One Thousand Years of Darkness: Shadows of the Clan
By Brent Morgan and Nancy Sauer
"Her name will be Kenshuko," he said quietly in the darkness of the room. Taehime looked up from the sleeping child as Koshin stood silhouetted in the morning sunlight, his two long swords tucked at his side. Turning his eyes up to look at his wife the bleached-white hair of the former-Crane caught the wind and danced slightly, the same touch moving his black kimono to reveal the Dragon Clan's golden mon.
Since his return from the Day of Thunder and the fall of the Clan of the Crane, Kakita Koshin had never spoken to her like this: it had been as if all the horror had been drained out of him, leaving a man more distant, but more caring and loving too. Even the black crane that the Togashi had emblazoned on his back when he had sworn fealty to the Dragon Clan had not frightened her, but now Taehime looked at him with shocked and fearful eyes.
"You are not staying," she whispered.
One moment and he was near her, his hand reaching up to feel the smoothness of her skin as he said, "No."
"You are going down there…to fight them."
The Dragon swordsman nodded. "If it were up to me, Taehime, I would stay with you." His words were forced, as if something inside him was dying as he spoke each word, "But this is not my choice. The Obsidian Empire destroyed my clan, killed my sisters. There is no hope for me to find forgiveness…"
His grey eyes flicked down to look at the child for one moment more. "I do not want it; I leave those things to people that can still believe in a better tomorrow. Nikkan will see to your safety and welfare for a while, and then he will join me as well. Do not seek out the rest of the Dragon Clan, for any reason."
She closed her eyes and hated him. "You have carried on the line of Kakita…and now you are going to abandon me and go off to die."
The word was heartless. "Yes."
He held onto her for a long time as her shoulders trembled with emotion; to one side the small child struggled against its blanket idly, not understanding what was happening now. Taehime wept tears that she had bitten back every horrible day since the Day of Thunder; her heartbreak and despair struck deeply into him, but Koshin's voice never faltered or swayed.
"I am a samurai, Taehime, beyond hope, but not revenge." The swordsman's eyes narrowed. "There is nothing left of me to give to the new generation; my duty is to help destroy the mockery that remains of the old."
When he left, the samurai placed a pair of scrolls beside the sleeping child; ancient manuscripts carefully arranged and folded, which would not be opened for years to come. Kakita Koshin had preserved some small piece of the bloodline and teachