the first to act.
>Monkey, though not as compassionate as my wife, found deliberate cruelty to be just as offensive .
>What boggled the mind here was that after direct warnings from both Kitsuki-san and Amano that I must control my rage, it was THESE TWO that were acting recklessly.

Act XXV: Advancing[edit]

>The Isawa, a man about my age with long, thin moustaches drooping past his chin, snarled at Monkey.
>You insult my family and my clan!
>The Isawa produce the finest shugenja in the Empire and I will prove that!
>I demand satisfaction!
>Toshiro stood up.
>Really, you too?
>I said nothing, however.
>As you wish, Isawa-san.
>The Isawa looked up at Toshiro, taken aback.
>I assume you meant to settle this with Taryu-Jiai, did you not?
>The Isawa looked to Naomi.
>Do not look at her. I will be the Champion for my subordinate. She must save her magic to heal the contestants of this kenjutsu contest.
>The Isawa looked to where Shoji sat.
>Shoji nodded.
>Fine!
>Well, arguments, and the duels they lead to, were bound to happen once or twice during winter court.
>I just didn't expect that Monkey and my wife would be provoking it.
>At least she wasn't the one fighting it.
>So the entire court headed outside into the snow.
>The elemental forces called up in a shugenja duel could, and often did, result in collateral damage
>So they were often conducted in as open a space as possible
>I am Isawa Momotaro!
>I am Kuni Toshiro.
>Shall we duel with avatars, Momotaro-san?
>The Isawa blinked at that.
>Naomi explained to us.
>In a Taryu-Jiai it is difficult to avoid injury.
>Both parties seek to call up as many Kami as they can, and throw them at one another.
>The one who overwhelms the other is the victor.
>Moshi Aoi spoke up.
>Hai. This method stems from the fact that it was trying to be faithful to the nature and spirit of an Iaijutsu duel between bushi, after all.
>Naomi took over again
>It is possible for a Shugenja who can use the strongest magics to instead create an avatar of their chosen element
>This allows for safer duels, as the avatars battle one another, rather then the the shugenja battling directly.
>Mantis-san spoke up.
>So Toshiro-sama just told that Isawa he is a really powerful shugenja?
>Hai.
>We all looked on awaiting the Isawa's reply.
>No, a standard duel will do just fine.
>Toshiro nodded.
>So you can't make one then.
>Aoi-san giggled behind her sleeve.
>He's making his opponent angry already, pointing out Momotaro-san's weakness.
>The two faced off, and stared at one another.
>Naomi spoke.
>First they extend their senses, opening their minds eye to the Kami. They will try to see what kami their opponent intends to call, and how strong their connection is.
>It didn't look to me like Tohiro was doing that.
>While Momotaro was staring intently, Toshiro was leaning on his tetsubo with a bored look on his face.
>I saw the Isawa's eyes widen with shock.
>Naomi smiled.
>He sees just how powerful Toshiro is now.
>He will surrender.
>Aoi-san shook her head.
>I don't think he will Naomi-sama.
>He seems too proud to just give up like that.
>Aoi was correct, the Isawa began to pray.
>So did Toshiro.
>Naomi shook her head.
>Oh, that fool...
>The snow began to swirl about, forming up and changing into great chunks of ice around the Isawa.
>The earth itself rose up and flowed around Toshiro.
>Toshiro's eyes were glowing with a green light, and his hair and Kimono whipped about as though in a storm.
>Isawa Momotaro's eyes burned blue, his hair spreading out in a fan like a person floating in a pond.
>Then the ice and the earth rushed towards one another and collided.
>As both shugenja chanted more and more of their element poured into the swirling chaos that was the battle.
>And the the roiling ball where their attacks collided burst.
>I had to shield my eyes the light was so bright.
>When I could see, the Isawa was laying a good ten feet away from where he had been standing.
>I could tell because his sandals were still where he had been.
>Toshiro had been forced back as well; there were clear marks in the snow showing where he had been pushed.
>Another Phoenix ran to check Momotaro.
>He's alive!
>With the assistance of a Shiba they got Isawa Momotaro up and moving.
>Toshiro thumpdraged his way back to us.
>Toshiro waved Naomi away.
>This scrapes are not even worth your effort, I only need a night's rest.
>What about the pain?
>What pain?
>Oh. If you are certain then.
>I am. Save your magic for those who need it.
>A lunch break was called, most likely to allow tempers to cool after that display.
>You think any more trouble will come from that little display?
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>Officially the matter is resolved. The duel is over.
>Unofficially however we can expect reprisals.
>However, I do not believe there will be significant increase over what negative attention we will already receive.
>None of the Phoenix shugenja will aid us after this, that's about it.
>I had to make certain of something though.
>What about Naomi?
>She was part of it.
>No, as I said the matter is resolved legally.
>Now, someone may try to pick a fight with her over some trivial thing because they are upset over this...
>But I would not rise to such things, Ishigaki-kun.
>Good.
>Mantis-san ate lightly since he was going to be battling next.
>We wished him luck and returned to our seats.
>We were indeed getting dirty glares from the Phoenix Shugenja in the room.
>I made it a point to glare at anyone who gave Naomi the stink eye.
>The hostility became less open after I won a few staring contests.
>Mantis-san would be facing Kakita Sakurada.
>It was true the Kakita were more known for their single strike style, their emphasis in iaijutsu.
>But they did not neglect more basic Kenjutsu training either.
>Naturally, their Kenjutsu had evolved to build off the fundamental principles of their iaijutsu training, for when a duel lasted beyond the first strike, or on the battlefield.
>Namely they relied heavily on speed, the way Hida relied on armor.
>While I was considering that, I realized I knew nothing at all about the Mantis styles of Kenjutsu.
>So... Mantis Kenjutsu...
>Kitsuki-san and Monkey turned slowly to look at me.
>It's pretty... good. Good at that thing, right?
>The light in their eyes died a little as they realized I was ignorant of his technique even after all this time.
>Aoi-san was the one who answered me.
>I would say it is not good at that thing, or any thing for that matter..
>The Yoritomo are sailors, it would not do for ones katana to be knocked from your hand and washed overboard after all.
>Their use of easily replaceable weapons like kama is a practical choice.
>Tsuruchi, the Wasp clan founder, broke his own Katana. It was not until the after the Mantis as a whole gained great clan status that the wasp began to practice any form of swordplay.
>My own family has a simple style, for the Guardians of the Sun.
>So, we are now pooling our knowledge, to make up for the primary bushi families of our clan having almost no kenjutsu technique at all.
>I see.
>So, what you're saying is, is that Mantis-san is fucked.
>Amano shook his head.
>I wouldn't say that Ishigaki-san.
>Both you and Toku-san showed the strength of your school, despite lacking in advanced Kenjutsu training yourselves.
>I looked at Amano
>Really? Fine then.
>I've got 5 koku on the Crane.
>Ishigaki!
>My wife followed up her chastisement with a light elbow
>She must have thought I was joking, or she would be more upset with me, I think
>I'll take that bet!
>Monkey, of course.
>Naomi-sama is right Ishigaki-san! Betting against your friend is horrible!
>Thanks for the money, Monkey.
>The two bowed and fell into their stances.
>The Crane stood still, looking calmly at Mantis-san.
>Who ran forward, past the Crane and struck at his hip in passing.
>The Crane pivoted, catching Mantis-san's blade.
>A second clack followed the first as Sakurada-san anticipated Mantis-san's follow up.
>Then Sakurada-san moved.
>I had seen Mantis-san make use of his constant motion in battle before, I knew he could use his momentum to avoid attacks or to bowl over opponents.
>Given the rules of the tournament, he opted for the latter.
>I wasn't sure if using the former would have helped him, though.
>Sakurada-san was able to gauge Mantis-san's strength well.
>He moved his blade with speed, aiming for Mantis-san's temple.
>Only to allow his blade to quickly slide off of Mantis-san's.
>Amano whispered.
>Oh, A feint!
>Having drawn Mantis-san's blade out of position, the Crane struck him in the side
>Then brought his bokken down on Mantis-san's wrists
>Mantis-san's bokken clattered to the floor.
>Kakita Sakurada bowed to Mantis-san and returned to his seat
>I took Monkey's money
>ISHIGAKI!
>I gave her the money before she could elbow me again
>I'm just thinking of our future, Hana-chan.
>Ishigaki-san, if you need money you can just ask.
>But that would be a loan. I earned this koku.
>Uh...
>Naomi looked at the money I had handed her.
>Forgive me, Toku-san.
>She put the money away, blushing as she did so.
>Next up, a Dragon and a Unicorn.
>Another small woman, with red hair.
>Not the lightly reddish brown of some Lion, but a vibrant gaijin red, clearly betraying some foreign ancestry.
>She was lean and well muscled, stripped to the waist, save a sarashi wrapping around her modest chest.
>I am Moto Li-Ta! Prepare yourself!
>The Mirumoto facing her was a thin fellow himself.
>Lean and lanky, with a shaved head.
>He was going topless as well.
>A tattoo of a dragon coiled from his shoulder down his right arm and ended at his wrist.
>This Mirumoto was only carrying a single blade.
>My name is Mirumoto Sen. I am always prepared.
>Hello, Mirumoto!
>Hello, Moto.
>They took their stances.
>Oh, I see what you meant about the Moto style, Ishigaki-san.
>I looked at the two.
>So, that isn't Niten?
>Kitsuki-san pursed his lips.
>No. And I am surprised to see a Taoist swordsman here.
>A what now?
>Samurai who seek enlightenment through mastery of the sword, as did Mirumoto and Kakita.
>Though they choose their own path, rather then follow either of those two.
>They train alongside the Togashi.
>Is that tattoo...?
>No. They train with the Togashi, but they are not monks.
>Oh, okay.
>What do you think Ishigaki-san?
>About what?
>The Unicorn!
>Oh. I think she's in trouble.
>I'm also wondering why the Unicorn keep sending out chibis to fight.
>Monkey looked at me.
>You know Unicorn can fight without being on a horse, right?
>I pinched the bridge of my nose.
>Yes Monkey, I know.
>But the Moto style is meant to be used with their gaijin blades, maybe a no-dachi or nagamaki...
>She won't be able to bring out her strength with that bokken.
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>I agree.
>Furthermore, the Moto style is best suited to the battlefield. Not a formalized match like this.
>Oh.
>Moto Li-Ta made the first move.
>With a ferocious kiai she hurled herself at her foe, swinging her blade one handed and seemingly wildly.
>I knew it was not undisciplined recklessness, however.
>The Moto school was strongly influenced by Fire.
>All Kenjutsu styles, indeed all forms of personal combat are connected to Fire in some way.
>But the Hida fight in the style of Earth
>The Mantis in the style of Water.
>The Shiba, fight in the style of Void.
>As do the Mirumoto and Kakita, for both of those men sought to understand the whole of the world through their mastery of the blade.
>The Moto, like the Matsu, were warriors of Fire.
>Their burning rage consumed their enemies and scattered them to the winds.
>The Taoist met her Fire with his own.
>Surprisingly, there were no tricks used in this battle, no techniques. Just simple force colliding with simple force.
>The two struck each other repeatedly exchanging blows.
>Then.
>MATE!
>The Dragon signaled his surrender.
>The Moto woman sagged, panting heavily. She had several red welts on her body that were already darkening up into deep bruises.
>It was then that I saw the Dragon was cradling his arm.
>A lump that could only be a broken bone distorted his tattoo.
>A pair of Phoenix came and tended to them.
>They bowed again and made way for the final match of the day.
>The first to step up was a Shiba.
>My name is Shiba Asahi.
>He faced a Lion.
>I am Akodo Yoshi.
>Monkey's jaw dropped.
>I know that name! He's a Kensai!
>Ooooh. Now I was curious.
>The Kensai were quite famous.
>They were trained to fight like water, they sought to master every possible use of the sword, so they could adapt to every situation and foe they might one day face.
>I wasn't the only one watching intently as these two squared off.
>The techniques samurai used in combat did not come into being of their own accord, nor were they all gifts imparted to mankind by the Kami.
>It was a long process of study, testing in combat, and refinement over the course of decades, even centuries.
>It begins with basic knowledge of how to use a weapon.
>Very basic.
>The first techniques you learn are equally applicable with Katana, Wakizashi, or No-dachi.
>They were then refined to work only with a single type of weapon.
>Some of the things you could with a no-dachi you could not do with a katana.
>In their quest to master the blade, great swordsmen went even further.
>They combined several techniques into kata.
>The elemental stances were the first kata, and now form the basis for all forms of combat, and are taught in every dojo in the Empire.
>It was only by combining several Kata that the highest techniques used by the great clans were born.
>The Kensai of the Lion clan studied kata deeply, ingraining them so thoroughly that they could shift from stance to stance and form to form without effort.
>It is said that only the Kenku were better with the sword, and indeed, it was a Kenku who taught the first Kensai.
>Given that Kensai were taught to master the step between basic ability and high technique, which were still being created at the dawn of the Empire when the older races had more contact with humanity, I could believe that.
>A Shiba bushi was hardly inflexible though.
>A Mirumoto or Kakita seeks to understand the world through mastery of their blade.
>From one thing, know ten thousand things.
>A Shiba approaches the world with a broad mind, seeking to understand the unity of all.
>From ten thousand things, know one thing.
>No one said anything, all were too focused on this bout.
>The two warriors faced one another.
>The Shiba shifted his stance first.
>The Lion followed suit.
>Step and shift.
>Counter step, shift.
>Step and shift.
>Counter step, shift.
>KIAI.
>Akodo Yoshi struck as Shiba Asahi was mid step, closing the distance between the two faster than should have been possible.
>If Asahi was caught off guard he did not show it, his face calm and passive as he shifted mid step and leapt back out of Yoshi's reach.
>Shiba's movement was natural, practiced.
>So this then was the advanced stepping of the Shiba School. I began to realize I undervalued such a simple thing.
>Yoshi calmly returned his sword to a neutral position, taking a new stance.
>This time he held his blade high, above his shoulder, edge to the heavens and tip pointing at Asahi.
>The Shiba fell into a stance as he landed, but upon seeing the Lion's stance he began to shift again.
>KIAI.
>Again Yoshi struck while the Shiba was in mid movement.
>Two blindingly fast thrusts came at Asahi, who sidestepped and tried to deflect.
>Though out of position, he reacted with astonishing speed, a smoothness I recognized from all the times Naomi's Yojimbo had done so.
>Yet, for all that speed, the Lion's focused precision won out, his bokken finding Asahi's shoulder.
>Asahi was pushed by the thrust, and pivoted his hips to turn with the blow, slowing in to glance off his shoulder instead of dislocating it.
>I could tell the Shiba was swimming deep in the void now.
>How long could he touch the space between all things I wondered?
>Everyone could find those moments of perfect clarity, where thought and action became one.
>Monks said this was the ideal state of living, that the Enlightened were as one with all things at all times, and pursued it their whole lives.
>So did the finest warriors, whose skill transcended the physical and entered into a spiritual realm.
>But a person who had achieved Enlightenment was a very rare thing.
>Someone so in tune with the world would appear less than once in several centuries.
>Eventually, Asahi's concentration would slip.
>Even as he fell back from the Lion's thrust, Asahi finally made his own move, sweeping low to high and then back down in a single motion.
>Yoshi stepped to the side of the first strike, deflected the second off of his blade.
>And snapped a strike at the top of Asahi's head.
>The Shiba interposed his blade, but Yoshi adjusted his strike and hit his wrists instead.
>Asahi managed to hold onto his blade, and countered.
>Only for the Lion to not be where he was aiming.
>Instead the Lion had fallen to his knee, and spun striking the Shiba in the knee, taking his leg out from under him.
>Asahi fell.
>The Kensai had won.
>Shoji was not pleased with that.
>The Karo was sweating a bit as he confirmed the lineup for the next days events.
>Doji Rei vs Kitsuki Takeshi.
>Hida Ishigaki vs Shiba Hotaru.
>Toku Satoshi vs Kakita Sakurada.
>Moto Li-Ta vs Akodo Yoshi.
>We ate dinner amongst the courtiers, because of three of our group had advanced to the second round.
>Aoi was unable to sit beside Kitsuki-san, so she settled for sitting across from him instead.
>Everyone was discussing the day's displays loudly, many bringing up the differences between a spar like this and a battlefield.
>I was not the only one who was certain that Matsu Keiji would have slain me in a real fight.
>I did notice most of those who said so wore red, orange and yellow.
>The other topic most discussed, but in hushed tones to those nearest the speaker, was the animosity between the host and my own group.
>Of course it had not gone unnoticed.
>...is his daughter?
>...accusations...
>...emerald... jade...
>...bushi...
>...very upset...
>Well.
>I did my best to ignore the gossip.
>Though I could feel many eyes on me.
>Word was getting around, though neither Shoji nor I acknowledged the relationship, that he was my Father-in-law.
>I caught one Asahina giving Naomi a disapproving stare over her sleeve.
>I stared at her until she noticed me.
>Her fan fluttered as she dropped her gaze.
>The Ikoma beside her hid his mouth behind his sleeve, but I saw his eyes crinkle up.
>The way they would if one were smiling.
>Fine, let them share a joke at my expense. But not at Naomi's.
>Kitsuki-san leaned over, hiding his mouth with his hand as though he were chewing food.
>They are hoping to bait you into a rude display.
>I can tell that.
>I didn't bother to hide my response.
>In fact, I spoke just loudly enough that some around us could hear.
>They should be careful what they wish for.
>The whispering nearest us died down a bit, as cold eyes appraised me.
>I calmly ate some more rice.
>Oops.
>Embarrassed giggle.
>How clumsy.
>I glance over.
>Aoi had dropped a piece of shrimp.
>Right into her cleavage.
>This got a lot of attention, needless to say.
>She fished the shrimp out with her chopsticks, set in on a plate, and handed it off to a servant.
>Then wiped herself clean.
>She now had the undivided attention of the entire table.
>I wasn't sure if she was trying to defuse the subtle tension in the air, or just trying to seduce Kitsuki-san.
>Likely both.
>I glanced towards Naomi out of the corner of my eye.
>She was looking at me.
>I smiled, with my eyes closed and whispered just loud enough for her to hear.
>I was just reminded of my favorite sake cup.
>Naomi tilted her head, then her eyes widened as she realized what I had been talking about.
>She had to look away, going very, very, red.
>But she squeezed my hand under the table.
>Once dinner was over we took our baths and returned to our rooms.
>I had Daiko and Tetsute brought to our rooms from where the children usually slept.
>I would not underestimate Shoji again.
>Naomi gave me sad look as she saw them here.
>You really think he would do such a thing, Ishigaki-kun?
>I could tell her sadness came from the fact that she was no longer certain that he would not.
>I think I will not take that chance.
>Naomi looked down.
>Hai. That is reasonable.
>The children were looking at us both. They could sense their mother's mood.
>Help me, Naomi?
>With what?
>I moved over to the stand where my armor rested.
>...oh.
>Naomi told the children to sit still.
>She had a tone she could use with them that conveyed seriousness, without any hint of anger or disapproval, that got their immediate attention nonetheless.
>They both sat quietly. Not formally, but quietly.
>I could see their eyes widen bit by bit as Naomi helped me into my armor.
>They had seen me in my armor a few times when I would return home; they had never seen me put it on before.
>I could do it myself, all Crabs could don their armor unaided.
>But it was a tricky thing to do. There were many laces to be tied. Most samurai needed several servants to don a full suit of armor.
>Bit by bit, I readied my spirit as I donned my armor.
>The ritual to don one's armor brought forth their full warrior spirit.
>Preparing you to kill, to be killed.
>That is part of the reason why it is taboo to wear one's armor in another clan's territory.
>Even traveling through bandit infested lands, the act of donning your armor was declaring your intent to do battle.
>In extreme cases, even one armored samurai could be seen as a declaration of war.
>Daiko and Tetsute were both staring open mouthed now.
>For a Hida bushi, their armor is like a second skin.
>We train in it. We even sleep in it.
>And we know every shortcut to donning it, so that we can put it on without aid faster than anyone else.
>As such, we are better able to call up our marital spirit.
>We can go from relaxed to unrestrained violence in an instant.
>Or vice versa.
>As such, while my children had seen me in armor, this was the first time they had been exposed to my killing intent, even though it was not directed at anything as of yet.
>They bore it well.
>Daiko scootched across the floor when I was done dressing, and reached up to touch my suneate.
>She smiled.
>Tetsute then followed his sister's lead.
>Naomi got the children dressed for bed.
>She curled up with one on either arm and slept.
>I sat beside the door to our room, ankles crossed, with my tetsubo resting across my knees.
>Nothing and no one would harm them while they slept.
>I would see to that.
>I emptied my mind, meditating, and kept watch over my family.
>I got out of my armor and returned it to it's stand once the children decided they were hungry and woke Naomi up.
>Then we all went down to breakfast.
>Four matches today. Two in the morning, two in the afternoon.
>We were joined by Amano-san, Aoi-san, and Ayame-san.
>Ayame now wore a simple strip of black silk to cover her eye.
>While I pondered the spiritual significance of the arrival of the triple A-team, the others engaged in the far less important task of discussing the coming bouts.
>Aoi was certain of Kitsuki-san's victory.
>After all, that Rei woman is an archer, not a swordswoman.
>She only won her first match because her opponent let his guard down.
>Manits disagreed.
>She's still a bushi, and Kitsuki-san is still a courtier.
>But Takeshi-san is well trained, she stands no chance!
>Did that woman just call Kitsuki-san by his first name?
>Everyone caught that.
>Kitsuki-san sighed.
>Please do not be so familiar with me, Moshi-san.
>Oh, Kitsuki-kun! Why are you being so cold!
>She leaned in and looked at him, fake hurt in her eyes.
>I chuckled.
>Yeah, Kitsuki-KUN, you should be nicer to our new friend.
>Kitsuki-san tried to light my beard on fire with his stare.
>It didn't work out for him.
>Besides.
>I continued.
>It doesn't really matter who wins this next match because neither of those two can beat me.
>Mantis-san scoffed.
>Getting a little ahead of yourself there?
>That Shiba was better than Ayame, but not up to the calibre of the other contestants. I may as well have a bye.
>Monkey nodded.
>Ishigaki-san's right about that much at least.
>Only way the Shiba advances is if Ishigaki gets disqualified for accidentally killing him.
>But then he wouldn't be able to put up much of fight in the next round, y'know?
>Eyes were closed. Nose bridges were pinched. Temples were rubbed.
>Mantis-san growled.
>One day Monkey, I'm going to hurt you the way you hurt me.
>Maybe, but it won't be in this tournament!
>Big Ass Monkey Grin.

Act XXVI: New Heights[edit]

>The first match of the Second round began.
>Kitsuki-san took his stance, one foot forward, front knee bent, sword gripped at waist height, point aimed at his opponent.
>It doesn't get more basic than that.
>Rei mirrored his stance.
>To my surprise neither of them shifted stances.
>I glanced over to Aoi-san.
>She had gotten changed right before the match and came back in something... normal.
>The disappointment was palpable.
>The fact that it was brought out a few scowls from some of the ladies of the court.
>Rei was one.
>Finally, Rei stepped in to strike.
>Kitsuki-san did the same.
>Rei checked her blow and leapt back.
>Monkey whispered.
>Did you guys see that?
>Of course we did.
>But, just to be sure we all saw the same thing what did you see, Monkey?
>It looked to me like Kitsuki-san moved the same way she did, at the same time.
>Bullshit.
>Aoi shook her head.
>It's not. His memory is flawless, after all.
>He's exploiting the limits of her Daidoji style.
>Hah?
>She stepped to his side, and he mirrored her again. I saw only a slight delay certainly not long enough for ME to have recognized what she was doing and copy it.
>I see.
>Amano joined in.
>Yes, in a one on one situation like this, her technique is limited to mostly basics that are taught in all dojo's. In other words, there is no move she can make that he cannot already replicate.
>Aoi nodded.
>And since he had time to study her before, he can spot her tells easily.
>Rei began to shift her stance, and Kitsuki-san followed her.
>If I wasn't seeing him do it with my own eyes I would have said this was impossible.
>Rei had enough, with a snarl of rage she rushed in and attacked.
>Too reckless, by far.
>Kitsuki-san deflected both her strikes, then brought the pommel of his bokken at her face.
>As she recoiled he stopped, then quickly struck her wrist.
>A loud crack announced he had broken it.
>Doji Rei fell to her knees, clutching her wrist and biting her lip.
>Kitsuki-san waited until a shugenja had tended to her, then exchanged bows and returned to us.
>Did you seriously do what it looked like you were doing out there?!
>Yes, I did.
>Toshiro looked at him.
>So why don't you do that more often?
>I would need to know an opponent thoroughly. for starters, to guess what they will do that fast.
>I would also need an opponent who only knows techniques I do.
>I cannot learn new movements just by watching them, I would have to practice to ingrain them into myself.
>And if those movements are not taught by my school, it would be detrimental to learn them to that extent.
>Lastly, it only works if my opponent allows themselves to be goaded by that.
>How did you know Rei would?
>I didn't. I took a gamble.
>Huh. Well then.
>I left to prepare myself for my match.
>Shiba Ayame intruded upon my meditation.
>Hida Ishigaki-sama?
>Very formal.
>Yes?
>I just wanted to make sure you remembered your promise...
>I opened my eyes and looked at her.
>Is it because you want to take revenge yourself?
>She looked away.
>Is that wrong?
>Not at all.
>She looked back at me, surprised.
>Naomi is the kind of person who would say revenge only begets more revenge, or something like that.
>Personally, I think you have every right to look him in the eyes as you extinguish their light.
>So long as you aren't planning anything stupid.
>Uh, no. I mean, I don't really know what I'm planning...
>I folded my arms.
>I can't believe I'm about to say this, but...
>I think you should speak to Bayushi Amano-san.
>Huh?!
>No one does revenge like the Scorpion.
>Obviously you don't want him to handle it for you, but he can at least advise you on the best ways to get your former Gunso into a duel.
>That IS what you want right? To best him in a fair fight?
>Otherwise there really isn't any point in me holding back.
>Yes, that is what I want.
>Alright then. Go to Amano. Tell him to give you the Ishigaki discount on his advice.
>What's the Ishigaki discount?
>The discount Scorpions give out when they don't want a Crab pissed off at them for taking advantage of someone that Crab likes.
>She smiled at me.
>Thank you, Hida Ishigaki-sama.
>You don't have to be so formal with me, you know?
>As you wish, Ishigaki-sama.
>It still didn't feel right, hearing her address me as -sama, but I guess it was true that I outranked her.
>For that matter, I always felt a little odd whenever ANYONE addressed me as -sama.
>Of all the things in court life I had gotten used to, outranking people was the one thing I could never get a hold on.
>I had never desired promotions before, nor holdings.
>I had never expected to live long enough to attain any rank worth mentioning.
>How a simple warrior such as myself found himself rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers of the empire, I will never understand.
>Let the philosophers and sages argue about it, if they want.
>I had heads that needed a good cracking.
>I entered the arena.
>Shiba Hotaru faced me calmly.
>I had promised I wouldn't to anything permanent.
>But I'll be damned if I don't make him pay in some way.
>I pulled my arms inside my kimono, and thrust them up through the opening in it's front, reminding the Shiba he was now facing a large, scarred wall of muscle.
>An ANGRY, large, scarred wall of muscle.
>I saw the corner of his eye twitch, just a little.
>He bowed.
>I just took my stance.
>He stood for a moment, then rushed at me, trying to knock the bokken from my hand.
>I held my grip, locked up our blades and shoved him back.
>Hotaru backpedaled, but kept to his feet.
>Good. I didn't want this to end too quickly.
>I began to stalk him, walking instead of stepping.
>My sword resting on my shoulder.
>Showing utter contempt for his skill.
>He tried to make me pay for that by thrusting at my chest.
>I didn't even bother trying to avoid it.
>He looked at me in horror, as I swung my own bokken at his side, hard.
>He managed to deflect it.
>So I swung again, at the same spot.
>Of course he deflected that one as well.
>But I knew his palms were stinging when he re-tightened his grip.
>I knew I was getting to him.
>So I spread my arms wide apart, offering him a free shot.
>He stared, incredulously.
>And took it.
>I didn't so much as flinch as his bokken slammed into my chest.
>Nor did I attack him.
>I just scratched at my chest.
>Is that all?
>I stared into his eyes.
>He dropped his gaze.
>Then his bokken.
>Hai. I surrender.
>I slid my kimono back on and left.
>There was a break for lunch in between the first two bouts and the last two.
>Katsuie-sama asked me, Toshiro and Naomi to join him for a private lunch.
>First, I should congratulate you, Ishigaki-san.
>I do not know quite how I feel about the way you disrespected your opponent in your last match, but I must admit making him admit defeat was impressive.
>I opened my mouth to explain myself, but he held up a hand.
>No. I know full well why you did what you did. Everyone does. Which is why I said I do not know quite how I feel.
>If you had done that to any of the other contestants, I would be very upset with you.
>There was just a tiny hint of warning in Katsuie-sama's tone.
>I understand Hida Katsuie-sama.
>Good, good.
>He poured me a fresh cup of tea, silently declaring he considered the matter dropped.
>I suppose it is all well and good that you so humiliated the only Phoenix to advance to the second round.
>Oh. Oh shit.
>Toshiro spoke.
>So, it's official then, Katsuie-sama?
>Hai. I do not like it, but Yasuki-san assures me that the deal is very good for our clan.
>He spoke at some length about return on investment, market forces, other things I do not understand, nor would I care to.
>Suffice to say that in the worst case, even with the value of the Crane rice increased we will still see no loss on our own dealings.
>And we most likely will come out ahead this year.
>If we do well, we may even have some grain left over for next year.
>Toshiro and I were shocked at that.
>Most every Crab soldier had, at some point or another, been feed lesser grains like millet.
>The Yasuki did their best, but sometimes there just wasn't enough rice to feed the Clan for the year.
>An actual surplus? Just the possibility of one would get the Clan's undivided attention.
>Will you be able to endure this, Hida Naomi-san?
>Naomi looked Katsuie-sama in the eyes.
>Hai. I am Crab now. My children are Crab.
>I will do what is best for my Clan.
>I understand this is a difficult time for you, and I want you to know the Clan appreciates your efforts.
>Please, Katsuie-sama, this much is expected, is it not?
>True, yet I would be remiss if I were to ignore the position you are in.
>I am not so heartless.
>Here, I want you to have this.
>He pushed over a bag.
>Naomi bowed.
>Please Katsuie-sama, I am not doing anything praiseworthy! When I took my marriage vows, I knew I was leaving my old Clan behind!
>Yet your family will always be your family, and now we do battle against them. Your heart carries a great burden.
>My family are also Crab, my children are Crab! They need this rice as well!
>You are a fine person Naomi-san. Loyal, compassionate, with strong magic and a gift for healing. Though you detest war, you set aside your feelings for the good of the Clan. For this I, at the very least, must thank you.
>Very well, Katsuie-sama.
>Naomi accepted the bag he had offered.
>She did not open it, it was rude to open a gift in front of the giver.
>We did not speak of anything else heavy during lunch, instead Katsuie-sama gave a lengthy discourse on the cultivation of tea leaves.
>When lunch was over we returned to our rooms.
>The others were there already.
>Amano greeted me first.
>The 'Ishigaki discount'?
>He smirked a bit.
>I hope you aren't planning on handing that out willy nilly.
>Nah. In the first place it's a small miracle I recommended you at all.
>True. Still it is a marked improvement in our relationship, and I will treasure this moment my entire life.
>To my surprise, I couldn't detect even a trace of sarcasm.
>He couldn't really mean that, could he?
>No Ishigaki, of course not, That's just how the Scorpion lure you in.
>Naomi opened Katsuie-sama's gift then.
>Seeds.
>What are these?
>Oh! Kitsuki-san, are these...?
>Seeds for tea leaves, yes.
>So that's why he had gone on and on about growing tea leaves.
>I wonder if these are from his own crop?
>Toshiro looked at the seeds.
>Most likely, Ishigaki-san.
>Wow, that's neat!
>Monkey looked at the seeds.
>So, what did you do to earn that reward?
>Everyone looked at him.
>Huh? What did I say?
>Kitsuki-san shook his head.
>Even Mantis-san knows, Monkey.
>How can you be so oblivious?
>Hey! 'Even Mantis-san'?!
>Kitsuki-san ignored Mantis-san's protest.
>Monkey just looked around.
>Okay, fine I get it. I'm dense. Will someone just spell it out for me?
>Amano answered him.
>The Crab have accepted the deal, and now support war between the Mantis and Phoenix.
>Monkey's face fell like a Oni no Tsubaru shoved off the south side of the wall.
>Oh...
>I'm sorry, Naomi-sama.
>I have been hearing that a lot. I am fine, really. There is no-
>She broke off into a coughing fit.
>I caught her, Toshiro called forth some fire kami to get the tea going, Kitsuki-san produced her medicine, and Monkey got the tea set.
>Daiko handed him the cup herself.
>So, she has begun to understand about her mother's illness.
>Tetsute just chewed on his knuckles looking confused, but knowing something was wrong.
>Mantis-san knelt beside him, and patted his head to soothe him.
>Once the fit had passed, and Naomi had rinsed out her mouth, she sipped at her tea.
>It had not been very bad, comparatively, she was able to hold her own cup and drink without help.
>After a few minutes she spoke.
>Like I was saying, I am fine.
>The Crab clan needs that rice. My children need that rice.
>Everyone nodded and let the matter drop.
>No sense bringing it up over and over again.
>That would only make it harder on her.
>Monkey changed the subject
>So, any tips for me in my match?
>No, I can't think of anything.
>You SHOULD by all rights, loose handily.
>Which means you'll win.
>Monkey blinked.
>Hah?
>Mantis-san agreed with me.
>It's just what you do, Monkey.
>Kitsuki-san nodded firmly.
>We've all come to accept that fact now.
>Um. Thanks for the vote of confidence guys. I think...
>As we headed towards the ad hoc arena Ayame tugged at my sleeve.
>Thank you.
>She whispered.
>It was my pleasure.
>And that was true.
>Kakita Sakurada was already waiting for Monkey.
>Monkey shot us one last "really? no tips?" look before heading in.
>He scratched his sideburn while the Crane stood and faced him.
>They bowed and took their stances.
>The Crane adopted a stance I'd never seen before.
>His feet were shoulder width apart, and he raised up on the balls of his feet.
>He faced Monkey squarely, with his bokken held at waist height. Edge to Heaven, point towards Sakurada's rear.
>His left hand open and resting on the end of the handle, right hand also open, with the top of the handle near where the tsuba would be on a real sword resting in the nock of his thumb and forefinger.
>All I could see was a man begging to be disarmed and knocked on his ass.
>Kitsuki-san however...
>This stance! It's a Kenshinzen stance!
>Whoa, what?
>Among the Kakita there is an elite group.
>As the Defender of the Wall is the best of the best of the Crab Clan when combating the Shadowlands, the Kenshinzen are the best of the best iaijutsu duelists the Crane clan can produce.
>And they only ever get better with each new entrant.
>Because in order to become a Kenshinzen, one must first defeat a Kenshinzen in a fair duel.
>When the Crane MUST win a battle, it is these warriors who often turn the tide.
>They enter in the fray, hunting down enemy officers, taking their heads and throwing the enemy into chaos.
>So of course, their Kenjutsu in no joke either, since resheathing your blade after every strike is a bit impractical in the midst of a raging battlefield.
>Neither were they typical soft bishounen one typically associates with Crane duelists
>It simply wasn't possible to avoid injury when in open warfare.
>A squishy bishy would never live long enough to be able to penetrate deep into enemy territory.
>Now more than ever I was certain of it.
>Monkey was going to win.
>Monkey took a step towards the Crane.
>Who then sprang off the balls of his feet, changing his grip in the air and slashing at Monkey.
>Monkey had no hope of avoiding the blow.
>The Crane struck him solidly on the shoulder, pulled his blade back up, and rapped Monkey on the head for good measure.
>Monkey stumbled and staggered back from the assault, rubbing at his head.
>OW! That kinda hurt, y'know!
>Sakurada blinked.
>A long, slow, catlike blink.
>Then reset his stance.
>I chuckled softly.
>That damn Monkey...
>Aoi looked at me.
>What is it, Ishigaki-san?
>He's tougher than he looks. I'm like a big rock, but he's more like bamboo.
>I... see.
>Monkey tried to take the Crane off guard, going from rubbing his head to slashing at Sakurada in an instant.
>But the Kakita sprang again. I saw now the point of his feet placement. It was true that his balance was precarious, with his heels up off the ground.
>But his hakama hid the fact that his knees were slightly bent, so that he could spring in any direction he needed at a moment's notice.
>A solid blow would almost certainly take him off his feet.
>Good luck landing a solid blow.
>Fortunately for Monkey, Luck was his special skill.
>Monkey followed through chasing after the Kakita.
>Monkey took a swipe at the Kakita's legs, but pulled his blade up as it traveled.
>As Sakurada dodged again, Monkey managed to clip his ankle mid air.
>The Crane landed awkwardly, but did not fall.
>He lashed out at Monkey, more to keep Monkey off of him than to actually hit.
>Monkey however, was still in pursuit.
>And so he ran right into the Crane's thrust
>Monkey twisted his body, letting Sakurada's bokken glance off his body and slide past him.
>So that he could get inside the Crane's range.
>Monkey struck, then, three rapid thrusts of his own, all to the Crane's sternum.
>Kakita Sakurada's eyes bulged as all the air was expelled from his body.
>He fell to one knee, gasping like a fish out of water, and tried to recover his breath.
>Monkey was moving awkwardly however.
>The Crane's strikes had taken their toll.
>However, Kakita Sakurada had clearly gotten the worst of that exchange.
>Kitsuki nodded.
>It's over.
>And it was.
>Monkey stomped heavily forward, batted aside the Kakita's bokken and struck him once more, squarely on the top off his head.
>Sakurada's eyes rolled up into his skull and he fell over face first.
>Once the Crane hit the floor, Monkey dropped down onto his ass.
>Naomi-sama!
>He whined.
>She got up and ran to him.
>Aoi blinked in surprise.
>Even Amano was open mouthed.
>You were all correct, it seems...
>Mantis-san shrugged.
>That's Monkey for you. He's good at doing the impossible.
>Mantis-san glared at Amano then.
>But if you ever tell him I said that I'll rip out your tongue and feed it to you, understand?
>Amano smiled, unconcerned in the least with Mantis-san's threat.
>Perfectly.
>Monkey and Naomi then rejoined us.
>I congratulated him on his victory.
>Looking forward to kicking your ass in the final, Monkey.
>Aoi looked at me.
>Don't you mean you're looking forward to watching Takeshi-san defeat Monkey in the final?
>Kitsuki-san's eyebrow twitched.
>I did my best to respond innocently.
>No.
>Kitsuki-san's eyebrow twitched again.
>Aoi tittered behind her fan.
>But Ishigaki-san! Strong though you may be, Kitsuki-san has known you for years!
>There is nothing you can do to catch him off guard!
>Then I wont bother with tricks. I'll just hit him really hard.
>That seems to work out for me more often than not...
>Kitsuki-san finally opened his eyes and looked at me.
>I wish you luck in our upcoming match, Ishigaki-san.
>His tone was colder than I had expected.
>The grin on my face died immediately.
>Kitsuki-san could get annoyed from time to time, but he wasn't one to let banter get the best of him.
>However, I cannot afford to lose to you.
>Especially since you so handily defeated the Shiba.
>Oh. I see.
>Kitsuki-san's eyes darted across the room.
>Shoji, Katsuie-sama, Togashi Akuma and the Yoritomo who had taken over for Yohko were deep in conversation
>It was easy to lose myself in the thrill of this simple competition, but now every victory I earned was a proxy argument in favor of the Mantis Clan.
>I inclined my head respectfully to Kitsuki-san.
>I cannot afford to hold back either, old friend.
>I know, Ishigaki-san.
>Damn. I had avoided thinking about it, but now the Crab Clan's gain would be the Dragon Clan's loss.
>They lived in the mountains, terrain not well suited to growing rice.
>Every bushel of rice taken, every grain store burned would be one more the Dragon would need to get from the Crane.
>And the Crane would make them pay dearly for it
>Of course the Mantis would not compete with the Crane this year, and the Crane could convince the Unicorn not to offer rice to the Dragon.
>None of us knew how to shake off the heavy air that had settled in as the last bout of the day began.
>Moto Li-Ta, still as shameless as ever, faced off against Akodo Yoshi.
>Bows made, stances taken, the two collided.
>Li-Ta swung her bokken in wide arcs, driving the Akodo back as he sought an opening.
>She spun off to the side as he attacked, aiming a slash at his side.
>He anticipated it, but as her blade struck his, she spun the other way striking at his opposite side.
>He was able to deflect again, and again she allowed her bokken to rebound off his and propel her to his other side.
>Only to bring the blade down from above instead of the side.
>This time he was out of position, and she struck his shoulder.
>He shrugged off the blow and shifted his stance.
>Li-Ta spun the bokken in her hand twirling it twice before seizing it in a two handed grip and bringing it down on him again.
>This time the Lion was ready. He raised his blade, stepping to the side and deflected her blow past him.
>Then he spun facing his back to her and thrust his bokken into her stomach.
>Hard.
>A loud whuff escaped her as she flew back through the air, her light frame allowing her to stay aloft for an impressive length of time.
>She managed to land on her feet, but stumbled to a knee as her momentum continued to pull at her.
>Yoshi wasted no time, shifting his stance in an instant, he rushed to her and struck the bokken from her hand while she was still recovering her balance.
>So then.
>I would face Kitsuki-san tomorrow morning, and Monkey would face the Lion Clan Kensai in the afternoon.
>Then I would face Monkey the day after in the final.
>I had no doubt Kitsuki-san had some plan in store for me, that was obvious.
>I was equally certain it would not matter in the end.
>We ate dinner together, and made small talk.
>Avoiding the looming confrontation.
>I donned my armor that night after we all bathed, though I allowed myself to sleep tonight.
>My old instincts were reawakening quickly. I had no doubt anything out of place would awaken me.
>It turned out I was right about that.

Act XXVII: Maturing[edit]

>I was awakened by a soft tread approaching the door.
>The presence of dim light, a single candle, told me the person creeping up to our room was not trying to sneak up on us.
>So I waited calmly.
>The door opened crack, and a soft whisper came in.
>Onii-sama? Onee-sama?
>Come in Ashitaka, just keep your voice down.
>And don't panic.
>He did so, looking around for me.
>When he saw me sitting there in my armor lit only by a single flickering candle, he jumped back but did not cry out.
>I told you not to panic.
>Well, you didn't scream, so that's something.
>Shut the door.
>He did.
>W-why are you...?
>I wondered if I should tell him the truth.
>'Oh,no big deal really. I just think your dad might try to have his daughter, grandkids and/or me assassinated in the middle of the night, that's all'.
>Yeah, that won't do at all.
>Things have gotten...complicated.
>He sat down on his knees before me.
>Everyone says that, or something like it, when I try to get them to tell me what's going on.
>Ashitaka was a clever boy, there was no denying that.
>And dancing around a subject was a good way to insult him.
>I decided not to be rude to my little brother.
>Though I also wasn't about to completely destroy his innocence.
>I sighed, dramatically.
>These are lessons you should not have to learn yet, Ashitaka-san.
>He liked it when I addressed him as a grown up.
>I would remember that for when my own children got a little older.
>But I suppose you will worry more if you do not know what is going on. You're clever enough to pick up that something is happening, after all.
>The situation has changed. The Crane and Mantis clan have convinced the Crab to join them now, working in support of open war with the Phoenix clan.
>But...!
>Shhhhh.
>He started again, softer this time.
>I thought the Mantis were just making threats to get our clan to offer them gifts!
>That is what the Mantis say they are doing, yes.
>And the Crane say they only want peace.
>But in private the Crane have convinced the Mantis that war is the best choice for them.
>And now the two clans have combined their efforts to sway my clan to their side.
>... how did they do that?
>The Mantis will strike at storehouses. They will attempt to take rice and grain from your clan in the war. What they cannot steal they will burn.
>That will make the Crane's rice much more valuable.
>I waited for him to nod along.
>Though he only had a basic grasp of the value of rice, he understood cause and effect quickly.
>You may not have known this, but my clan does not make enough rice to feed itself every year.
>His eyes widened.
>So, every year when winter court comes around, we give gifts of the things we do have enough of to others so they give us gifts of rice in return.
>He nodded again.
>By keeping us from being able to make gifts of rice, the Crane make their gifts more valuable... and since your clan needs rice that is why you opposed the war at first...
>I nodded.
>Yes, that's right.
>So to get you to join them, they must have offered your clan enough rice that you wont need to rely on the Crane's more valuable rice?
>I nodded again.
>You really catch on quickly.
>He looked down, as he realized what that must mean.
>How can things like this happen?
>I blew out another sigh.
>The urge to protect is strong.
>He looked up at me.
>What do you mean?
>I looked over to where Naomi and my children were sleeping.
>If my clan does not get enough rice, then they might go hungry.
>I will do whatever I must to ensure they get that rice.
>But if the Crane have enough rice why don't they just give it to you and be done with it?
>Because there are some things the Crane do not have enough of.
>Sometimes what they need is not even a thing, but an ally instead.
>Say the Lion want to make war on the Crane, because the Lion always want to make war on the Crane.
>The Crane may offer my clan rice, and in exchange, ask us to send soldiers to aid them in battle.
>I shrugged, making my armor rattle just bit.
>It is how things are. It is not one person's fault, not even a single clan can be blamed for how the Empire functions.
>Ashitaka stared into the distance for a long time.
>I will not be able to protect everyone all the time, will I?
>No one can.
>It is up to you to decide, for yourself, who or what it is that you hold most dear.
>And do your best to keep it safe.
>Sometimes that means drawing a blade and taking lives.
>Sometimes it means being able to put your blade away.
>A warrior that can tell the difference between those two times is rare indeed, but I believe you will be able to, in time.
>My father is very upset with me.
>I figured as much, given that you had to sneak in here in the middle of the night to talk to me.
>He says bushi are all bloodthirsty louts who will throw their lives away for nothing.
>He says this tournament proves it.
>Ashitaka looked me in the eyes.
>Why do you do it, Onii-sama?
>Not just you, all the other bushi do as well.
>The way of the warrior is death, Ashitaka-san.
>When others would choose life, the warrior chooses death. For himself, or his enemies.
>But you just said...!
>That is for those who rise high enough in rank to make those choices.
>The vast majority of Bushi will not bear the responsibility of even hundreds of lives, let alone thousands.
>For most bushi, they do not choose which enemy to fight, nor do they choose the time and place of the battle.
>They must trust in their superiors who have made those choices for them.
>The reason that we go so far, is that we must test ourselves constantly.
>When our lord calls us to war, we must go.
>When our lord commands us to fight, we must fight.
>Only by defeating our enemies do we earn the right to return to our homes and loved ones.
>And only by constantly training ourselves, pushing ourselves to our very limits and beyond, do we have any hope of emerging victorious.
>Because our enemies are training just as hard, in the hopes that they will be the ones to win.
>I looked at him evenly.
>Are you having second thoughts?
>He shook his head.
>No. There is much more to being a bushi than I realized, but my desire is unchanged. I am glad I can ask you about these things, Onii-sama.
>Good luck in your match tomorrow.
>He slipped out of the room.
>I went back to sleep.
>In the morning I once again got out of my armor.
>I ate breakfast with just my immediate family.
>And I went early to the arena.
>I sat down, folded my legs lotus style, and waited with bokken across my knees.
>I heard people come in in small groups.
>Whispers I did not care to try to make out floated about the room.
>Finally I heard the steps of Kitsuki-san entering the arena.
>I opened my eyes, took hold of my weapon and stood up slowly, allowing my joints to pop quite audibly.
>I rolled my neck to get just a few more pops out.
>And turned to face him calmly.
>Of course, he was disciplined enough that he didn't let show if I had managed to throw him off or not with that little mind game.
>Well, it's not like I had any other tricks up my sleeve.
>I would just hit him over the head so hard he'd have to open his kimono to eat.
>We bowed, and I moved as soon as our heads came back up.
>Kitsuki-san backpedaled, deflecting my attacks.
>I intended to give him no time to breathe, and pushed on.
>His training with his sensei showed, his defense was solid.
>I knew better than to overextend myself though.
>While I doubted he could knock me over, he may have been able to disarm me, if I gave him the chance.
>Still, I had him on the defensive.
>It was all he could do to keep me away from him.
>After several exchanges I had to give him credit.
>Most people's hands would be numb by now, having blocked so many of my heavy strikes.
>But he was parrying well, keeping himself from taking the full force.
>Had he tried to just dodge, he'd have gotten tired eventually.
>He was good at conserving his strength for the right moment.
>I just had to make sure that moment never came.
>Then Kitsuki-san surprised me.
>He deflected my strike, then struck at my wrist.
>I hit his bokken aside, forcefully, trying to knock it away or at least out of position.
>But he had expected just that kind of response.
>He had not committed to his attack, he let his wrists loosen and my strike passed his bokken.
>Now I was the one out of position.
>Calm determination was all I saw in his eyes as he moved, striking before I could prepare myself.
>He hit me quite hard. No tricks, just raw force.
>I was surprised that I actually felt it.
>Then I brought my own bokken down on his crown.
>Enough! I yield!
>... Well.
>I can't say I didn't expect to win, but he had gotten in the first strike.
>So he did, at least, have the morale victory there.
>For a courtier to come as far as he did, and perform as well as he had was impressive.
>I bowed as Naomi came up to tend to his injury, then we both sat down together.
>Aoi smirked as we sat down.
>I knew Takeshi-san would win.
>I looked at her.
>In what possible way is that a win?
>He is not a bushi, yet he advanced to the semi-finals of a kenjutsu tournament, and was able to outmaneuver the warrior who had so handily dominated his foe in his last match!
>You may have won the match, but Takeshi-san's showing was far more impressive!
>I looked over at Kitsuki-san.
>He shrugged.
>It was the best I could realistically hope for.
>I see, so not a morale victory, but a political one.
>Nicely done, then.
>Since there were only two bouts today, there was more time for classic politicking in between the end of my match and lunch.
>Having entered into the final, I was once again under assault left and right form fluttering fans and backhanded compliments.
>Or, if you want to be honest about that last one, insults you can't actually respond to.
>Yet another example in a long list of games of pretend played in Rokugan, so long as you disguise your insult like a compliment, you can lie about your intentions.
>Then it is not you who is shamed, but anyone who does not pretend to go along with your bad lies.
>This kind of crap gets under the skin of a Crab like nothing else, and the Lion aren't too fond of it either.
>If I had to guess, the reason everyone tolerates this sort of thing is because they see it as a game.
>You're supposed to trade insults back and forth, without being so crass to give your foe grounds for a duel, and the first one to lose their face is disgraced.
>It's a test of wit, to come up with insult after insult, and of willpower, to endure one after the other without losing your composure.
>I was lacking in the former.
>But I had enough of the latter.
>So I simply threw them off by playing to their expectations.
>Your victories are quite impressive, Hida-san!
>You show us all what is possible when one does not waste time learning manners and focuses all effort on being a fine warrior!
>Well thank you, Scorpion-san! Sadly, it is true I will never be as good as a proper bushi at arranging flowers!
>To my surprise, it was a Crane that came to my rescue.
>Flower arranging is for courtiers anyway, Hida-san.
>I, for one, am glad you sacrifice studies of art and culture.
>I do not think a haiku, no matter how well written, has ever stopped a rampaging oni before.
>I dug around in my ear a little bit, just to see if there was something in there.
>Like a brain eating parasite.
>There's no way a CRANE just said that.
>A Lion gave voice to my own incredulity.
>Are you implying art has no value, Doji-san?
>Not at all, Ikoma-san! Your last painting moved me very deeply in fact!
>But from time to time it does not hurt to remember that the Crab sacrifice much more than just their lives to stand their eternal vigil on the Empire's southern border.
>I think it uncouth to hold that against them.
>Oh, I almost forgot, Hida Katsuie-san wished to speak with you, Hida Ishigaki-san.
>Ah, well then, If you'll excuse me.
>I went over to join Katsuie-sama.
>It was just him, a Yasuki, and a Hiruma yojimbo.
>Doji Ai was able to get you out of there in one piece I see.
>Hai, Katsuie-sama.
>Good, good. Let's all just act like we are deep in conversation and keep those buzzing insects away.
>Some of them have nasty bites.
>So we did, until it was time for lunch.
>We ate together privately, so Monkey would not have to deal with the jabbering of the courtiers.
>Naomi had to take Tetsute in her lap and feed him herself, to keep him from crawling across the table to reach whatever bit of food had caught his eye.
>So while my wife fed our son, I fed her.
>Aoi, back in usual attire, tried to feed Kitsuki-san.
>He looked to me for help, I just smirked.
>Having a fine woman feed you was a simple pleasure every man should enjoy from time to time.
>I know I loved it when Naomi fed me.
>Toshiro snickered at that exchange.
>So, no tips again, I assume?
>Kitsuki-san used this as an excuse to evade the noodles Aoi was holding out for him.
>He is a kensai. And I believe Akodo trained before becoming one of those elite warriors.
>Akodo have great precision, their first lesson allows them to find the vulnerabilities in any suit of armor.
>The real issue is the adaptability of the Akodo.
>They are trained to be soldiers and to be able to face any number of situations.
>They flow like water, seeking their opponent's weakness and attacking it with all their might.
>The Kensai becomes even more versatile.
>So even after seeing him in two bouts I doubt we've seen all he has to offer.
>It's not that we do not think you need advice, Monkey.
>It's that we cannot give you any.
>Just expect the unexpected.
>But Kitsuki-san... that's literally impossible.
>If I DO expect it, then it's been expected so it's not unexpected anymore.
>God.
>Dammit.
>Monkey.
>From time to time my mind wanders into strange places, some of them better of unexplored.
>Now I was struck with a sense of just how much I truly treasured these moments.
>Yes, even the ones where I felt like throttling Monkey.
>Perhaps it was a side effect of getting older, but as I looked at my children, already so big, I couldn't help but feel like time was slipping by faster and faster.
>How many more of these precious memories could I make, I wondered, before time ran out?
>I popped a mouthful of ramen into Naomi's mouth.
>My fingers lost their grip on the chopsticks just enough that one noodle managed to get free and whiplash up her face as she tried to slurp them down.
>She blinked, the noodle stuck up along the side of her nose.
>Then slurped it up and blushed.
>None of us could contain our laughter.
>Monkey and Yoshi stood facing one another.
>For a long time.
>A soft, almost breathless whisper from Kitsuki-san.
>Their battle unfolds now in their mind's eye.
>Any last minute predictions?
>He shook his head.
>Only that whichever one has a deeper mastery of Mushin no Shin will win.
>Even I knew Mushin no Shin.
>It means, roughly, no mind.
>That instant of clarity, harmony with the moment.
>There is a limit to the speed at which thought becomes action.
>Reflexes are faster, because there is no thought.
>That is why the student trains night and day, to ingrain the techniques into his body until they become reflex.
>But there is a level beyond even that.
>Even if the technique is reflexive, you must still see what your opponent is doing, and then move appropriately.
>In Mushin no Shin perception, understanding and response all become as one.
>The speed of no-thought.
>Lion and Monkey moved as one.
>It was like a dance.
>Strike, deflect, counter strike, step, strike.
>I found it hard to believe, as smoothly as they moved, that they had not rehearsed this beforehand.
>The steady "clack, clack, clack" of wood on wood echoed through the room, accompanied by the "tump, tump" of their stepping.
>A song, played to give timing to their dance.
>Then the sound of wood striking flesh, and the spell was broken.
>Both had spun in the same way, and struck each other at the same time.
>A jolt of pain could shatter the state of Mushin quite easily.
>Who would recover first?
>It was Monkey that did so.
>He attacked now, again and again, pressuring his foe.
>Yet Akodo Yoshi gave no outward indication of being under pressure.
>His intense focus, his eerie calm, made it seem as though Yoshi had the upper hand, despite being on the defensive.
>Monkey managed to penetrate the Lion's guard, a sharp strike to Yoshi's left shoulder.
>And then everything changed.
>Akodo Yoshi closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was looking at nothing.
>I had seen thousand yard stares before, plenty of times, in the aftermath of battle.
>Or when a Crab has stood too long on the Wall.
>This was different.
>I realized what it was.
>The Lion was not staring at nothing.
>He was staring at Nothing, and Everything.
>His stance shifted even as he attacked.
>Gasps arose from the onlookers.
>...it cannot be!
>Akodo Yoshi's blade was everywhere.
>Kitsuki-san, what is it?
>Akodo Yoshi was everywhere.
>The Thousand Years of Steel!
>I had heard of it.
>During the brief reign of the Toturi dynasty the Daimyo of the Kakita family and the Mirumoto family came together and spoke at length to one another about their ancestors approach to swordsmanship.
>The rivalry between the two men, and their descendants was legendary.
>Exemplified by Kakita's saying 'One man. One sword. One strike'.
>To which Mirumoto responded 'Two hands'.
>But, when those two daimyo spoke they realized that their ancestors styles had much more in common than in difference.
>One could liken it to two different generals, both employing the same strategy to seek victory, but both using different tactics to realize that strategy.
>The daimyo of the Kakita and Mirumoto distilled their ancestors shared strategy into a set of kata.
>1,000 Years of Steel.
>These kata are passed on, taught in a single dojo erected at the Daimyo's meeting place.
>Only a select few, by invitation only, may enter the dojo and receive it's instruction.
>There is no favor, no gift, no appointment that can gain one entry to the Dojo.
>Only being recognized as person who dedicates their entire being to the sword can one hope to be allowed to join.
>I watched, in disbelief, as Akodo Yoshi struck Monkey over and over again.
>I saw no technique on display. No form, no stance.
>Monkey looked stiff and slow in comparison.
>Every time Monkey moved, to attack or defend, the Lion was elsewhere.
>At last, Monkey fell.
>I grabbed Naomi's sleeve before she ran up.
>I could see the Lion was still in his battle trance, anything entering his territory would be attacked.
>Only once Akodo Yoshi's eyes snapped into focus did I let go of Naomi.
>He waited, calmly, until Naomi had healed Monkey.
>Then bowed, deeply, from the waist.
>It was an honor to face you Toku-san. No man has ever forced me to use that Kata before.
>Monkey returned the bow.
>Thanks for the compliment, Akodo-san.
>I can't even remember the last time I got my ass kicked so thoroughly...
>No, wait I can. It was that guy that did it.
>He pointed at me.
>Yoshi nodded, but did not look surprised.
>I look forward to our match tomorrow Hida Ishigaki-san.
>I nodded back to him.
>Likewise.
>I could see the Courtiers ready to swarm.
>But Yoshi would be their main target.
>Everyone knew that only dedication could earn an invite to learn the Thousand Years of Steel.
>But many Courtiers refused to acknowledge the limits of their power.
>There was a long standing debate over the power of the pen vs the power of the blade.
>Courtiers argued that it was their words and their pens that sent armies to war, or prevented them from beginning, or brought them to an end.
>Warriors contended that no pen could stop a blade thrust at the heart of the one holding it.
>So these courtiers would try to butter up Akodo Yoshi, to convince him to recommend this or that subordinate, hanger on, or relative for the Dojo.
>He would not of course.
>And then they would seek out other prey.
>I had no intention of being around these sharks, not with blood in the water already.
>I made from our rooms before the courtiers lost interest in Yoshi.
>The others joined me.
>You okay Monkey?
>Yeah, I'm fine.
>Naomi-sama fixed me up good as new.
>But uh, Ishigaki?
>Yeah?
>I don't think you can beat him.
>I beat you, didn't I?
>That Kata though, his Mushin is endless!
>I had to admit, having seen it firsthand I had no idea how I would defeat it.
>Well? Any advice you guys?
>Kitsuki-san folded his hands.
>No.
>I must say however, that it is because I do not know enough about the kata.
>The Thousand Years of Steel is the essence of the strategy employed by the two greatest swordsmen the Empire has ever known.
>It is so rare that I have never seen it until now, however.
>So if there is a vulnerability to it, I cannot even begin to guess what that might be.
>I nodded.
>Alright then.
>I slipped out of the room.
>I went outside.
>I found a nice large pile of snow.
>And sat down in it.
>I focused on my breathing, emptying my mind.
>And I played the fight between Monkey and Lion over and over in my head.
>Years ago, Shiba-san had taught me to meditate.
>I found it useful. It helped when I needed to stay awake, when I could not find time to eat, when my mind was exhausted.
>I had never tried to do what I was doing now though.
>I had seen some of my senpai at Sunda Mizu doing this though. And the Sensei.
>Even more often when I became a Defender of the Wall.
>I was meditating on a problem. Focusing on the battle at hand.
>It was a way of training, far more spiritual in nature than my normal routine.
>Most of the time I exercised basic kata, I ran for long periods of time, I stood with knees bent and arms outstretched holding buckets of water.
>In short, I trained my body to endure.
>Now I trained my mind to focus.
>I doubted it would be enough, not with only one day to go.
>But I had seen firsthand the heights to which true masters could attain.
>How had I managed to come so far, when I was so limited?
>I could not hope to match the great masters yet, but I now had a goal to set for myself.
>A challenge to overcome.
>I was good at overcoming challenges.
>It was only a question of how many beatings I would have to absorb before I broke through my limits once more.
>Naomi and I performed the tea ceremony together in the morning, to steady my spirit.
>Then I entered into the arena.
>I still had no plan to defeat Akodo Yoshi.
>Well then.
>I'll just have to fall back to the standard plan.
>Cover up, wear my foe out, and crush him when he gets tired of hitting me.
>Crabs.
>We can be a bit masochistic, at times.
>I entered the arena and we bowed to one another.
>I have been eager for this day to come, Hida-san.
>I have often wondered how my technique would fare against the servants of the nameless one.
>I do not mean to insult you, though.
>I only think that sparing with one who can out ogre ogres, and stand up to the blows of Oni must be a fine substitution.
>Oh? Has the soul of your katana awakened?
>No, nor is it made of anything other than folded steel. I prefer to rely on my own skill, instead of great magic.
>I nodded.
>Perfectly reasonable, given the rarity of such things. But for Oni you'll need jade powder then.
>Just, the more hits you land, the more the powder gets rubbed off, until you need to reapply a fresh coat.
>It's especially obnoxious when you've got a big one, trying to keep it at bay while you reapply your powder over and over...
>Akodo Yoshi considered that for a moment.
>I see.
>We took up our stances.
>Yoshi did not use his kata right away.
>That made me suspect there was a drawback to it, of some sort.
>I deflected his first blows, because I had been prepared for him to unleash it from the beginning.
>I shifted my stance, seeking Mushin.
>Yoshi stepped back, preparing to receive my attack.
>It would be rude to keep him waiting.
>His defense held, and he tried to twist his bokken after taking my second blow, seeking to disarm me.
>I was too strong however, and kept my grip.
>I waited, patiently, for him to strike again.
>Then I attacked at the same time.
>I hoped to simply trade blows with him, trusting that I would injure him more than he injured me
>Judging by the grunt and the way he staggered, I was right.
>Yoshi nodded.
>Then closed his eyes.
>Oh shit.
>He opened them, and stared at Nothing and Everything.
>I instinctively assumed the stance of Earth, and called upon my own kata to make my body as unmoving and unfeeling as the mountains.
>All I could do was endure this to the best of my ability.
>Yoshi rained blow after blow down on me, it was as though I was attacked by a swarm of hornets.
>His blows hurt far more than simple hornet stings however.
>Knowing I could not stop all his attacks I simply guarded my weakest points, and allowed him to strike my strongest.
>Just as I was beginning to wonder if he could keep going forever, a saw a tremor run through his jawline.
>The flurry of blows eased, as his eyes refocused.
>I saw shock when he realized I was still standing.
>I lashed out, striking him across the ribs.
>This spurred him to recover his calm, and then he shifted stances again.
>He struck at me.
>Then he stuck again, and again.
>Like a river, he poured over me and I could not keep up.
>This was not the same thing as he had done before, I could tell that much.
>I realized that if all I did was defend against this attack, he would wear me down eventually.
>I had no choice then. I attacked.
>We struck each other at the same time.
>My blow fell on his shoulder, and drove him to his knee.
>He struck me on my temple.
>Stars burst in front of my eyes.
>And then I was looking up at him.
>I realized I had fallen.
>I was prone.
>He was just barely able to stand.
>Akodo Yoshi had defeated me.
>I felt the familiar rush of Naomi's healing magic.
>Once I could move on my own I sat up.
>Damn.
>All I could say.
>He was an Akodo, so I couldn't even claim my armor would have made the difference in that fight.
>I had to use both The World is Empty, and Victory of the River.
>Two of the four kata that make up One Thousand Years of Steel...
>Which one was it you used to defeat Monkey?
>Mon... ah a nickname.
>You are referring to Toku-san, yes?
>Yeah.
>That was the World is Empty.
>And the one you used to beat me was Victory of the River?
>Yes.
>Aptly named, it really did feel like I was being engulfed by an onrushing river.
>It was then that I realized there was no Phoenix healing Yoshi.
>Were you only pretending?
>Oh no, I'm in quite a lot of pain right now.
>He sure didn't look like it.
>But, I would just as soon be tended by the best healer in this castle. I have no desire for any of these injuries to heal poorly.
>The room practically exploded into whispers.
>Everyone wondering if the Lion were declaring a stance on the war.
>I shook my head in annoyance.
>Naomi turned from me to Yoshi.
>Ah. It is different, than when most Kitsu do it.
>So, this is the skill of a Tensai, is it?
>He looked at me out of the corner of his eye.
>You have a good eye, Ishigaki-san. I'm jealous..
>So, sometimes I miss things that others find obvious. Bad with innuendo and all.
>But they're... I looked with just my eyes at a not of whispering courtiers.
>Fools, yes. I meant exactly what I said.
>I thought so.
>We both stood and bowed to one another.
>As I left the arena I saw Shoji smirk at me.
>...as if you had anything to do with that.
>But I guess he needed something to cling to.
>You did wonderfully, dear.
>Thanks, Hana-chan.
>It's good to find your limits in matches like this, it shows you where your weakness is.
>As Shinsei told Hida 'Now you know your weakness. And by knowing it, you transform it into strength.'
>Naomi giggled.
>Have I mentioned how wonderful I find you when you become wise and philosophical?
>Didn't you say 'sexy' the last time?
>Naomi blushed.
>We are in public!
>I chuckled.
>I decided to grab a bath before dinner, a little early.
>I went over the fight a few times as I soaked.
>There was a muscle tremor right before his eyes came back into focus.
>So I think maybe the World is Empty could only be maintained for a brief time.
>After which, some price was paid.
>On the other hand, Victory of the RIver seemed a simpler thing, at least to me.
>Strike, strike and strike again.
>It was a sequence of smoothly flowing strikes each blow opening the way for the next
>Near the end, I was moving poorly, hampered by own injuries...
>Yet I still landed my blow.
>A pure offense, then.
>I see.
>I didn't know if I had the skill to defeat Yoshi should we cross blades again.
>But, if it came down to it, I could see a path to victory now.
>'There are a million lessons in defeat, none in victory'.
>Good saying there.
>I went to dinner.
>The conversation was split between the the tournament, with several younger members of the court still in awe over getting to see the Thousand Years of Steel, and what might be coming next.
>It was the older ones who spoke most of that.
>I only caught snippets here and there.
>Courtiers were a private lot, if you could hear them there was good chance they wanted you to do so.
>Because of this, some courtiers had learned to read lips, so that they could tell what their political rivals were talking about.
>Kitsuki-san told me that was the reason for fans to be a constant accessory for any courtier.
>A way to cover your mouth while you spoke, keeping your conversation private.
>According to Kitsuki-san, the Doji had gone a step further, inventing an entire language based on gestures and movements of one's fan.
>I had been surprised it was the Crane, and not the Scorpion.
>I turned to ask Kitsuki-san what the courtiers were really talking about, since I knew they were using innuendo to discuss other things.
>But the words died in my throat.
>That's right, he wouldn't tell me anymore.
>We were on opposing sides now.
>By now, everyone knew I was a simple bushi, and harmless.
>So I was engaged only when the wanted my genuine opinion on something.
>Wondering if I could be of more use, I approached Katsuie-sama after dinner.
>Ahhh, Ishigaki-san! That was a fine showing today!
>I am only sorry I could not secure victory for our clan.
>It is fine, you were bested by a Kensai. There will always be an opponent better than you out there somewhere.
>If you have good luck, you get to spar with them.
>If you have bad luck you fight them.
>He smiled as he said that, and glanced down to his missing arm.
>So long as you learn something from it, it is fine.
>You DID learn something, did you not?
>You mean aside from the fact that I must be more diligent in my training? Yes, I believe I did.
>Good, good!
>So what brings you to me today?
>I know I am not very good at courtly intrigue. If I had to give an honest evaluation of my own ability, it's that I am only aware of just how much goes over my head.
>But still, I wondered about the state of things now, and if I may be of some use.
>Katsuie-sama stroked his beard.
>Ishigaki-san, you surprise me. You had been content to wait until I called for you before. What has changed?
>I wasn't entirely sure myself, now that he asked me directly.
>Katsuie-sama nodded at my hesitation.
>I see.
>Your friend, Kitsuki Takeshi-san his name was?
>You have always followed his lead, and asked him to clarify when you do not understand, haven't you?
>Yes, I have.
>And now you two stand opposed to one another.
>Without him to guide you, and with your recent defeat, you must feel very lost right now.
>He clapped his hand to my shoulder.
>It is fine, Ishigaki-san.
>You should not try to do more than you can do.
>I nodded.
>Katsuie-sama's face darkened a bit, then.
>I suppose I should tell you how things have progressed up until now then.
>I couldn't guess whether it was going bad for our clan, or good; Katsuie-sama did not like being drawn in as a pawn in the Crane's economic war with the Phoenix.
>Your Father-in-law is a proud, and stubborn fool.
>The Crane play him like a biwa.
>He is only agreeing to token concessions, more like insults than serious attempts to avoid the war.
>The Mantis, of course, will not accept such things, and will make war when winter is done.
>It is as though he does not realize just how much his Clan could lose.
>I doubt that, Katsuie-sama.
>Oh?
>Shoji is not quite a fool, he simply has weaknesses easily exploited.
>Rather than not knowing the price of the war, I think it is that he estimates the cost differently than most others would.
>I remembered my conversation with Ashitaka the night before.
>I had no doubt Shoji meant what he said about bushi.
>I told Katsuie-sama as much.
>I see. Yes, if he truly places no value on the lives of his clan's warriors then that would explain some things.
>He is quick to insist the Mantis would find themselves destroyed at the hands of the Isawa.
>Not the Phoenix clan, and not the Mantis armies either.
>He means the whole Mantis clan, destroyed by Isawa magic.
>As if his clan would not face severe censure for doing so.
>I see. So he won't even consider it a war unless the Isawa are threatened. Enough that they can use their magic freely, anyway.
>Katsuie-sama shook his head.
>The Scorpion and Dragon are doing the best they can, but at this point all they are fighting an uphill battle, with Shoji undermining their own efforts.
>Katsuie-sama, do you think...
>Hmm?
>Do you think the Scorpion may...
>Ah. Hmmm.
>I do not think so.
>Shoji has been taking many precautions since Yoritomo Yohko was killed. I cannot imagine that even the Scorpion would be able to arrange something like that right now.
>Good. If anyone was going to kill Isawa Shoji,it would be me.
>I have seen that look on young faces before, Ishigaki-san. Be more mindful of yourself, and do not act with undue haste.
>Damn. I had forgotten why I had not pressed for details until now.
>I could conceal my feelings, but a master courtier could still read me like a book.
>I took a deep breath and wiped the expression from my face.
>Yes, that is better. Ishigaki-san.
>So, what could the Scorpion and Dragon do? Get other Clans to promise to support the Phoenix?
>Well, they would ostensibly need the Phoenix to invite them as allies... assuming that does happen, then the Imperial families will likely step in at that point.
>A war between two clans is something for them to observe, not interfere in.
>One with three of four will be watched very closely, and the Legions will be ready to move and end it should it be necessary.
>One that size though? The Imperial families would never allow it to begin.
>So with enough people on the brink of war, the Emperor would enforce peace? Seems like a good play for the Peace faction.
>It might not be, Ishigaki-san.
>The Imperial families often make those who fall under their gaze regret doing the thing that brought their attention down upon them in the first place.
>Yes, I could understand that.
>Initially, the Emperor did not have an army of his own to command, as the Clans did.
>The Otomo and Miya families did not produce warriors, only the Seppun did that.
>And there simply were not enough samurai with Imperial blood to equal even one great clan.
>Indeed, more than a few Minor Clans outnumbered the Imperial Families.
>So it was that Akodo swore his clan to act as the right hand of the Emperor, being his army should he require it.
>But as time marched on and the clans began to look out for their own interests ahead of the Empire as a whole, the need for the Imperial Legions was seen.
>With numbers drawn from every Clan, great and small, the diversity of the Legions ensured that they could be counted on to fight even when some among them may be ordered to slay their own kinsmen.
>The Imperial families did their best to ensure that only those most loyal to the Emperor were appointed to the legions, of course, but appointments were another form of political currency, and so this was not always the case.
>But, the Legions still were only match for a single great clan. In the worst case scenario they could still be overwhelmed.
>So the Imperial Families did their best to manage the feuds, rivalries and even alliances of the great clans.
>Everyone remembered the Scorpion Clan coup that had nearly ended the Hantei line, and the Clan war that followed as the 39th Hantei began to sicken.
>The Emperor had a great burden, giving the Clans enough slack to pursue their ambitions without allowing any one Clan to grow so strong they could threaten the Empire itself.
>For a moment, I could see the Empire laid bare, all the different powers at work, and how delicate the balance of the Empire truly was.
>Then it was gone.
>Such heavy considerations were clearly not for the likes of me.
>I had my duty, and never before had I so cherished it's simplicity.
>Find things that were tainted, and smash them into a gooey pulp with my tetsubo.
>I returned to wife and children, to spend the rest of the evening in play.
>The best things truly were quite simple.
>Once they had played themselves out I donned my armor to take the watch over my family.
>Once again, I allowed myself to sleep.
>The forces of Jigoku were quite fond of sneak attacks upon the wall, so few Crabs were heavy sleepers.
>I knew I would awaken should something out of place occur.
>Though I doubted I would need to wake up in the middle of the night two nights in a row.
>I could not have been more wrong if I tried.

Act XXVIII: Bad Decisions[edit]

>A light scrape of tabi on wood jolted me awake.
>There was no light outside in the hallway.
>I held my breath.
>Heard another faint scrape, just outside the rice paper door.
>I plunged my arm through the door, seizing hold of what was on the other side, and yanked it through.
>Somehow, I managed to check myself at the last moment.
>Before my tetsubo destroyed the face of Bayushi Amano.
>He had no smartass remarks.
>Even behind his mask I could see clearly he was surprised and terrified.
>A not inappropriate response to an armored crab coming within a hair's breadth of ending your life.
>I growled at him.
>I've warned you before about sneaking around me, Scorpion.
>Naomi stirred, sitting up.
>Ishigaki, wha...?
>It may be nothing Naomi.
>Amano was just about to explain to me why he was creeping around outside our room.
>I pulled back my tetsubo, but did not loosen my grip on him.
>And it was going to be a very good explanation, wasn't it?
>Ah, y-yes!
>Really, Ishigaki-san, I was just exchanging messages!
>Messages?
>Yes, clever courtiers can guess what you are up to if they know who you are meeting with, and everyone knows the contents of letters are read and known to all!
>I glanced at Naomi.
>Yes, the Game of Letters is conducted with the full expectation that your letter will be read.
>God.
>Dammit.
>Scorpion.
>I let go of him.
>Next time you do that, stay the hell away from my room.
>He stood shakily.
>Fussed with the front of his Kimono.
>I-I-I will remember, Hida Ishigaki-san...
>He looked at the hole in my door.
>Um...
>Don't worry about it. Just get out of here already.
>Right. right...
>He opened the door and left quickly.
>He didn't even think to ask why I was in my armor.
>Ishigaki-kun, what ARE we going to do about the door?
>I sighed.
>I took off my armor.
>And I sat in front of the door, unsleeping, until a servant drew near.
>Hey, you out there.
>The servant poked his head in through the door.
>Easy to do, since there was a man sized hole in it.
>I tripped.
>My sour expression convinced the servant that was all he needed to know.
>About that time Daiko and Tetsute began to stir.
>Brekfas! Brekfas!
>As usual food was never far from Tetsute's mind.
>Try to have it done by the time we're done eating.
>HAI, Great Samurai!
>We went to get breakfast with everyone.
>Amano was there, now fully composed again.
>I shot him one last glare, just to make sure he understood.
>He looked down briefly, signaling he did.
>Isn't someone missing?
>Kitsuki-san answered evenly.
>What do you mean, Monkey?
>Monkey cupped his hands in front of his chest.
>Where's Moshi Mounds?
>Toshiro looked around.
>That is odd, she's been stuck to you like sweet bean paste for the last few days.
>Kitsuki-san chewed a mouthful of rice and swallowed before answering.
>Perhaps there is some meeting she must attend with the other Mantis.
>Mantis-san looked at him.
>Nope, I haven't heard anything.
>You wouldn't, Mantis-san. You're not a courtier, and you're friends with some of your Clan's enemies.
>He grunted.
>They don't keep me completely out of the loop you know.
>Hmm.
>If you say so.
>We ate for a while in silence.
>Monkey, never one to enjoy a simple silence spoke up again.
>Hey, Amano-san. Did you get that thing you were doing last night taken care off?
>Amano went just a tad paler.
>I looked over to Monkey.
>What thing?
>Oh, he was just moving a barrel last night, I bumped into him cus I had to take a midnight piss.
>I looked over at Amano, set my chopsticks across my bowl and smiled pleasantly at him.
>Really?
>Now THAT is very interesting.
>Please, Amano-san, do tell us how your task went.
>In detail.
>It's not often one gets to see a Scorpion drenched in nervous sweat.
>So I allowed him to take his time, as I savored the moment.
>Um, well I needed to move a few things.
>Yes, you told me last night.
>Messages.
>Must have been a lot of messages if you had to keep them in a barrel.
>Uh...
>Now everyone was staring at him.
>Save Kitsuki-san.
>And Tetsute, who was filching handfuls of rice from my half eaten bowl.
>Unfortunately for Amano, not even my adorable little glutton could soothe my anger.
>He had lied to me, to my face.
>Kitsuki-san tried to diffuse my anger at his friend.
>Ishigaki-san, I'm sure Amano-san had good reason for what he did.
>You know the peace faction is in a tight spot right now.
>Right now I couldn't care less about the war, the politics or the contests.
>A Scorpion was sneaking around my room last night, and then that Scorpion lied to my face about what he had been doing.
>I stared Kitsuki-san right in the eyes.
>That Scorpion is NOW going to tell me the truth. And maybe I won't kill him.
>He's going to do that because if he keeps lying I WILL kill him.
>Kitsuki-san stared at me in shock.
>Amano's shoulders slumped.
>Then Amano looked at Kitsuki-san.
>...wait.
>...no.
>I looked back and forth between the two.
>What the fuck did you two do!?
>A round of huhs from the others.
>I cut it off with a raised hand.
>Now even Tetsute was paying attention to the adults.
>Spill it, Kitsuki.
>He sighed.
>I asked Amano to get Aoi away from me.
>Exclamations from the table.
>So what, you killed her? Hid her body in a barrel?!
>NO! No she's alive!
>I just... I knew some some people who would be at the port, setting sail soon...
>...So I had them take her away.
>Even this far north, the ocean didn't freeze over completely.
>Still, the ice chunks would make it very dangerous.
>So by 'some people', Amano meant smugglers.
>Toshiro spoke.
>Let me get this straight...
>YOU.
>Pointed to Kitsuki-san.
>Didn't like being hit on by an unbelievably attractive woman with huge tits.
>So you asked HIM.
>Pointed to Amano.
>To deal with it.
>And the plan YOU came up.
>Looking straight at Amano now.
>Was to stuff her in a barrel, roll her out of the castle and down to the harbor, and put her on a smugglers ship?!
>Is THAT what you two are saying happened last night!?
>Monkey, not to put too fine a point on it, spoke up.
>Holy shit, even I'm not THAT crazy.
>I looked over at Toshiro.
>It's not the first time Kitsuki-san has become a massive idiot when dealing with interpersonal relationships...
>Oh?
>He once convinced Mantis-san to throw jade powder into his sensei's eyes, because he thought his sensei might me tainted.
>Toshiro blinked.
>And when sensei cried out, he hit him with a bokken.
>...
>...You do know powdered minerals sting quite a bit if they get in your eyes, don't you Kitsuki-san?
>Hey, I had a perfectly good reason to suspect that!
>Yeah, you were tired of getting beaten up in training.
>No! It was more than that!
>So what's your excuse THIS time?
>I've seen the kind of crap that you three.
>He pointed to me, Mantis-san, and Monkey
>Have to go through!
>I want no part of it!
>I looked over at Toshiro.
>Toshiro, I owe you an apology.
>I had thought that you were the most hopeless one among us when it comes to relationships.
>Toshiro nodded.
>I never would have thought, 'hey, at least I'd never have you stuffed in a barrel and turned over to smugglers' would be a good pick up line, but there it is.
>I rubbed at my temples.
>Amano, did ANYONE ELSE see you last night, or was it just me and Monkey?
>Just you two...
>Good.
>Monkey you never saw him, got it?
>Uh, yeah...?
>Ishigaki-kun!
>Mantis-san protested as well.
>Hey, those tits were part of my clan's strategy!
>Wait, what?
>Oh come on. Like none of you knew.
>She's one of the most attractive women in the Empire, so of course the Clan moved her from the Moshi temples to the courts and put her in those outfits!
>If it can work for the Scorpion why not for us?
>The rest of us looked at each other.
>That Aoi knew what she was doing was not odd.
>That she was acting on her Clans orders... that had never crossed our minds.
>Oh. Maybe I shouldn't have said that then...
>There's a lot of things that shouldn't have been said at this breakfast table, Mantis-san.
>The fact that your Clan deliberately reduced one of it's shugenja to a sex object to get a leg up in court is probably the least shocking.
>And now we all have to pretend like Kitsuki-san WASN'T part of a kidnapping plot.
>Amano spoke up.
>This is all my fault, Takeshi-san. I should not have tried to do it myself.
>My own pride got me caught when there were others I should have asked for help with your matter.
>Just let me take all the blame, I'll leave the rest of you out of it.
>I reached across the table and smacked him.
>No.
>Amano stared at me, holding his cheek.
>You're only guilty of being a mediocre friend.
>A proper friend would have said 'stop being an idiot' and left it at that.
>But this situation is all Kitsuki-san's fault.
>You didn't kill her, right?
>No. Just shot her with a blowdart that would put her to sleep for a while.
>I closed my eyes.
>I reminded myself I was the one who demanded full disclosure on pain of death; that I had, in fact, asked for this.
>And all that's going to happen is that she'll wake up and find herself dumped off in a different city, right?
>Right. That is the plan anyway.
>I assume they know they face the usual Scorpion displeasure should they stray from that plan?
>They do.
>Well.
>A Kitsuki, one of the peace faction, working with a Scorpion, another member of the peace faction hatched a plan to kidnap one of the higher ranked Mantis delegates and remove her from the winter court.
>Since she's going to be fine, more or less, I'd just as soon NOT let loose the shitstorm waiting to explode should that sequence of events come to light.
>Monkey, you didn't see anything. I tripped in the dark and fell through my door, and this conversation never fucking happened.
>And YOU.
>I pointed to Kitsuki-san.
>The next time you don't like someone, DO NOT do what you're thinking of doing.
>GOT IT?
>Got it...
>TITS!
>FUCK!
>Oh.
>Right.
>There were children in this room the whole time.
>TITS FUCK!
>I buried my face in my hands.
>Naomi...
>Me?
>This is YOUR fault!
>YOU deal with it!
>I spent the rest of my morning sequestered with the children, trying in vain to explain the concept of coarse and impolite language to them.
>Shitfucktits!
>No, I'm actually fairly certain they understood.
>They just found my reaction to their swearing intensely amusing.
>I didn't have Naomi's knack for being firm without being scary.
>Knowing me, if I tired to put my foot down I'd overshoot the mark and end up scaring them for life.
>So I concluded that this was just another test I would have to endure.
>Letting them get all the giggles out of their systems.
>They would grow bored sooner of later, and find something else to amuse themselves with.
>It was while the two of them were both babbling a stream of profanity, apparently seeing which one would need to take a breath first, that Shiba Ayame entered into my room.
>I must speak with you Hid... ah?
>Daiko and Tetsute looked up at her from where they were sitting.
>Grinned.
>Tits!
>In perfect unison.
>Ayame held an arm across her chest.
>Don't mind those two, they just heard some words they shouldn't have.
>What is it you need?
>When I looked at her, I could see her one eye was red and puffy, with a dark circle under it.
>Are you still having those bad dreams?
>They're... worse now.
>Tetsute opened his mouth, but Daiko pinched his leg.
>He looked at her in confusion.
>They both sat properly then.
>Huh.
>She looked over at them.
>Um.
>Take your time, Ayame-san.
>I.. I think I may go mad if I do not stop them soon...
>I have started to hear whispers in my dreams now.
>Ishigaki-san, I know I am not ready but if I don't take my rev...
>I must resolve this matter soon. I can't wait any longer.
>She bowed to me, a dogeza.
>Please, help me! I need to know how to win!
>I scratched my head.
>She was quite desperate, if I didn't help her she would go for it on her own. And get killed.
>On the other hand, I really couldn't help her.
>Victory isn't a matter of a single move.
>It is everything you have learned up to that point, coming together.
>The things I knew, my own path to victory over her gunso, was not one she could walk.
>I knew that she would already know this.
>But she was so desperate to put an end to the dreams she was having she was grasping at straws.
>Wait here then. I need to get some of the others.
>But...
>Look, I can't tell you how to beat him. You KNOW that, and you also know why that is. But I can still help you. Just wait here. Please.
>Or do you really mean to insult us all by throwing away the life we worked so hard to save?
>It was a cheap shot, but it hit dead on.
>She would be here when I got back.
>I rounded up Toshiro, Monkey, Naomi and Mantis-san.
>Couldn't quite bring myself to look at Kitsuki-san yet.
>I explained on the way back that Ayame's dreams were still plaguing her, and her desire for vengeance.
>Naomi, unsurprisingly frowned at that.
>Mantis-san nodded.
>Okay, you want those two to see if they can something for her dreams.
>What about me and Monkey?
>Well, I need someone to babysit the children in another room while we talk about revenge.
>And Monkey is surprisingly studious about kenjutsu technique.
>Mantis-san nodded again.
>Then stopped dead in his tracks.
>Wait...
>ME?
>Yeah, you.
>Tetsute likes you.
>Now come on.
>Toshiro and Naomi sat down on either side of Ayame.
>Don't mind us, we're just going to check if any of your elements have fallen out of balance.
>Naomi nodded.
>Dreams are often prophetic, but they can also be a sign of a disrupted Chi flow...
>Uh... Okay?
>Ayame's confusion brought out a cuteness that reminded me of Naomi.
>While Naomi had never truly let go of her innocence, destiny's rough handling had already hardened Ayame quite a bit.
>I felt anger on her behalf welling up in me, but I wrestled it down and tucked it away.
>Monkey meanwhile spoke up.
>So, what's your plan for getting your revenge?
>Naomi made an irritated noise in her throat.
>Naomi. I don't expect you to understand, but this IS something she has to do.
>She looked at me.
>I rarely had cause to be firm with my wife, so when I did she knew it was important.
>Very well.
>Thank you, Naomi-sama. I know you do not approve, and I think I know why. But Ishigaki-san is right. I must do this.
>Ayame turned to Monkey.
>My plan, such that it is, is to simply duel him and win.
>I've no idea how to get him to accept, but...
>Monkey nodded.
>You should take a warrior pilgrimage.
>I blinked.
>Huh?
>Any Samurai can go on a warrior pilgrimage for a time. They temporarily become ronin, but it lacks the disgrace of normally being a masterless samurai.
>You use this to study abroad, learn techniques and test yourself in ways you wouldn't be able to tied to your Clan.
>Ah, like Sun-Tao!
>Precisely like Sun-Tao, Ayame-san.
>Sun-Tao had been a great tactician, though accounts differed as to which clan he originally hailed from.
>He had undertaken a pilgrimage, and had studied with each of the great clans, gaining insight into how they waged war
>He then compiled his collected wisdom into a book, simply called the Book of Sun-Tao.
>He never completed his pilgrimage though, and his book remains incomplete.
>When he lived, the Ki-Rin were still lost beyond the borders of the Empire; they had yet to return as the Clan of the Unicorn.
>So he had set out, following the path the Ki-Rin had taken outside the Empire, and was never seen again.
>Monkey continued.
>I don't think you'll ever catch up to him, let alone overtake him, if you keep on as you are now.
>But, if you broaden your training, you might.
>I think you should seek out the Disciples of Sun-Tao, and learn their technique.
>Ayame looked at Monkey in surprise.
>I did as well.
>Would they even agree to teach me?
>Yeah, they would.
>Their technique harness the strength of your own honor.
>Huh. I hadn't know that. There were many schools that taught techniques that would best serve an honorable soul.
>I had no idea how that was even possible.
>Then again, they likely found it hard to imagine lashing out with your own earth to blunt an enemies attack.
>Monkey went on.
>Because of that they don't really care who learns it.
>It's useless to the kind of people they wouldn't want to teach it to.
>It's because of the fine line that Sun-Tao himself walked.
>He learned techniques and strategies from every Clan. And he told everyone what he had learned. Normally, dishonorable in the extreme.
>But he did so in way that changed his book into far more than the sum of it's parts, so no one's trust was actually betrayed.
>Instead he was quite honorable.
>That's what the gaze of Sun-Tao is about, seeing broadly your foe, understanding him and what he will do, and allowing your honor to guide your blade along with that knowledge.
>I was staring at Monkey open mouthed.
>I have a cousin who studied with them.
>Monkey shrugged.
>It's because of my cousin that I wanted to become a fine swordsman in the first place...
>I hadn't know.
>Toshiro hissed then.
>What, what is it?
>There is something wrong here. I can feel it. It's like...
>It's like there are Kansen here...
>Toshiro frowned.
>Those little shits can be anywhere, and they're hard to spot.
>For that matter, few spells that provide protection from magic work on Maho.
>So you have to learn to recognize them by their absence. Something that seems to be magical but is not being caused by the Kami...
>You are saying there are Kansen around me?!
>I think so.
>Ayame looked at Toshiro in horror.
>What do we do? What CAN we do?
>Nomi frowned.
>It is as Toshiro says, Ayame-san. Proper magic and Maho are two different things, so different at base that our own spells do not interact with them favorably.
>Just as a bushi cannot learn magic, nor a shugenja the bushi's techniques, maho and magic do not dwell in the same world.
>Toshiro took over.
>There are some exceptions, of course. A few earth spells use the purity of jade to ward off Jigoku specifically.
>Ayame began to brighten.
>But they do not last long, and can only block the spells as they are cast...
>...and her hopes were dashed.
>Toshiro, enough with the exposition. Just tell us what we can do.
>Ah yes.
>Sleep in a temple.
>What?
>The very best thing to do, if Kansen are flocking to you, is to go to a place they will not want to follow.
>A temple, a ring of pure salt, purifying yourself, the right kind of sutras and charms...
>We will get started on them right away.
>Ishigaki, take her to the shrine, would you?
>Uh, okay.
>I wasn't sure why Naomi thought I should go with her. I didn't even know where the shrine was.
>Ayame saw me hesitate as soon I was outside the room.
>It's this way Ishigaki-san.
>I followed her.
>We got to the shrine. A single room, plenty of scrolls, and a large gold statue of Bishamon.
>Why was I not surprised.
>A monk came out, looked at Ayame and wrinkled his nose.
>Ah. Now I see why Naomi had sent me. How had she known?
>What do YOU want?
>I stepped between him and Ayame.
>Monks occupied a strange place in the celestial order.
>They were not samurai, even though many monks were retired samurai.
>Still, their words carried great weight, and only a fool failed to heed them.
>Furthermore, as monks were ostensibly neutral on worldly matters they were supposed to be safe from any form of violence.
>This protection did not extend to sohei orders of course, and more than a few samurai, unwilling to give up on their old lives, remained politically active despite shaving their heads.
>Those ones were the worst sort. They made up lies about spiritual things, used the weight of their authority on such matters as propaganda, and hid behind lies of neutrality to defend themselves from the proper ass kicking they deserved.
>At least a sohei had the decency to appear before you armed, honestly expressing his intent to involve himself in the material world.
>I got the distinct impression this monk was one of those political assholes without a shred of real spiritual power.
>At times in the past, temples and monasteries HAD been attacked by samurai forces.
>Sometimes it was an abbot declaring this or that general to lack piety, or be spiritually imbalanced, or some such thing.
>Other times it was the monks offering safe harbor to the wounded, only for the wounded to heal and return to battle over and over again.
>And on a few occasions it was revealed that some destroyed holy sites solely to blame the act on their enemies.
>It was always a big thing when this happened.
>The one who slew the monks would rapidly find public sentiment swinging against them.
>Steadfast allies would turn their backs, old enemies would have the excuse they needed to join in, and it would all come crashing down.
>Of course, this did little for the monks who were already dead, but few people were so ignorant of social mores that would kill a monk without a second thought, even though Monks were not samurai.
>Of course, I was a Crab.
>Crabs are, as far as most Rokugani are concerned, illiterate brutes barely able to construct a coherent sentence who think only of food, sex, and violence.
>So I donned a mask that conformed to the monk's expectations, set my expression to violence, and growled at him.
>Two shugenja have determined this woman is being targeted by Kansen. They said she is to sleep in the shrine tonight, so the Kansen will flee before Heaven's Gaze.
>I am here to see to it their orders are carried out.
>He swallowed, hard.
>Letting me know he really did think I was dumb enough to hurt him if he upset me.
>Sometimes having a reputation for having a short temper can be useful.
>Sometimes.
>Of course, Great Samurai, please bring the poor girl inside. I will fetch a futon for her, and some charms as well!
>Do that.
>As the monk hurried off, Ayame giggled.
>It's fun, watching you work.
>The monk returned with a futon and laid it out for Ayame.
>A short time later Naomi and Toshiro arrived.
>They placed some sutras around the room, lit some incense, and said some prayers.
>There.
>That should do it.
>So... I will sleep well tonight?
>Toshiro frowned.
>If you do not, you must tell us immediately.
>It would mean one of two things.
>Which are?
>Either it is not Kansen causing your nightmares.
>Or there is something or someone commanding the Kansen to target you, that can force them to come here even when they would resist with all their might.
>...
>Another Maho-Tsukai?
>Targeting me, again?
>Why!?
>I hadn't even considered the possibility, but as soon as Toshiro said it, I knew how possible it was.
>Part of the reason Maho-Tsukai were such a problem was because they could be anyone.
>The Kansen would 'serve' any person who spilled blood and whispered prayers to the Dark Kami.
>The other problem was that Kansen often made Maho-Tsukai themselves.
>The Kansen knew where ancient scrolls of dark knowledge were hidden, and were drawn to them.
>Just as earth kami hovered around Toshiro's scroll satchell, and water kami near Naomi's
>Kansen would find people who were unhappy with something. They would whisper to that person, they would guide that person to the scrolls, hidden away and forgotten with the death of their original owner.
>So, despite the seemingly absurd chance, there really was a good possibility that there was another Maho-Tsukai about.
>And he could very well be trying to tempt Ayame down a dark path, twisting her desire for righteous vengeance towards an evil purpose.
>In the worst case, it could very well be this how THEY recruit their disposable minions and puppets.
>THEY certainly had a lot of those...
>Even though I was certain Hohiro was tied to THEM, I still wasn't certain whether he was puppet, or puppet master...
>Toshiro caught my eye.
>He had been thinking exactly the same thing I had.
>So I explained to Ayame.
>Ayame-san, Maho-Tsukai sometimes seek to draw others under their influence, to grow a small cult around themselves.
>Iuchiban and the Bloodspeaker cult are the most famous example of this.
>It may be that there is another Maho-Tsukai here, the master of the one we slew. And now he wishes to replace his lost pawn.
>With me?
>I nodded gravely.
>But how does cursing me help him do that?
>Naomi answered that
>In time, you will remember more and more of the dreams.
>Eventually, you will hear whispers, even while awake.
>The Kansen, under his orders, will try to tempt you with the power of blood magic.
>They will use your desire for revenge.
>THIS is exactly why I do not like revenge; it so easily leads to horrible things!
>Ayame looked down, ashamed.
>I knelt down beside Ayame...
>There are many stories of great heroes taking righteous vengeance on those who wronged them.
>It is not an easy path. You must hold tight to your honor, and prepare yourself to be both patient and to endure great hardship.
>Can you do that?
>Even with that constant reminder of your betrayal?
>Ayame did not answer right away.
>...yes. Yes I can do that.
>Then that is all that matters.
>Do not give in.
>Ayame nodded.
>I won't.
>Thank you all so much for your help.
>I can never repay you.
>I could not think of any way to dismiss her gratitude as unnecessary without insulting it, so I accepted her thanks.
>We left her in the shrine, and headed back to our room.
>So, if it IS another one, does anyone have any idea how we root them out?
>Toshiro nodded.
>I might have one.
>Let's just hope it doesn't come to that.
>He refused to explain further.
>Naomi was upset with me.
>She wasn't saying anything, but I could practically feel her displeasure.
>So I took her outside, onto a balcony, where we could be alone.
>Alright then. Let's have it.
>Have what, Ishigaki-kun.
>I didn't bother to acknowledge her attempt to pretend nothing was wrong.
>I simply folded my arms and stared at her.
>The silence stretched on for a bit.
>At last she spoke up.
>Why do you insist on encouraging her?
>Even when the person she intends to fight is so much more skilled, even when the darkness her desire for revenge allows into her heart is a weakness through which she could damn herself, even though her gunso is assured to have family and friends who will seek vengeance in turn...
>Nothing good comes of it Ishigaki-kun!
>I couldn't hold back my sigh.
>I didn't want to do what I was about to do.
>You done?
>Naomi blinked at my cold tone.
>Do you really think I'M why she does this?
>Do you really I could change her mind?
>It isn't logic that drives her, it's emotion.
>And logic isn't going to resolve those emotions.
>Bushi and Shugenja live in two different worlds, Naomi.
>You know that.
>But you seem to forget it's not just the ability to speak with the kami that separates us.
>Bushi fight.
>Bushi die.
>Bushi kill.
>And you are right, being surrounded by death DOES mark a person.
>It's up to each individual to decide how they deal with that.
>And it is ONLY that individual who has the right to make that decision.
>Whatever the outcome of her decision, it's HER decision.
>Not yours.
>Not mine.
>Not her lord's.
>Not her clan's.
>HERS.
>The only thing we can do, they only thing we have any right to do, is make sure she's thought it through thoroughly and is ready for whatever the outcome might be.
>You've said your piece already. Repeating yourself like you are only makes her LESS likely to listen to you in the future.
>You're going to need to accept this, or things will get difficult when our children come of age.
>Naomi stared at me wide eyed for a long time.
>Only the Isle of Mists had made me hate myself more.
>But Crabs do not shirk their duty, no matter how horrible it may be.
>Naomi had to understand the difference between bushi and shugenja, and the fact that few could ever be as forgiving as her.
>...and you would have Ashitaka walk this blood soaked path as well?
>Daiko, Tetsute?
>She placed a hand on her stomach.
>I would have them walk their own paths, Naomi.
>And if I saw them heading to a difficult part that I had already passed, I would share my knowledge with them.
>But they must walk their own paths.
>Naomi looked away from me.
>Shit.
>I had thought, after our time at Kyuden Hida, she had come to accept the fate Crabs bore, the fate warriors bore.
>I was wrong.
>She had hidden it, and quite well, but now I saw she was so upset over what had happened to Ayame, and what Ayame was going to do about it, because she saw the future of her brother, and our children in Ayame.
>I grabbed her, and pulled her in for a hug.
>To my shock, Naomi tried to pull away.
>Though her attempt was halfhearted.
>I knew how strong she was, with the water kami guiding her.
>If she wanted to, she could have lifted me over her head and tossed me from this balcony without any real effort.
>The fact that she didn't actually break away meant she DID want comfort and reassurance.
>She had just hopped, perhaps expected, I would agree with her.
>In the past, my friends and I had expended great effort to hide harsher truths from her.
>Precisely because none of us wanted to have this conversation with her.
>But, we couldn't hide things from her forever.
>She had the right to know the lives her children would face.
>She started to weep.
>I held her, and stroked her hair.
>That always calmed her down.
>I didn't chide her, or try to get her to stop.
>I supported her while she let out her emotions freely.
>After a time she sniffled, and pulled away.
>Thank you, Ishigaki-kun.
>She smiled sadly.
>Like that, then?
>Support, but do not interfere?
>I don't know if I will be able to do that Ishigaki-kun...
>I chuckled.
>You ignore your own pain until it's almost killed you; yet seeing another person in pain, even if it's as minor as a paper cut, is something you cannot bear.
>I can't understand how that works, but it's one of the reasons I fell in love with you.
>It's not just failings of character that can lead us astray, you know?
>Hai. I... I will need some time to accept this. But I do understand.
>You always did; you just needed someone to remind you.
>I am not that wise, Ishigaki-kun.
>Sure you are.
>She laughed softly.
>If you say so, my husband.
>We went back inside.
>The next day, we visited Ayame.
>She looked much better than the last time I saw her.
>You slept well then?
>Yes, I did. Your plan worked!
>Toshiro nodded.
>Good, good.
>Sleep here a few more days, just to make sure they stay gone.
>Ayame nodded.
>We all ate breakfast together, Kitstupid-san and Bayushi Amakidnapa were there as well.
>Of course by now I had forgiven them their lapse in judgment.
>Holding it against them in any way was beneath me at this point.
>Kitstupid-san and Amakidnapa, I mean.
>As I chewed my rice I wondered if they were lovers.
>So I decided to ask them.
>Kitsuki-san, Amano-san...
>They looked over.
>Yes?
>Are you two in a relationship or something?
>Choking noises erupted from all around our table.
>Some of it was mixed with laughter.
>Some was pure shock.
>Ahha! You ARE, aren't you!
>NO!
>CERTAINLY NOT!
>Why would you even think that?
>Well, it would certainly explain how you, Kitsuki-san were able to reject the advances of one of the most beautiful women in the Empire,
>And your actions, Amano-san, make a bit more sense if you had been driven mad with jealousy.
>I thought I explained already Ishigaki-san.
>Physical gratification is easy to come by, but emotional attachment is a burden I do not wish to deal with.
>Amano-san was still in shock, but he managed to squeak out.
>I'm engaged you know...
>No, I didn't.
>I pointed at the both of them with my chopsticks.
>So you're both certain there's nothing going on between you two?
>I won't judge, I promise!
>A thumping came from down the table.
>Mantis-san was choking to death, a smile on his face and tears running down his cheeks.
>Toshiro was pounding his back, trying to get him breathing again.
>Monkey had vanished beneath the table, though I could see his feet kick into the air every now and again.
>Even Naomi had gone quite red and had both hands clapped over her mouth.
>Kitsuki-san stared coldly at me.
>There is nothing.
>Fine, fine. If you aren't ready to admit your true feelings, I won't force you to.
>Just know that I will always support you.
>Thank you for your consideration, Ishigaki-san.
>Amano just tried to vanish inside his kimono.
>Toshiro managed to save Mantis-san's life.
>Though it was close.
>Once we finished breakfast we headed out to join the rest of the court.
>The karo announced the next competition.
>Performances were next on the agenda.
>Sing, dance, play an instrument, perform a scene from a play. Alone or in groups.
>The audience would judge the finest performance.
>More art.
>Well, I suppose I could at least sit back and take in some culture for a while.
>Oi! Ishigaki-san, Toshiro-san!
>We looked over.
>It was one of the Hiruma who served as Yojimbo to Katsuie-san.
>We're doing a draw-lot play! We need you two! Come on!
>Toshiro and I looked at each other.
>Sighed.
>Fine, but we're both going to need a lot of sake.
>He grinned.
>Of course!

Act XXIX: Performers[edit]

>Plays always have roles few Crab warriors are keen on taking.
>That's even assuming you can get them to overcome the embarrassment of being terrible actors in order to get them on stage in the first place.
>A Crab gunso solved this problem, while also creating a way for his troops to relax, by inventing the concept of Draw Lot plays.
>He took a popular play that most of the troops would know by heart, wrote the names of the roles down on slips of paper, then added enough blank slips that everyone in the squad would be able to pick one.
>Mixed them up in his kabuto.
>And forced the entire squad to draw.
>The lucky ones that got roles would play those roles, no exceptions, no trading roles.
>Since everyone had an equal chance to share in the embarrassment it was easier to get the warriors to risk it.
>That is the Draw Lot Play of the Crab Clan.
>An (often drunken) mess of overacting, flubbed lines, and burly giants trying to play effeminate housewives that will drive most playwrights to suicide upon learning their work had been defiled in such a manner.
>We all gathered together in Katsuie-sama's room.
>Aside from Katsuie, Toshiro and myself there was Yasuki Tamoko, her brother Tomoki, Hiruma Saji and Kaiu Makoto.
>So, do you already have a play in mind?
>Makoto looked up from where she was shuffling papers around.
>They gave us a few different scenes to choose from... most of these are Crane written crap though...
>We all crowded around her to look.
>Young lovers struggle against fate.
>Vengeance for murdered father.
>Bumbling magistrates who solve cases by luck instead of skill.
>Survivor of a losing battle trying to avoid capture while surviving in the woods.
>And one of the tests of the Emerald Champion.
>...
>Tomoki broke the silence.
>Wow.
>I know Tomo-chan.
>Tomoki flushed at his sister calling him by his childhood nickname in public.
>Saji solved our dilemma by producing a die from his fortunes and winds set.
>Toshiro clapped him on the shoulder.
>You're a genius.
>We got the young lovers.
>There were five roles to fill for the scene we had.
>The two lovers, the fiance, and the fathers.
>So, two of the people in this room would be safe.
>Risky odds, but with two women drawing lots and only one female role every guy was connived they wouldn't be the young woman.
>With a prayer to Daikoku, we drew our lots.
>...
>No trading, no exceptions.
>The first performance was a pair of Lion. Akodo Yoshi danced a Noh, while an Ikoma girl beat time on a kotsuzumi.
>As the Lion danced, he spun his fan through a series of candles, snuffing them out one by one.
>He revived quite a bit of applause when it was over.
>I scratched at my beard.
>That was a little hard to understand, but I got the feeling, since he was snuffing candles, that it had something to do with how short people's lives are.
>Up next came a Kakita, I didn't remember ever seeing that one before.
>I realized there were a half dozen Kakita that didn't look like swordsmen in the Crane... army.
>There were just too many to justifiably call it an entourage.
>The Kakita, in a fine display of humility, played a biwa and sang a song about how the Original Kakita invented the biwa and sang a song to make lady Doji fall in love with him.
>Delighted at this reminder of how incestuous the Crane Clan families were, the crowd erupted in applause.
>I had the thought to begin jotting my thoughts down.
>I'd make a wonderful art critic.
>Next, some servants brought a massive taiko drum.
>I sat up a little straighter.
>The thunder of those drums always stirred my soul.
>Out came Moto Li-Ta, dressed in proper drummer attire.
>She bowed to the audience, then proceeded to beat the ever loving shit out of that drum.
>As she did so, several other Unicorn leapt from the wings, whooping and hollering and dancing like mad.
>There was a wild freedom in their performance, a sense of joy.
>I wasn't sure what it was about, but I knew I liked it.
>Naomi came out next, to offer a simple performance.
>She played her Konto, and sang softly.
>A soft lullaby she sang to the children before they slept.
>The song itself perfectly captured the simple joy of watching your children sleep, and the pain of knowing they would one day grow up.
>More than a few courtiers were wiping their faces discretely before she was done.
>Several Dragon performed a scene from a play about Matsu Hitomi. The scene they enacted was one depicting the Mirumoto Daimyo requesting her aid against the forces of the Crab.
>I had to wonder if the Dragon remembered that once the Crab had been forced to withdraw the Mirumoto Daimyo betrayed her.
>A presentation from the Phoenix came next.
>Another play, this scene was the Shiba family daimyo and Phoenix Clan Champion urging the Council of Masters to keep the Isawa well back from the front lines of a war.
>The man spoke for a long time, about the oath Shiba swore to Isawa, and how the power of the Clan's shugenja should only be unleashed in times of dire emergency.
>Real subtle there Shoji, even I can see what you're driving at with that one.
>I noticed considerable agitation among the Mantis delegates, before they waved off a servant.
>I guess they weren't in the mood to participate.
>Given that one of their courtiers had been murdered and another was now missing, I could see why.
>Two more crane performances back to back. One a Noh, the other a kabuki.
>At a certain point, quantity began to drown out quality from the Crane, at least to my mind.
>The other audience members seemed to enjoy both performances though.
>Then another performance from the Lion. Another play about Matsu Hitomi, this one covering the time when the Mirumoto Daimyo ordered her to attack the castle of a Lion lord, effectively betraying her.
>I leaned over to Katusie-sama.
>So, that seemed very blunt. Or am I just overthinking things?
>No, I think your suspicions are correct, Ishigaki-san.
>Okay.
>I can be a bit thick so I just wanted to make sure.
>Then came the Scorpion.
>Amano sang a simple song, without any accompaniment.
>About Akodo Godaigo betraying Matsu Hitomi, his lover, after she took her vengeance on the Mirumoto Daimyo.
>Katsuie-sama sat straight up and scowled when that was done.
>Um, Katsuie-sama?
>His eyes narrowed.
>That was a warning to the Lion.
>I felt a cup pressed into my hand.
>Ah. We were going to be up next.
>Yes, it's not a proper Draw Lot Play if the actors are sober.
>Kanpai.
>Once we were good and drunk we stumbled out onto the stage.
>Toshiro, me, Tomoko and Tomoki and Makoto were the lucky winners.
>As the father of the bride to-be, I got to be the asshole in this play.
>Toshiro was my old friend whose son, played by Makoto, was to marry my daughter, Tomoki
>With Tomoko the brash young samurai who was going to interrupt the wedding and declare his true love for Tomoki.
>What was supposed to happen was just as Tomoki and Makoto were exchanging vows, Tomoko was to enter the room, and declare her love. Toshiro and I would raise a fuss, Tomoki would admit his true feelings, Toshiro and I would raise more fuss, Makoto and Tomoki would take their stance, and the scene would end because the original playwright was a massive ass who loved to make audiences argue over what happened next.
>But this was a Draw Lot Play.
>Most of the time, we did try to do it right.
>It's just that the actors are a bunch of bushi with no artistic talent whatsoever.
>But over time, a certain type of Draw Lot Play gained popularity.
>One that EMBRACED the butchery of the play.
>And when you're dealing with Crabs performing a play none of them were familiar with and didn't even like very much...
>There was no question in our minds how this would go.
>I sat nodding in approval as Tomoki and Makoto began swearing their marriage vows.
>HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!
>Tomoko came storming in.
>Listen up, all ah yah!
>Tomoko wove her way drunkenly over to us.
>And grabbed her brother's chest.
>These are my boobies! Hands off you bitch!
>You could hear the silence as those who had never heard of a draw lot play were made painfully aware of what they were in store for.
>Bah!
>Makoto fired back.
>Then yanked Tomoki from his sisters arms.
>Tomoki is MINE! as if she'd want some limp wristed geisha like you!
>Tomoko wasn't backing down.
>I'll have you know I killed an ogre during my gempukku!
>Well I killed an ONI!
>Well I killed Oni no Akuma!
>Wait.. wait... did you just say you had two gempukku?
>YEAH!
>Tomoko pulled back the sleeves on her kimono and flexed her thin arms.
>One for each of these manly arms of mine.
>Mokoto reached out felt Tomoki's almost nonexistent biceps.
>Whoah! Those are impressively manly!
>Toshiro looked over at me.
>Aren't we supposed to say something here?
>He said it loudly enough the audience could hear.
>I just smiled, chin resting on my hand.
>I think so, but I'm having too much fun watching this...
>Toshiro shrugged.
>Fine, whatever...
>Um...
>Tomoki tried to speak up.
>Makoto and Tomoko both wheeled on him and spoke in unison.
>WHAT?!
>Um.... I uh. I think I like Tomoko better, to be honest...
>Toshiro elbowed me.
>I think everyone saw.
>Okay, fine fine...
>I got up, almost lost my balance, and lurched over to the arguing trio.
>I put my hand on Tomoki's shoulder
>Tomoki, my beautiful daughter, you cannot marry Tomoko!
>But why not father?!
>Because... because... he's your sister!
>I couldn't help but break out laughing as I said that, and then I really did lose my balance.
>Toshiro stood up.
>I'm not drunk enough for this.
>Saji decided to get in on the act, and ran in with a cup of sake for Toshiro.
>Thanks.
>Toshiro downed it and threw the cup over his shoulder.
>Okay, fuck it. We're all samurai here.
>You and you.
>He pointed to Makoto and Tomoko.
>Just fight already. Winner gets the little girl.
>Right!
>Got it!
>The two punched each other in their faces at the same time and fell over.
>Toshiro looked around.
>Well, since I'm the last one standing, guess I win.
>Come on wife, let me show you your new home.
>He grabbed Tomoki's hand and pulled him off the stage.
>I looked out from where I had fallen at the audience.
>The Unicorn were laughing so hard they had to hold their sides lest their guts come bursting out.
>Everyone else was staring with the vacant look of one who has witnessed the aftermath of a battle for the first time.
>I hoped at least one Crane would have nightmares about this the rest of their lives.
>We all managed to get to our feet and bow to the audience.
>The motion was too much for Tomoki, who vomited.
>The perfect end to a perfect draw lot play.
>Katsuie-sama was chuckling when we rejoined him.
>I didn't think you would be quite so rough with the source material!
>It was bland crap anyway Katsuie-sama!
>He smiled.
>I can't help but wonder how many courtiers are trying to figure out the hidden message right now.
>Makoto looked at Katsuie-sama in surprise.
>There was a hidden message?
>He snorted.
>Of course not.
>All they saw were a bunch of drunken Crabs butchering a script.
>But courtiers have minds like mazes, and they cannot accept things are as simple as they seem.
>He laughed out loud then.
>No doubt we've muddied the waters quite a bit with that show!
>Saji grinned.
>Your suggestion to do a draw lot play was wonderfull, Katsuie-sama.
>I looked over at Toshiro.
>Did you hear that?
>I did.
>You think maybe the point was that there was no point?
>If you just said what I think you just said, then I think you're right...
>I have no idea what you just said, Toshiro.
>We should go sleep this off.
>Yeah, we should.
>So we did.
>I awoke with an impressive hangover.
>Not even close to the Double Mind Fuck hangover, but still one worth remembering.
>Naomi helped me to sit up, and gave me some water.
>I gulped it down.
>That was... an interesting performance.
>Did you win?
>No, it was the Crane Kabuki actors who did so.
>It should have been you.
>I love that song.
>I know you do, that is why I chose it.
>Do you think you want to join everyone for breakfast?
>Yeah, I have to ask about last night.
>Did you drink that much?
>No, not that. Just want to make sure I didn't miss anything, is all.
>I see.
>You are certain you will be alright Ishigaki-kun?
>I feel fine now.
>The instant I stepped into the room where everyone was getting breakfast I had to run out onto the balcony and lean over.
>I almost hit a peasant.
>I pulled my head back while he was still staring in confusion, before he could think to look up.
>Toshiro grinned at me.
>Snuck up on you, didn't it?
>A bit.
>I drank some more water
>So, let me see if I've got it right.
>Last night the Dragon asked if the Lion want to join them.
>The Lion said no.
>And the Scorpion warned them to stay out of it altogether then...
>Is that about right?
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>Yes.
>Amano shot Kitsuki a look.
>Most children could follow that much, were they training to be courtiers. there's no harm in confirming for him what everyone already knows.
>I suppose you're right.
>Amano ate some rice, then mused.
>The Unicorn are guileless as always.
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>I grunted. Probably why they had one of the better performances.
>You call that wild jumping a good dance?
>No, I suppose I should not be surprised.
>I had thought you had at least some basic appreciation for art, after all.
>I fired right back at Kitsuki-san.
>I like honest art that doesn't try to hide what it's saying.
>People at court are pretentious enough as is.
>Making their art pretentious is just going overboard.
>Kitsuki-san snorted.
>Toshiro and I went to check up an Ayame.
>She was practicing her basics, swinging a bokken over and over before the statue of Bishamon.
>Such a thing would be pleasing to the fortune of strength.
>So we held back, out of sight, until she finished.
>Once she had returned to her neutral stance and held it for the proper length of time, she collapsed.
>I've seen that before, plenty of times
>Toshiro and I moved over to her.
>Ishigaki-sama, Toshiro-sama?
>Looks like she couldn't bring herself to use an improper honorific under the direct gaze of Bishamon, even though I had told her I preferred -san, if she had to honorific me at all.
>Well, even Toshiro insisted in -saning me, even though he never corrected me when I addressed by name only.
>I was the odd one here, preferring to be informal beyond even what most Crabs would find acceptable.
>Oh well.
>Ayame-san, can you hold out your arm for me?
>Uh, yes.
>She did so. Her arm shook visibly.
>Toshiro looked into her eyes.
>Mm hmm.
>What, what is it, Toshiro-sama?
>Exhaustion.
>You've pushed yourself far too hard.
>How long have you been at it?
>...
>All night...?
>Ayame looked away, a bit embarrassed.
>I am sorry, I was worried about the possibility of the dreams returning so I could not sleep...
>You need to sleep from time to time too, you know?
>Yes, I am sorry.
>I will try and get some sleep now, I am quite tired...
>Good.
>Once we were away Toshiro looked at me.
>I think she's wrong.
>Huh?
>About why she couldn't sleep.
>I nodded.
>I see.
>So, you had a plan to find the Tsukai?
>Before Toshiro could answer angry shouts exploded from one the rooms we were passing.
>We looked at one another, then went in to see what was going on.
>Inside we found an Ikoma and a Soshi yelling at one another.
>It was that same Soshi who spoke to me during the painting contest.
>Both had long since abandoned any pretense, if there had ever been any to begin with, and now freely and openly insulting one another.
>Well, a duel or two is not uncommon in a winter court. Samurai being samurai, tempers were bound to flare up sooner or later.
>It was the Ikoma who drew his wakizashi first.
>Drawing your blade when you're going to demand a duel to satisfy your honor is a fairly normal thing.
>Drawing your blade and stabbing someone who has upset you is not.
>I reached out and grabbed his arm, just in case.
>He glared at me for a moment, trying to understand.
>Then his rage cooled just enough that he did, so I let go.
>I can bear your lies no longer Scorpion! I will have satisfaction!
>It was at that exact moment the heads of the Scorpion and Lion delegations entered the room.
>Well, that was far too convenient, especially when there's Scorpion involved.
>The Soshi smiled.
>Then, if Bayushi-sama will allow it, I accept your challenge.
>All eyes turned to Bayushi-sama.
>Hands folded inside of sleeves, a voluminous Kimono concealed everything else.
>And Bayushi-sama wore a wedding veil for a mask.
>I'll allow it.
>That voice could have belonged to a man, or a woman...
>Toshiro leaned in and whispered to me.
>How much you want to bet that there is no 'Bayushi-sama' and that all the Scorpion take turns in that outfit?
>Hah. Wouldn't surprise me at all if you're right.
>The Soshi woman nodded.
>Then Bayushi Kentaro will be my champion.
>As long as Ikoma-sama gives his permission for this duel, of course.
>The younger Ikoma looked at his senior.
>Ikoma-sama had a long thin beard down to his chest, that he stroked a few times, while he tried to work out what the Scorpion were up to.
>He nodded at last.
>The young Ikoma smilled.
>Then I will have Akodo Yo-
>Ikoma-sama cut him off.
>No, you will not.
>Yoshi-san is far too busy with other duties to spend time on such a trivial matter.
>Toshiro whispered again.
>In other words 'I don't know what the Scorpion are up to so I'm not letting you put our best warrior in harm's way'.
>The young Ikoma stared, open mouthed.
>He looked around.
>Judging by his expression, most of the other Lion must be only fair duelists.
>Since Shoshi had named Kentaro without hesitation, he was likely very good.
>I saw Kakita Sakurada begin to stand up.
>Then I saw the Soshi smile, faintly, before turning her face back to a blank slate.
>Well shit, they'd walked right into it.
>Before Sakurada could speak, I did.
>I'll be your champion.
>Heads whipped in my direction, I was surprised I didn't hear the sound of breaking necks.
>Toshiro was staring at me as I'd just peeled of my stolen Ishigaki skin and revealed myself to be a bog hag.
>The Ikoma looked me up and down.
>You?
>Yeah. Me.
>And why would I choose you?
>Because there isn't anyone in this room who thought I would offer.
>Not.
>One.
>The young Ikoma realized what I was getting at.
>He nodded.
>Very well then!
>I leaned in, putting my head next to the young Ikoma's ear, with my back turned to the Scorpion.
>Ask her to be very specific with the terms.
>I know.
>Now then, your right as the challenged?
>Isn't it obvious? Iaijutsu to the first blood!
>Those are your only terms then? Fine.
>Our champions shall meet outside in fifteen minutes!
>I headed for my room.
>It took twenty five minutes to complete the ritual to don one's armor.
>Skipping steps was dangerous, as the ritual also made sure the pieces would overlap properly.
>And of course, it invited bad luck.
>Unless, of course, you were a Crab.
>Ten minutes later, I was fully dressed and on my way outside.
>This wasn't cheating, not really.
>It was the Shoshi's fault for not specifying whether or not armor would be allowed.
>Of course I was stretching it.
>That was just a technicality, and I was insulting the spirit of the Iaijutsu duel.
>Worst case scenario the aggrieved Crane have to have a flower arranging contest to see who gets first crack at me.
>But then I arrived and realized I was safe.
>A figure in dark, blood red and black armor was already waiting for me.
>Bayushi Kentaro.
>Hah, so the Scorpion didn't specify no armor because they had the same plan as I did.
>So now I look like a genius for figuring out their plan and countering it.
>I didn't, but I had no problem letting everyone think I did.
>We took up our positions.
>Shit.
>He wasn't just relying on his armor.
>It was still early morning, the rising sun was behind his shoulder.
>With his dark armor all I could see was a silhouette.
>Well, whatever.
>I am Hida Ishigaki, student of the Hida Ryu and Defender of the Wall.
>I am Bayushi Kentaro, of the Bayushi Ryu, and one of Saigo's blades.
>I wonder what that meant.
>We took our stances.
>As I suspected, I was heavily outclassed.
>But Kentaro was in a suit of O-Yori. It would slow him down just a bit.
>And this was a duel to first blood, not the first hit.
>I focused myself, seeking out that perfect harmony.
>And then Kentaro hit me.
>Strike first, strike last.
>He was a master, that was obvious.
>But as his blade passed, there was no blood on it.
>As I had hoped. He couldn't quite cut me.
>I returned the strike.
>I dimly heard a few people already shouting foul.
>Kentaro hadn't let his guard down, and he twisted around as I attacked.
>I missed.
>Nimble little shit, and fast.
>We stepped back from one another as spectators shouted.
>I shouted back.
>I'M NOT BLEEDING!
>The young Ikoma I was championing shouted then.
>Look at Kentaro-san's blade! No blood!
>So we had to keep going.
>My position was improved, but not by much.
>Damn he's fast!
>But we were no longer trying to outdraw one another.
>I covered up, and deflected his swings.
>I backed away and circled, getting the sun out of my eyes, while allowing my training to guide me.
>Kentaro pressed on, shifting from two hands to a one hand and back..
>I gave ground before his assault.
>And found what I was looking for.
>My foot slid, just a bit, on a patch of ice hidden under the snow.
>Kentaro began to circle around me again, putting the sun behind him once more.
>Then, I didn't just deflect his attack.
>I caught it on my own blade.
>And I shoved. Hard.
>He stepped back from my push.
>Onto the ice.
>As his foot skidded out from under him, I attacked.
>His armor would shield him, so I attacked with all my might.
>I had to make him bleed, here and now.
>I wouldn't get another chance.
>As I struck, my momentum pushed him on the ice, and he fell.
>I pulled my blade back, and felt flesh, not metal beneath it.
>Red droplets fell to the snow from my katana.
>...
>...
>...
>I just pissed of the Scorpion.

Act XXX: Responsibilities[edit]

>I had to go back to my room and change of course.
>It was a very great struggle not to constantly look behind me as I walked through the halls.
>Of course, the Scorpion would take their time.
>Part of their revenge was, invariably, the time their victim spent dreading it's arrival.
>I got out of my armor, and Naomi insisted on checking me for any injury.
>I'm fine Naomi, he didn't cut me.
>No. I must be certain!
>The vehemence in her voice startled me.
>She looked me over, and there was a thin scratch.
>Only the very top layer of skin was parted, not even deep enough to draw blood.
>TOSHIRO!
>TOSHIRO, COME HERE!
>Wait, Naomi? Why are you yelling?
>Toshiro thumpdragged his way in.
>I just got up here Naomi-san, what-
>The kami of earth are better at removing poison than the kami of water!
>You have one, don't you?
>Uh. I do...
>Hurry, use it!
>Naomi pulled out a scroll of her own.
>I will try something as well!
>Toshiro and I looked at each other, he shrugged, fished out his scroll and said a prayer to Jurojin.
>A little bit later Naomi finished her spell as well, and I felt quite good.
>Okay, now will you tell us what the hell has you so worked up?
>The blade was poisoned.
>...
>What?
>You did not see. No one saw.
>But I did!
>There was venom of some sort on the Scorpion's blade!
>Why did you even offer to be his champion in the first place?!
>Because I'm pretty sure the Scorpion wanted Kakita Sakurada to be the Lion's champion...
>Toshiro piped up. Okay, wait. Both of you.
>Let's start over from the beginning here.
>The Peace faction made an overture to the Lion, and were rebuffed.
>Today a Scorpion picked a fight with the Lion.
>They knew the head of the Lion delegation would not allow their best warrior to face the Scorpion over personal insults just in case the Scorpion had something planned.
>Naomi picked up from there.
>Yes, yes.
>Sakurada saw a chance to get in the Lion's good graces, and possibly swing them to the War faction.
>Then I took over.
>But the Scorpion anticipated that.
>Naomi finished.
>And hatched a plan where they would likely injure Sakurada, only for him to die from the poison later!
>Toshiro whistled.
>There are plenty of poisons that look like natural deaths...
>Everyone would KNOW, but no one would be able to prove anything!
>Toshiro looked at me.
>And you just had to go and ruin that, didn't you?
>Well. I was in deeper shit than I thought.
>We should probably report all this to Katsuie-sama.
>Yeah.
>On the way we bumped into Ikoma-san.
>Hida Ishigaki-san! I have not had the opportunity to thank.... you?
>I stopped.
>He could see the looks on our faces.
>Sorry, I don't have time for niceties. What's your name, anyway?
>He blinked, surprised that I would champion someone I didn't even know.
>It's Gohei.
>Ikoma Gohei.
>Gohei-san, you should go to your superior, I think ours will want to speak with him soon.
>Okay?
>As I hurried on I tossed over my shoulder.
>And watch your back!
>We entered into Katsuie-sama's rooms.
>He was sitting there with a scowl on his face.
>I suspect you have news for me, and it will not be good...
>We explained to Katsuie-sama what had happened, from walking in on the insults to the end of the duel.
>Along with Naomi seeing the poison.
>He looked at her.
>Of course it would be a water tensai who could see it...
>Makoto piped up.
>Yeah, only the Kitsuki have sharper...eyes. Oh.
>Well, there was an uncomfortable thought.
>Had Kitsuki-san spotted the poison? Had he been privy to the plot?
>It was Kentaro who WAS Amano's cousin...
>Or was that just what the Scorpion wanted us to think? To drive a wedge between us, the wild cards in this court?
>Fuck this was making my head hurt...
>Katsuie-sama wrote down a couple of quick letters.
>Saji, take these to Ikoma Sen-san and Doji Akiko-san.
>I arched an eyebrow.
>Not the Mantis, Katsuie-sama?
>Their two best courtiers are no longer present, and their current head is just following Akiko's lead.
>At this point, the Mantis are a piece for others to move, no longer players in their own right.
>Ikoma Sen, Ikoma Gohei, Akodo Yoshi, Doji Akiko and Kakita Sakurada all joined us.
>Katsuie-sama blinked.
>I will have to make some more tea.
>The three big shots all sat around a table together, while the rest of us waited in the wings, watching them.
>Akiko took the lead.
>What is all this about, Hida-san?
>I believe I have learned the extent of the Scorpion plot today.
>Oh? I thought they were up to something.
>Sen stroked his beard.
>So then, Hida-san, what were they up too?
>They were trying to kill Kakita Sakurada.
>Sen blinked.
>I saw Sakurada shuffle from one foot to the other.
>Akiko fluttered her fan.
>By picking a fight with a Lion clan courtier?
>How did you come to that conclusion?
>Several things.
>Ikoma Gohei-san, it was the Scorpion that first insulted you, correct?
>Hai, Hida-sama.
>I believe the Scorpion anticipated your prudence, Ikoma Sen-san.
>But they also anticipated that Sakurada would use the opening to try to befriend the Lion.
>Sen nodded along.
>Yes, that much is plausible.
>Sen glanced over at Akiko.
>Though, just to be clear, the Lion truly do not wish to involve themselves in this matter.
>Yoshi-san's poor choice of words after his bout with Hida Ishigaki-san may have given people the wrong idea.
>He was simply asking for the best healer in the castle, nothing more...
>Akiko-san nodded.
>I understand Ikoma Sen-san.
>And I apreciate your candor.
>Still, if you had not been so cautious it would have been Yoshi-san, and not Sakurada-san who would face the Scorpion.
>Sen nodded slowly.
>That is, of course, assuming that the Scorpion would have still been willing to dishonor himself by killing in a first blood duel.
>Katsuie-sama spoke again.
>Forgive me for interrupting, but Bayushi Kentaro was never going to slay his opponent.
>Not in the duel, anyway.
>I could swear the temperature in the room dropped a few degrees as the implication of what Katsuie-sama just said settled in.
>How do you know this, Hida-san?
>Katsuie-sama turned to us.
>Hida Naomi-san?
>Hai. I saw the venom glistening off the Scorpion's blade.
>There was a lot of fidgeting.
>Akiko spoke.
>Naomi-san, no one else saw this.
>With all due respect, Doji-sama, no one else is a water tensai.
>Akiko's fan fluttered.
>She exchanged glances with Sen, who raised his eyebrows in a 'she's got a point' way.
>Katsuie-sama continued then.
>The schemes of the Scorpion are typically quite complex, and require certain people to react in just the right way.
>However, victory over one of the Kenshinzen in an Iaijutsu duel is a bit much to ask for.
>However, by donning armor for the duel Kentaro gave himself an opening to land a single blow.
>He could even have claimed he did not realize he was injured and struck late.
>Then the venom would do it's job.
>Hours later, the Crane would lose their strongest duelist.
>Sen finished for him.
>And the threat of a Kakita blade IS one of the Crane clan's best weapons in court
>Akiko looked at him.
>You wound me, Ikoma Sen-san. Our duelists are not our only strength!
>Sen chuckled. It's true that you use words more than steel in court, Doji-san.
>It's also true that the threat of him keeps people from thinking to try steel when your words are superior.
>Well... I must admit that is true.
>Akiko bowed to Katsuie-sama.
>Hida-san, I must thank you. Your subordinates swift actions have saved the life of my own.
>Sen stroked his beard.
>You know what?
>I do not think I will allow this to go unanswered.
>Katsuie-sama and Akiko both looked at him
>If what you say is true, and I am inclined to believe it is, then had I allowed Yoshi to act, it would have been HIM that was poisoned.
>In any event, the Scorpion used us as pawns in their scheme.
>He turned to Akiko and bowed.
>You now have the full support of the Lion, Doji-san.
>After the meeting Naomi, Toshiro and I discussed what we should do.
>Do we tell Mantis-san and Kitsuki-san?
>Naomi nodded.
>We should at least let them know, even if they do already.
>Toshiro scowled.
>Maybe Amano can convince them to back off before they try to do something to you?
>I really hadn't thought of that.
>He DID owe me though...
>We agreed to bring it up at lunch. That would get awkward, one way or another.
>We took our usual private lunch together.
>Toshiro started us off.
>So...Kitsuki-san.
>Yeah?
>Did you see the poison on Kentaro's blade?
>Kitsuki-san coughed up some rice.
>Amano remained calm.
>Kitsuki-san looked over at Amano in shock.
>Did YOU know?
>Amano shook his head.
>I was not made privy to any of the plans surrounding that duel.
>Kitsuki-san looked hard at his friend.
>Okay.
>Mantis-san and Monkey looked around.
>Someone want to fill us in already?
>Namoi, Toshiro and I took turns filling everyone in.
>Amano got some harsh looks.
>Kitsuki-san spoke up.
>They didn't tell him.
>Because I would have found out if they had.
>Monkey spoke up then.
>Alright, I'll believe you. But aren't the Scorpion going to be pissed that Ishigaki-san screwed up their plan?
>And now the Lion are in the War faction?
>Mantis-san scowled.
>The Scorpion never forget, and never forgive.
>Yoritomo Aramasu proved that to our clan.
>Naomi looked to Amano.
>Is there anything you can do about this?
>Amano frowned.
>I... I do not know.
>I can at least try though.
>I do owe you Ishigaki-san.
>But I can make no promises.
>I nodded.
>Alright then. Good enough, I suppose
>I decided I was going to sleep in my armor for a long time to come, just in case.
>Toshiro coughed.
>Now then. We think we've got another Tsukai running around.
>Chopsticks hit the table
>Uh...
>When did this happen!?
>Just before the excitement with the Scorpion.
>Mantis-san growled.
>It never rains, but it pours...
>Toshiro finally told us his plan to catch the Tsukai.
>It's simple really. We just get the fucker to make a move.
>It's easier to pick out something that's moving than something that's standing still.
>So we make noise. We let everyone know, and that naturally includes him, that we're looking for another Tsukai.
>That makes him scared, he starts trying to cover his tracks, and we catch him trying to dispose of the evidence.
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>Yes... yes, that could work.
>He knows that while physical evidence isn't admissible I can use it to find him. He wouldn't want that.
>Too much scrutiny and he'd be bound to slip up sooner or later...
>Monkey raised his hand.
>Do we have any idea WHY they're going after her again?
>Toshiro frowned.
>Well, we're making assumptions but if THEY are Bloodspeakers like we suspect he could want nothing more that to tempt her to joining the cult to achieve her vengeance.
>It wouldn't be the first time someone desperate for revenge turned to blood magic, and Bloodspeakers often pass the price of their magic off to their subordinates...
>Monkey went wide eyed.
>Damn.
>You said it Monkey.
>Okay then.
>We had our plan, such that is was.
>I decided to do my part with my usual subtlety and tact.
>OI! Keiji-san!
>CATCH!
>Keiji's reflexes kicked in and he grabbed the finger of jade I tossed at him out of the air.
>The hell?!
>Ok, good.
>Just looking around for a Maho-Tsukai.
>NAILED IT.
>Everyone! If you would all just grab this jade here for a moment, we can clear you of any suspicion and move right along.
>I shouted over the protests
>No, I'm not saying any of you are Tsukai!
>Just that the Jade Magistrates have determined there may be another one about.
>So this is the quickest way to find them!
>More than a few glares, shouts, cries of insulted honor.
>But then, Keiji growled at them.
>Hey! I already took the damn test, and it's no big deal! Or do you have something to hide?
>He whispered to me.
>I like the way you work Ishigaki-san!
>As I had hoped, once the OTHER scary giant had gone through with it, he wasn't about to let anyone weasel out.
>So the two of us were able to quickly clear the room.
>I bowed from the waist, and apologized for wasting everyone's time.
>After all, that's just good manners, and I was nothing if not well mannered.
>Once I reported to Toshiro that I had done my bit we scattered through the castle, watching and waiting.
>C'mon you bastard... show yourself.
>Monkey, Mantis-san, and Amano were actively hunting, and being sneaky fucks about it.
>There had been a bit of protest from Kitsuki-san when I demanded we jade test Amano before making him a part of the investigation.
>Amano himself surprised me by grabbing the jade without hesitation.
>I found his eagerness to dispel any suspicion deeply suspicious.
>But since I was counting on him to redirect the Scorpion Clan's wrath I kept my trap shut.
>Toshiro and Naomi alternated staying with Ayame, so that she was never without spiritual protection.
>Katsuie-sama insisted on speaking with me, once word spread about what we were doing.
>Ishigaki-san, what exactly...
>He cut off as I held out my finger of jade.
>Among Crabs, it wasn't an insult to demand a test of jade.
>Even if it's someone testing their own superior.
>Hell, among the Kuni, blasting each other with a Jade Strike is perfectly acceptable way to say hello.
>He grabbed it and finished speaking.
>... are you all doing?
>I jerked my head to the entourage.
>Everyone sighed and rolled their eyes as they grabbed the jade.
>Save Saji, who pulled out his own finger.
>He shrugged.
>I like to always be prepared...
>You remember Shiba Ayame, right Katsuie-sama?
>He nodded.
>Toshiro thinks she's under another Maho assault.
>What, why?
>She's been having very bad dreams, but neither he, nor Naomi have been able to find any cause, despite it looking like a magical curse.
>Katsuie-sama nodded. He was an old veteran who understood how shugenja had to spot the work of Kansen.
>We're operating under the assumption that his plan was to weaken her mind with nightmares and sleep deprivation, then tempt her with maho.
>I wasn't sure how many people here knew the truth of what happened, so I decided I would just say it.
>Secrets are for Scorpion and Oni after all, not Crab.
>What happened to her at the Kenjutsu tournament was no accident
>And Naomi COULD have saved Ayame's eye, if they had let her.
>A few surprised looks, others only had suspicions confirmed.
>Katsuie-sama showed the sharp insight of a veteran of the courts though.
>So, you think this is not just another Tsukai, but a Bloodspeaker?
>That got some attention.
>He explained over his shoulder to his entourage.
>Bloodspeakers know full well the price of using Maho, and to keep themselves from falling into Jigoku's control they make their subordinates pay that price.
>Wide eyes.
>Katsuie-sama scratched at his missing arm.
>I once battled a Bloodspeaker cell, long ago...
>He shook off the old memory.
>A story for another time.
>I know you don't need my permission to proceed Ishigaki-san, but know that you have my blessings.
>A pained look crossed his face.
>Just... please try to be a bit more polite in the future?
>I'll certainly try, Katsuie-sama.
>He did not seem reassured.
>Our hunt lasted several days.
>The Bloodspeaker we pursued was no fool.
>Had he been, he would have been caught long ago after all.
>We were gambling the constant pressure would cause him to make a mistake sooner or later.
>The steady glares of those who resented the implications of our investigation told us we had a time limit of our own.
>Sooner or later someone would raise a stink, someone whose complaints it would be unwise to ignore.
>Even if we were well within our rights to do so.
>In the meantime, events at court were reaching a fever pitch.
>Large gatherings were becoming a rarity, as small groups of courtiers huddled together whispering, and letters practically flew back and forth.
>Indeed, one could hardly walk through the halls without tripping over a servant bearing a letter.
>Between our investigation and the rising tensions of the court, tempers began to flare more and more often.
>Several duels were fought, some part of the politicking, others just angry samurai going at it.
>I'd had enough of that crap though, and kept well away from it.
>There were also rumors of the next contest. Everything was very hush-hush, and no one could tell where the gossip started, but everyone knew it required much preparation.
>After four days we found our target. And in a way we never saw coming.
>I didn't have much to do, really, so I went to dinner a little early.
>No one else had arrived yet.
>There was a letter on the table addressed to Kitsuki-san.
>I looked around.
>Well, everyone reads these things anyway, right?
>I unfolded it.
>And I read it.
>And I dropped it.
>And I ran to the rooms where the Scorpion were staying.
>Without preamble or announcement I threw open door after door, until I got the right one.
>Bayushi Amano looked up at me, sans mask.
>His eyes tight with pain.
>Blood on the tatami.
>Wakizashi in his hands.
>This...hurts a bit...
>He coughed, trying to hold it in.
>I was amazed he wasn't screaming.
>I can't... quite... get the next... one...
>C-c-could you...?
>You fucking MORON!
>I picked him up, and he did scream then.
>NAOMI!
>I ran out, holding the bleeding Scorpion, wakizashi still in his guts.
>NAOMI!
>Needless to say, quite a crowd formed up behind me, more than a few wondering if they should try and stop me.
>NAOMI!
>It's a good thing I can bellow as loud as I can.
>It's a good thing Naomi, being a water tensai, could move as fast as she could.
>It's a good thing Amano was fading in and out of consciousness, so I didn't have to listen to him explain why I shouldn't try to stop him.
>When we ran into one another, Naomi took one look and yanked out a scroll.
>I pulled the blade from Amano, who coughed up more blood.
>Naomi shouted her prayer, and in a flash of blue-white Amano's wound closed.
>He sat up, looking between the two of us.
>It's rude to read other people's letters!
>Everyone reads those things!
>The ones being carried by a servant!
>It doesn't matter anyway! We NEED your testimony!
>Are you stupid, insane, or BOTH?
>I CAN'T DO THAT!
>WHAT IS THE MEANING OF ALL THIS?!
>Shoji. Right on time.
>Amano-san! What is going on?
>Kitsuki-san ran up to his friend.
>What were you doing?
>There were a lot of people staring, waiting to hear the explanation.
>Fuck, where to start?
>I ignored all the shouted questions.
>Instead I scanned the crowd.
>And leapt upon the Soshi the second I saw her.
>She went down under my weight with a surprised cry.
>That cut off after I slammed my fist into her face. Twice.
>Then I was tackled, pulled off of her.
>I could hear steel drawn, in the confusion someone stabbed me.
>HER ARMS YOU FOOLS! LOOK AT HER ARMS!
>I couldn't see well, buried under bodies as I was, but I heard several gasps.
>Alright, ENOUGH!
>Get off him! MOVE!
>I recognized Mantis-san and Matsu Keiji's voices.
>Yeah, those two could certainly clear a path.
>SILENCE! I SAID SILENCE!
>Ah Shoji again.
>I felt hands haul me to my feet.
>I winced as I felt hot blood spurt from the wound in my side.
>I looked around.
>Shoji had brought order at the point of a sword.
>Well, a naginata.
>Well, lots of naginata.
>NOBODY MOVE, NOBODY SPEAK.
>Shoji waited for any one to defy him.
>NOW.
>What the hell is happening?
>I pointed to the unconscious Soshi woman. The one from dot battle. The one who had egged on the Ikoma.
>Maho-Tsukai.
>Was all I said.
>Shoji glared at me.
>You make those accusations a lot, where is your proof?
>I looked over.
>Amano!
>...I saw her drinking jade petal tea.
>I can show you where she keeps it.
>Kitsuki-san looked up from where he knelt.
>He was holding up her arm, with the sleeve of her Kimono pulled back.
>Scars ran up and down the length of her arm.
>Then Kitsuki-san looked at Amano.
>Why? Why seppuku?
>She is the head of our delegation... my superior.
>Amano buried his face in his hands and wept.
>She's a Maho-Tsukai!
>I had no choice!
>I had to report her...
>But...
>...I've betrayed the Clan.
>That wasn't all.
>With the head of the Scorpion delegation a Maho-Tsukai, the peace faction was broken.
>There was no hope now. There would be war.
>And Amano felt responsible for making it happen.
>Damn...
>Amano showed us where the Soshi kept her jade petal tea.
>That alone was damning, but Shoji was adamant that we wait for the tea to run it's course and test her before we got around to the business of getting a confession and passing judgment.
>Since we had no proof that the tea was actually her's save the testimony of a single inferior, we had little choice but to acquiesce.
>Like the other one, she seemed to have no scrolls, instead memorizing her maho.
>Unless she knew the best damn hiding place in this whole castle but had not put her jade petal tea there with her scrolls...
>We left Soshitsukai under the eye of several Shiba and a pair of Isawa.
>I don't like it, what if she gets free somehow?
>Toshiro shrugged.
>Then you kill her, Mantis-san.
>Or I set her on fire.
>Or something.
>Regardless, the consequences should that happen are on Shoji's head, not ours.
>I almost hoped she did get loose once Toshiro said that.
>Then his superiors might finally notice Shoji's failures.
>Almost.
>I had a pregnant wife and two children in this castle, so I really didn't want a Bloodspeaker running around causing havoc while trying to escape.
>Nor did I want to risk another double mindfuck hangover.
>We let Ayame know the good news, and I got to growl at the monk again when he suggested she needn't sleep in the shrine anymore.
>Toshiro clarified for me.
>She's had Kansen directed at her by maho for some time now. So one more night just to scatter them. Otherwise they might stick around of their own volition.
>After that, it was back to our rooms.
>Where Amano was trying to convince Kitsuki-san to be his second.
>Kitsuki-san looked up as we came in.
>Help me! I can't make him see reason!
>She was a tsukai, a Bloodspeaker! And I was her subordinate!
>Amano, at least, was already referring to Soshitsukai in the past tense.
>Even though it would be several hours before we could confirm it absolutely.
>And then, of course, get as much information out of her about THEM as possible.
>I got myself a cup of tea.
>Katsuie-sama's habits were contagious.
>You DO realize your superiors dishonor isn't necessarily yours as well, right Amano-san?
>It's not JUST that, Ishigaki-san!
>The Scorpion do not tolerate fools who dabble with maho, and that goes double for actual Bloodspeakers!
>But we're SUPPOSED to handle it quietly, internally!
>I dragged it all out into the light of day!
>And I destroyed any hope for peace!
>Even Mantis-san thought he was being to hard on himself.
>That's not on you Amano-san. It's on my clan, and the Crane, and the Crab.
>Monkey held out a cup of tea for the Scorpion.
>Amano-san... if you kill yourself now, who's going to try and get Ishigaki-san off the hook with your clan?
>Amano looked like virgin that had just had his ass grabbed when they least expected it.
>Uh...
>Kitsuki-san went for the finisher.
>Amano, my friend... please. I am not ready to part with you, and I certainly do not wish to carry such a burden as you ask of me...
>Amano looked down, and whispered.
>You do not know. You cannot know what happens to those who betray the clan...
>Everyone had heard rumors of Traitor's Grove, of course.
>But no one outside the Scorpion Clan knew where it was, or what really happened there.
>Only that, as Amano was showing us right now, it was the single most terrifying thing in existence to any Scorpion.
>Naomi tried next.
>But you did not betray your Clan!
>No, I don't know if I did or not.
>I wasn't supposed to handle it that way, even though she would have been dealt with...
>Don't you see? The simple fact that I don't know means someone might think I did!
>Toshiro spoke next.
>So, killing yourself, on the off chance someone MIGHT decide what you did was wrong, is preferable to what happens if they do?
>Toshiro spoke with incredulity, but Amano looked him dead in the eyes and answered.
>Yes.
>Kitsuki-san bowed his head.
>Who is the next highest ranking member of you group, Amano?
>I insist this not come as a surprise to them.
>That would be very hard to do indeed, Takeshi-san.
>Since that person is me.
>Huh. We'd been eating with the second highest ranked Scorpion in this castle, and none of us knew it.
>And that is also the last reason I must do this.
>For the sake of all the others.
>I shall take all responsibility for these events, and see to it they are safe.
>Please, Takeshi. Grant me this.
>One would seek a very close friend to be their second. There was no insult, no shame discarding honorifics when asking for something so personal.
>Kitsuki-san bowed his head.
>Naomi could not attend.
>Amano felt no insult over that.
>Kitsuki-san's letters had explained Naomi's compassion very well to him.
>The rest of the Scorpion attended.
>Though he was skipping a few steps, they all knew Amano was doing it for their sakes, at least in part.
>Since it was my fault he was having to start over, I felt obligated to see him off.
>As well as to support my friend, who had the greatest burden in all this.
>I was surprised, when Amano asked me to be the one to cleanse the blade.
>I didn't dare disrupt things any further by asking why.
>With Kitsuki Takeshi's help, Bayushi Amano shouldered all the blame for the events of this winter court, cleansed his honor, and went before his ancestors.

Act XXXI: Duelists[edit]

>The next day, Shoji announced the last event of the winter court.
>An Iaijutsu tournament, to be fought concurrently along with a Taryu-Jiai tournament.
>Most likely because you had to have an Iaijutsu tournament, but he also wanted to drive home his point about the power of Isawa Shugenja.
>Toshiro grinned when he heard the news.
>I looked over at Naomi.
>Do not worry, Ishigaki-kun.
>I will not participate.
>Taryu-jiai are too violent; everyone gets injured.
>I had been worried about exactly that, though for a different reason.
>She was worried about hurting her opponent's, I was worried about her, and the baby she was carrying.
>Winter was nearing it's end.
>She'd be starting to show, sometime next month probably.
>Definitely had to keep her safe.
>Oh shit.
>I checked my riceball for ninjas, and realized I was only half-joking this time.
>As if there weren't enough things to be paranoid about while Naomi was with child...
>Monkey was going to enter the Iaijutsu tournament, which surprised no one.
>Kitsuki-san was also going to enter, which did surprise me.
>He saw my surprise.
>I must do this, or I may end up wallowing in my grief forever.
>I nodded.
>I understood. You had to force yourself to take those first steps in the aftermath of loss.
>I wasn't sure if it was good to do so much so quickly, but I trusted Kitsuki-san to know himself better than I did.
>Just don't try to do too much too soon, alright?
>He nodded.
>I won't.
>I brooded on it for a while, then entered myself.
>Oh, I fully expected to lose in the first round.
>But I wanted to apologize for my earlier insult to the spirit of the Iaijutsu duel.
>I had made enough enemies at this court, I could at least apologize to the Crane this way.
>There are times in every person's life when they must do things they truly never thought they would
>Mourning the death of a Scorpion, making nice with the Crane?
>My father was likely shaking his head in embarrassment, if he could see me now.
>When had said concurrently, Shoji had meant it.
>The Iaijutsu tournament would be held indoors, while all the secret fuss had been in regards to the Taryu-Jiai tournament.
>A wide dueling circle had been constructed, a large pond had been dug and many many logs gathered for a bonfire.
>This ensured there would be ample Kami about for whichever element a duelist would choose to use.
>And ensured there would be no widespread property damage from the release of raw energy.
>So the final competition was not just bushi competing with bushi and shugenja competing with shugenja, it was also bushi competing with shugenja for the attention of the audience.
>The biggest shock came when Shoji himself entered the Taryu-jiai tournament.
>Tongues wagged and fans fluttered as that news spread through the court.
>Amongst the competition in the Iaijutsu tournament I saw many familiar faces.
>Matsu Keiji and Akodo Yoshi from the Lion.
>The Dragon sent forth three.
>Mirumoto Kokoro, Mirumoto Sen, and Kitsuki-san.
>Kakita Sakurada was alone from the Crane. One man, one sword, one strike indeed.
>Bayushi Kentaro from the Scorpion.
>Myself and Hiruma Saji from the Crab.
>I hopped Saji would put on a better showing than I could.
>From the Unicorn there was a Shinjo by the name of Kyosuke and the Chibicorn.
>Still hadn't caught his name
>Monkey, of course.
>And two Shiba from the Phoenix. Asahi, and Hotaru.
>The Mantis put forth no one. Not the Iaijutsu tournament, or the Taryu-jiai.
>The number of Shugenja on hand was far more limited though.
>Each Clan, save the Mantis, had only one contender.
>In order to make sure there were no bias the Phoenix sent two. Shoji, and one Agasha Hoichi.
>Mantis-san scratched his chin.
>Surprised Shoji didn't bring out a half dozen or more Phoenix for the shugenja duels.
>Naomi shook her head.
>You should not be. It would smack of desperation, to simply outnumber everyone else.
>No. Father would go for quality over quantity, every time.
>I watched Kitsuki-san's duel.
>Mostly out of concern for his mental state.
>He faced Keiji in his match.
>Though I have no great skill at reading swordsmanship, I had an advantage.
>I had known Kitsuki-san for years, and I had already crossed blades with Keiji.
>I could see Keiji was better than I expected, but I didn't think he could beat Kitsuki-san.
>Unless of course...
>I looked from Keiji to Katsuki-san.
>His stance was fine.
>But I saw a shimmer in his eyes.
>They were watering.
>I snapped my gaze back to Keiji.
>He had noticed.
>Keiji frowned, then pulled his blade as he lunged forward.
>Kitsuki-san closed his eyes as he drew his one blade.
>A tear spilled over.
>And Keiji's blood hit the floor.
>Keiji looked down at the light scratch on his chest, blade still half in it's sheath.
>The hell...?
>He spun around.
>Keiji was the kind of person who enjoyed a good fight, win or lose.
>He had been offended when Kitsuki-san seemed to be handicapped by his own emotions.
>Now he was incredulous that he had lost.
>Not because he had lost, but because it meant he had completely misread the situation.
>Tell me HOW, Dragon!
>Kitsuki-san sheathed his blade and bowed.
>I watched your fight with Ishigaki-san closely.
>I never forget anything.
>Your nostrils flare just before you strike.
>Keiji stared, mouth hanging open.
>He blinked, slowly.
>Then he broke out laughing.
>Man! A Crab I couldn't crack open and a courtier who really CAN use their mind as a weapon!
>He shook his head,a rueful smile on his face.
>This was one hell of a winter court!
>Keiji bowed to Kitsuki-san.
>As Kitsuki-san walked past me, I whispered his name.
>Not now...
>I must meditate, Ishigaki-san.
>I watched Kitsuki-san leave, not knowing if I should press or let it be.
>Then I had no time to worry about Kitsuki-san, because my match was up next.
>I pulled my arms out of my kimono as I entered the ring.
>Not because I was trying to scare my opponent, but because I was showing there would be no hiding an injury for me.
>Of course, staring at my opponent, I began to want my armor very, very badly
>Since, you know, Bayushi Kentaro over there had quite a few reasons to dislike me.
>I was reminded that Shoji wanted ME to die just as badly as I wanted him to.
>We took our stances
>I suppose I could have bowed at this point.
>Conceded that his skill was superior and walked away without risking anything.
>But I can be just as stubborn as Shoji.
>I looked at Kentaro.
>Yep, he hasn't gotten markedly worse since we last fought.
>Oh fuck it, I'm not standing here all day.
>The skin beneath my left eye split open, and blood flew.
>I glanced down at my hands.
>I had managed to draw my blade all the way.
>But I hadn't gotten my second hand on the grip.
>Then I looked over my shoulder.
>Kentaro stood behind me, back to me, sword held out to his side and point down.
>I looked very closely.
>No venom.
>I see.
>I sheathed my blade and bowed.
>Then I wiped the blood from under my eye with a thumb and left.
>Monkey walked past me, heading into his match.
>Toshiro's up.
>You should be there for him.
>I'll look after Kitsuki-san.
>You sure you can do that AND fight at the same time?
>He grinned at me.
>Seems kinda hard, doesn't it?
>...
>God.
>Dammit.
>Monkey.
>I went to see Toshiro fight.
>He was up against an Asahina.
>Be at ease Kuni-san, my element is the wind. I will not hurt you when I defeat you.
>And I promise I'll try my hardest not to kill you...
>Toshiro looked the Crane up and down.
>...Twig-san.
>That's Toshiro for you; always considerate of others.
>Chunks of earth ripped themselves free from the ground, floating around Toshiro in a spiral as his eyes blazed with green fire.
>The Crane folded his hands together, head bowed and eyes closed, and his Kimono and hair began to whip about dramatically.
>Aside from that, I could see no hint of the Crane's power.
>Who was it that first said 'Only a fool thinks the wind is empty.'?
>Then the earth flew.
>Toshiro's kimono flapped and snapped.
>A few tears opened in the silk.
>And the tie holding back his hair broke.
>Toshiro has VERY long hair.
>Loose, it hangs down below the center of his back.
>Now it blew back, as though he stood facing a Hurricane.
>Toshiro himself leaned forward a bit, into the wind.
>Then the wind died.
>I looked over at the Crane.
>I could see one foot and an arm poking out from the mound of earth that covered the Asahina shugenja.
>Toshiro bowed to his defeated opponent.
>Growled as his hair spilled over his shoulders.
>Reached into his obi and pulled a spare tie.
>And quickly rebound his hair.
>As he left he spoke.
>Only a fool thinks they blow down the mountain.
>As Phoenix shugenja swarmed over the battlefield, both to use magic to return it to it's original state and to heal the Crane, he noticed me.
>Worried about me, were you?
>Nah, I know you can handle yourself.
>I just wanted to see you show off.
>I grinned at him.
>He chuckled.
>Then sobered up.
>How's Kitsuki-san?
>He won.
>Matsu Keiji.
>Toshiro grunted.
>Monkey's duel was up at the same time yours was.
>Shall we?
>As we headed back Toshiro looked over at my eye.
>Kentaro.
>I lost.
>No poison then.
>Nope.
>What was he trying to say?
>Lots of things Toshiro. Warriors speak with their fists, or their steel.
>Pretty sure 'I will fucking end you if I ever have a legitimate reason to do so' was in there though.
>So... if you two ever find yourselves on opposite sides of a battlefield he'll try to hunt you down and kill you. But aside from something like that you're safe?
>From him, at least.
>Toshiro nodded.
>We arrived in time to see Monkey and Shiba Asahi bowing to one another.
>I recognized the confused look of a victim of Monkeyjutsu right away, even before I saw the blood running out of Asahi's sleeve.
>The first round was over for us.
>I was out already, everyone else went on to round two.
>Saji did indeed give forth a better showing than I did.
>He beat Shiba Hotaru to enter the second round.
>Aside from Kitsuki-san, Kentaro and Monkey, Kakita Sakurada, Mirumoto Sen, and Akodo Yoshi all advanced.
>Mirumoto Kokoro was eliminated by Yoshi.
>There was time in between rounds. So Naomi led us all in a tea ceremony. Soothing wild spirits, calming turbulent emotions, seeking out balance and harmony.
>Naomi had definitely succeed in culturing me, if only a little bit.
>I was starting to enjoy the taste of matcha.
>Kitsuki-san would face Akodo Yoshi.
>Monkey got the bye.
>Mantis-san rolled his eyes.
>Luck really is a skill for him.
>And you, Toshiro-san? Who do you face?
>That Agasha. Your father beat the Kitsu in the first round, and now he's facing a Tamori.
>Kitsuki-san scowled.
>Hmph.
>So he puts one Phoenix on either side of the brackets?
>He still hedges his bets, even though he does not flood the competition with Phoenix.
>Monkey leaned in and whispered to me.
>I've got the bye so I'll be there for Kitsuki-san.
>I nodded.
>Mantis-san covered Monkey whisper with a question, so Kitsuki-san wouldn't notice.
>We were worried, but we didn't want to be intrusive.
>We might end up in a barrel if we annoyed him.
>So, Toshiro-sama.
>Think you can take Shoji?
>Toshiro folded his arms in thought.
>Depends.
>On what?
>How much he let his studies fall by the wayside to spend time politicking.
>Naomi frowned.
>Appointment to the Council is still based on merit.
>Politics only serves as a tiebreaker.
>Do not underestimate him.
>Toshiro nodded.
>I watched the shugenja duels.
>Toshiro and Agasha Hoichi squared off.
>Neither said anything, they just drew upon the kami.
>As Hoichi's eyes blazed the bonfire beside the arena flared up, higher and higher, until it threatened to set alight the very heavens.
>Pillars of stone erupted all around Toshiro.
>Hoichi snapped his hand out, pointing at Toshiro, and the flames leapt from the bonfire, rushing towards him.
>The spires of rock surrounding Toshiro closed, on him.
>Hoichi's flames washed over them, burning so hot that my vision swam back and forth as I tried to look.
>The rocks began to glow, a bright red and soften.
>Then I heard a cry.
>Not from within the earthen fortress, but from Hoichi.
>Heads turned quickly.
>A spire of rock had erupted right beneath Agasha Hoichi's feet, launching him into the air.
>The flames died, and the stone fortress, now almost completely molten, flowed down and away from Toshiro.
>He was seating hard, his Kimono was blackened and his hair singed.
>Toshiro took a step, and wobbled a bit.
>But kept himself upright, and left the ring under his own power.
>As Naomi tended to his burns and helped replace the water he had lost he grinned at me.
>Now I know what it's like to be a baked sweet potato.
>Hmm. You are very sweet; perhaps you were a sweet potato in your past life?
>I think so.
>Naomi muttered under her breath.
>Crabs...
>Then it was time for Shoji to battle.
>He faced a Tamori whose school focused on earth, like he did.
>Furthermore, the Tamori had history with the Phoenix.
>The Agasha family used to be part of the Dragon Clan.
>However, in protest over the actions of the Dragon Clan Champion Hitomi, they abandoned the clan they had served since the dawn of the Empire and joined the Phoenix.
>The Agasha family daimyo, his spirit crushed by the betrayal of his own family, abandoned his duties and wandered the Empire as a ronin for a time.
>At the end of the War of Spirits, the remnants of the Agasha still within the Dragon Clan were renamed the after him, becoming the Tamori family.
>His daughter, Shaitung, had led the Tamori down a new path, different from the Agasha from whom they had been born. Turning to Earth, over the Fire of the Agasha
>Such was her power that she once fought all five Elemental Masters to a draw, during the Dragon-Phoenix war.
>The duel did not go as I had expected.
>The Tamori woman quickly began to call to the Kami.
>She was dressed in typical Tamori fashion, after the precedent set by Tamori Shaitung.
>That is to say, she could have challenged Moshi Aoi for title of 'most scandalously dressed woman' were Aoi still around.
>Her hair whipped about in the currents of power as the earth kami rushed to her side.
>It was a testament to her control that she did not also lose what little covering she had, even as her Kimono was blown about.
>However, Shoji appeared to be doing nothing at all.
>No glowing eyes, no winds of power.
>He just... stood there.
>And as the Dragon called more and more earth to her, he snapped two fingers up, and then down at her
>His eyes flashed with power, just for a moment.
>And all the earth the Dragon shugenja had called up slammed into her at once.
>Naomi gave a cry and ran to the side of the injured Tamori.
>I could see blood staining the rocks that almost buried her.
>Toshiro lent his aid, quickly moving the earth aside so Naomi could reach her.
>Shoji did not look. He did not bow. He just turned and walked away.
>Naomi began to cough as she chanted her prayers.
>I ran up to help, steadying her.
>I also got a good look at the Dragon.
>Her ribs were crushed, blood spilled from her mouth, showing that her lungs were badly torn.
>It was a small miracle her heart wasn't destroyed.
>Even as Naomi coughed up her own blood, the Tamori's wounds set themselves.
>The Dragon rolled over, hacking up the last of the blood as her body was restored.
>Naomi smiled.
>You're safe now...
>Then she went limp in my arms.
>I carried Naomi back to our room and laid her down gently.
>The Tamori woman came with us, as did Mirumoto Kokoro.
>She introduced herself Tamori Miyu, and had begged me to allow her to repay Naomi for saving her life.
>She used her earth magic to sooth Naomi's pain.
>That helped Naomi to wake up, and I prepared her tea.
>She's been ill since birth.
>I explained.
>Thank you, ah...
>Miyu. My name is Tamori Miyu, Hida Naomi-sama.
>Naomi looked around, taking in our room and the pair of Dragons currently in it.
>I. Did I...?
>Yeah.
>I said.
>Here.
>I handed her her tea.
>The kids were staring at their mother. They could understand, at least to some degree, what was going on when she had her fits.
>They both sat close enough to touch her, or be touched, but they did not do so in front of the strangers.
>It was a testament to her skill as a mother that those two ever behaved at all, even though it was only the most serious of situations.
>Naomi caught Miyu looking at the children.
>Ah. These are Daiko and Tetsute, our children.
>Hewwo!
>Hi! Hi Hi Hi!
>Eh, close enough.
>Mirumoto Kokoro spoke.
>Hida Ishigaki-san, If you would permit it, I would stay here to watch over your wife and children with Miyu-san.
>Your companions are still in their respective tournaments, are they not?
>I shot a glance to Naomi.
>I am feeling much better already Ishigaki-kun.
>Go! They need you there now.
>I nodded.
>I leave them in your care, then.
>I returned to the place of the Iaijutsu battle.
>I had missed the last round completely.
>Monkey, Sakurada, Sen, and Yoshi were the final four.
>Kentaro had lost to Sakurada, Sen beat Saji, and of course Yoshi was able to best Kitsuki-san.
>His technique is amazing, Ishigaki-san.
>Was all Kitsuki-san would say.
>Monkey gave me a little nod, saying it was just that, and not Kitsuki-san allowing himself to be distracted.
>You can all stop that now, by the way.
>I will not belittle Amano-san by pretending I am fine, but nor will I allow this to sway me.
>I have his shoulder exactly one pat.
>Acknowledging both Kitsuki-san's pain and his resilience without straying into barrel territory.
>The last matches would be fought consecutively,
>Sen vs Yoshi.
>Monkey vs. Sakurada.
>Toshiro vs Shoji.
>And then the final of the iaijutsu tournament.
>And then this long court would at last be over.
>Tomorrow was the first day of spring.
>Of course there was an added complication to the semi-finalists matches now.
>There would not be enough time for them to rest between the semi-final and the final.
>They would need to mindful of this. Expend too much energy on their first opponent, and they may hinder themselves in the next match.
>Not enough, and they may lose a match they could have won.
>Well, the other three would.
>Monkey would just Monkey around.
>Still, a Kensai, a Kenshinzen, and a Taoist swordsman...
>While he would only face two of those three, it was a tall order, even for Monkey.
>Mantis-san leaned over to me.
>Do you think if we bet against him it'll give him a better chance of winning?
>Worth a shot, I guess.
>I put 2 koku on Sakurada, Mantis-san put 4 on Sen.
>Toshiro shook his head at us.
>Then put 3 on Yoshi.
>First Sen and Yoshi faced one another.
>They bowed and took their stances.
>Tension filled the room.
>I wouldn't have been surprised if their gazes has struck sparks, so intensely were they glaring at one another.
>Even I could feel their spirits clashing.
>The truest victory is the one with no strike.
>The greatest warriors and generals alike won before the blades were even drawn, before the battle joined.
>Both Mirumoto Sen and Akodo Yoshi were great warriors.
>I didn't see what triggered it, but they both moved at the same time.
>Yoshi drew his blade, and came in with a simple but fast overhead.
>Sen drew his sword with his LEFT hand, in a truly odd grip.
>Sen placed his palm behind his blade and pushed as he struck.
>Catching Yoshi just below the ribs.
>And getting inside Yoshi's range.
>Yoshi's strike missed.
>Yoshi and Sen bowed to one another.
>Kitsuki-san pursed his lips.
>What is it?
>Nothing. At least, nothing I could put into words...
>Everyone had their limits. Even a thing as ephemeral as Mushin no Shin.
>We all nodded, understanding what Kitsuki-san was thinking even without the words to describe it
>And now Monkey stood before a Kenshinzen.
>The Mirumoto and the Kakita families rivaled one another as the finest duelists in the Empire.
>However, Mirumoto's technique was a practical one, broadly useful.
>Whereas the descendants of Kakita had spent the last thousand years refining their ancestor's single strike technique.
>All that knowledge, experience, training. It all came to rest in the blade of Kakita Sakurada.
>The only time I had seen Monkey happier was when he told me he was father.
>Truly, the fool lived for moments like these.
>The two stood.
>Sakurada took the stance every warrior in the Empire could recognize on sight.
>Monkey popped his blade with his thumb, but let his right arm hang limp.
>Sakurada looked at Monkey with a broad gaze, seeing all of him, his technique laid bare before the eyes of the master.
>Monkey just grinned, like he knew a wonderful secret.
>And then Sakurada's blade flashed.
>I couldn't see the draw, it was so fast.
>Monkey's blade was still in it's sheath as the Crane struck.
>And Monkey fell backwards.
>Monkey caught himself on his hand before he hit the ground.
>He spun his body around, drawing his blade.
>Sakurada's eyes widened as only a few strands of Monkey's hair floated through the air.
>And then Monkey slashed the Crane across the legs.
>The silence was astonishingly loud.
>Sakurada looked down at the thin cut that ran across both shins.
>Then at Monkey, who stood up straight with that grin of his.
>You really are good at doing the unexpected, aren't you?
>You know it!
>They bowed.
>And then the court went outside to see the battle between Crab and Phoenix
>Earth vs Earth.
>The animosity between Shoji and my group, and the fact that Shoji had clearly been willing to kill his last proponent, only heightened the anticipation.
>Taryu-jiai were very dangerous, just as Naomi had said.
>An 'accidental' death in one of those was much more common than one in an Iaijutsu duel.
>Shoji looked over at Toshiro.
>I seem to recall you asking one of my subordinates if they wished to duel with avatars.
>If you are still confident in your power, then let us do so now.
>Toshiro looked on, the nodded.
>Son of a bitch.
>Shoji must actually be scared of Toshiro, if he decided to pass up the normal duel for a safer avatar battle.
>After all, in this form it was the avatars that bore all the damage.
>NOT the shugenja themselves.
>Shoji did not bother with his scroll.
>His eyes blazed as he prayed, fingers folding into a mudra.
>The light spilling from his eyes and mouth was not the earthen tone I expected.
>It was green.
>It was jade.
>His avatar formed, a towering giant eight feet tall.
>Made of pure jade.
>That bastard.
>Toshiro smirked.
>Then he began to pray.
>Also without a scroll.
>Energy crackled and lashed the ground, calling forth his own avatar.
>Blue-white energy.
>A great titan of earth arose, as tall as Shoji's.
>And then the raw earth fell away, revealing a being of pure crystal, glowing from within with a pure, holy light.
>Shoji's eyes widened.
>The two Shugenja stared at one another.
>Toshiro's self confident smirk only enraging Shoji even more.
>Then the two titans began to move, literally shaking the very earth with every step.
>I heard a hiss.
>One of the Dragon Courtiers had bitten their tongue.
>A shugenja picked his way, carefully, over.
>It was hard to walk when the earth beneath you was moving.
>The avatars picked up speed, until they were running.
>And they collided into one another.
>A thunderous boom accompanied their collision, as though Osono-Wo himself cheered for this spectacle.
>The two then began to strike one another.
>Crystal and jade fists chipped at impossibly hard bodies, sending splinters flying into the crowd.
>Some courtiers had to duck, and all moved back.
>I didn't though.
>A few flying shards of mineral meant nothing to me.
>Shoji's avatar struck an overhead blow with both arms, causing Toshiro's to double up.
>It then leapt into the air, coming down with it's fist into the head of Toshiro's as it tried to right itself.
>Toshiro's avatar was forced down to one knee.
>Then it surged back up, wrapping it's arms around the Jade giant's waist.
>Toshiro's avatar slammed it's head into Shoji's.
>Over, and over and over again.
>Cracks ran through the jade avatar.
>It then dug it's feet into the earth.
>And gripped the crystalline titan.
>They looked like two sumai, struggling with each others mawashi.
>Slowly, yet inexorably, Toshiro's avatar was lifted into the air.
>The Jade avatar fell backwards, carrying the crystal one over itself as it did so.
>It drove the crystal avatar head first into the ground.
>There was silence for a time, then both giants rose.
>Both had gouges and cracks, but the light from Toshiro's was as strong as ever.
>The two behemoths stood still for a moment.
>Then Toshiro's, unmistakably, took a stance.
>It was a stance I recognized too.
>It was a Kobo Ichi-Kai stance...
>Shoji's avatar came in swinging it's jade fists.
>And Toshiro's avatar blocked.
>Shoji's avatar punched straight ahead.
>And Toshiro's avatar stepped to the side, slapping the jade fist aside.
>Shoji's avatar tried to grab hold of Toshiro's by the shoulders.
>And Toshiro's avatar drove a knee up into Shoji's, driving it back.
>Toshiro was calmly having his avatar defend itself against every attack Shoji made.
>And I could see quite clearly that was infuriating Shoji more and more.
>The Jade avatar continued to backpedal after Toshiro's avatar drove it back.
>Then it halted, and charged again.
>Toshiro's avatar crouched low, and thrust out both arms.
>The Jade avatar threw itself onto them, unable to halt its forward momentum in time.
>Toshiro's blow struck Shoji's avatar in the hips.
>It staggered back, and then fell.
>Toshiro's moved way faster than the earth had any right to move, and leapt upon Shoji's avatar, sitting on it's chest.
>Then it began to punch.
>And punch.
>And punch.
>Over and over crystal fists slammed into the jade titan, as Shoji's avatar tried in vain to escape, to right itself, to throw Toshiro's off, anything.
>Toshiro's avatar brought both it's fists together on either side of the jade avatar's head.
>And shattered it completely.
>Shoji's avatar crumbled away, as the Kami's vessel could no longer contain it.
>Shoji stared, disbelieving, at the pile of rubble that was his avatar's remains.
>Toshiro's crystal giant walked over to Shoji, looming over him, bathing him in it's holy radiance.
>That shook Shoji from his shock.
>He looked from the avatar to Toshiro.
>Twice.
>Then, as though the very act would shatter his spine, he bent his head to the victor.
>Only then did Toshiro release his own avatar.
>Toshiro stood there for long seconds, as Shoji waited for Toshiro to return the bow.
>Toshiro turned and thumpdraged away.
>Shoji's head snapped up.
>YOU DARE INSULT ME LIKE THIS?
>Toshiro paused.
>Without turning around he said.
>Oh? Do you wish a duel over this matter of honor?
>I looked at Shoji.
>I can now say I know what man who is so enraged he tries to swallow his own tongue looks like.
>Toshiro left.
>I ran up beside him.
>You magnificent bastard!
>I could hug you right now!
>He looked at me evenly.
>I'd really rather you didn't.
>Everyone went back inside to watch the very last match.
>Mirumoto Sen vs Monkey.
>As the two bowed and took their stances Kitsuki-san mused.
>The Taoist swordsmen are very spiritual, but they can also use their blades in unconventional ways.
>If there is anyone here who may be able to anticipate Monkey's technique, it would be Mirumoto Sen-san.
>If the utterly absurd should come to pass and both miss the first pass, this could become a truly strange battle.
>Everyone exchanged glances.
>We didn't need to say anything.
>We all knew full well often 'Monkey' and 'Utterly Absurd' went together.
>Kitsuki-san glanced at me.
>Did you know, Ishigaki-san?
>The Taoist swordsmen engage in body hardening exercises, as you Crabs do.
>I doubt it's done quite the same way though.
>Huh.
>I looked closer at Sen.
>Sure enough, I could see the signs.
>I doubted their technique was the equal of the Hida Ryu's though.
>Both of them took seemingly lazy stances.
>Even I could see the mind games being played by these two.
>Each was trying to confuse their opponent and so, disrupt their spirit.
>Monkey made the first move, charging in.
>Sen sidestepped, drawing and cutting at Monkey's back as Monkey passed him.
>Without a moment's hesitation, Monkey tucked and rolled forward holding his sword out to the side so he didn't cut himself.
>He sprang up. His kimono cut down the center of his back to his waist.
>But Monkey himself was not injured.
>I glanced over to the Crane.
>Sakurada was watching impassively, no doubt committing everything he saw to memory so as not to be caught off guard again.
>Several other Crane however, were pinching the bridges of their noses or rubbing their eyes.
>Yosi was frowning as well.
>Lions.
>They were big on the weight of tradition.
>Monkey and Sen faced one another again.
>Then Sen moved.
>He took his sword in one hand, sidestepping and pulling his blade back.
>As Monkey brought his own blade up to deflect Sen's strike, Sen lashed out.
>Not with his blade.
>His free hand seized Monkey by the Kimono.
>That was a knife fighting technique.
>Seizing your opponent and pulling them onto the blade of your tanto.
>I couldn't believe there was anyone who could do such a thing with a katana.
>Until Sen twirled his blade around.
>He held it with his hand just under the tsuba, the dull edge along his forearm and tip pointed behind him.
>However, I knew firsthand that Monkey understood the messy art of knife fighting.
>Monkey stomped on Sen's foot, and slammed his forehead into Sen.
>Sen's head snapped back.
>Monkey tore free from his grip, leaving half of his kimono in Sen's hand.
>Sen shook his head to clear his vision.
>And Monkey used the opportunity to strike.
>Sen tossed Monkey's Kimono into the air between them, and Monkey cut that instead.
>As Sen prepared to attack again however, Monkey thrust his blade forward.
>And just nicked Sen's knuckles.
>A single drop of blood fell from Sen's hand.
>Once we were able to get through the crowd of courtiers swarming the Iaijutsu champion, we congratulated Monkey.
>And informed him he owed us 10 koku for our assistance.
>Wait, what?
>We bet against you.
>He looked hurt.
>Why would you do that?
>Because the worse the odds are against you, the more likely it is you succeed!
>He blinked.
>Oh... that's true, I suppose.
>Okay Okay.
>Just you three right though?
>Kitsuki-san nodded.
>I had no part in this foolishness.
>Okay, hang on.
>We reached our rooms and Monkey darted in, then came out with ten koku.
>For each of us.
>We had been teasing him, of course.
>We didn't really expect him to repay us.
>But now we had to decide If we should do the honorable thing and correct him, or if we should keep the money to make him pay for the nonchalant way he just threw away thirty Koku.
>Mantis-san was the one who couldn't bear it.
>No, we were just teasing you Monkey, we can't take these.
>Yeah, but you still helped me out, didn't you?
>Toshiro gave in next.
>We... we were joking, Monkey. I don't think it really works like that.
>Oh? Well, the fact that you cared enough to even try is good enough for me.
>Okay, guess it's my turn.
>But, it was ten koku in total. Not each.
>Then Monkey grinned.
>I know.
>I just wanted to see if you'd feel bad or not.
>...
>...
>GOD!
>DAMMIT!
>MONKEY!
>Naomi had recovered quite quickly.
>Katsuie-sama offered to take us via the Yasuki vessel that was coming to pick him and his entourage up.
>We'll be making for the lands of the Crab, but I'm sure we can drop your friends along the way, if they have places to go.
>We were going to need time off for Naomi's pregnancy.
>We set sail the next day.
>One by one, my friends left at their own ports.
>Each promising to try to attend the birth.
>Eventually Naomi, Toshiro, the children and I arrived back at our home.
>We set aside all thoughts of the war that we had failed to stop, focusing instead on the new life coming into the world soon.

Act XXXII: Ishigaki Mura[edit]

>I couldn't help stare as my home came into view.
>Probably because there was a new building that looked suspiciously like an inn right where the old inn of Ishigaki Mura had stood.
>Naomi giggled as I stared.
>Surprise, Ishigaki-kun.
>H-how did we afford all this?
>Assistance from Satoshi-san's wife mostly. We will be paying her back for a while, so it may be some time before I can give you any real spending money...
>But for now at least, we have some income to hire enough servants to look after the children and a Gokenin to run things while I'm away.
>As we approached, the door to my home opened and a man I didn't recognize stepped out.
>How bowed to us.
>Welcome Home, master, mistress.
>Ishigaki-kun, this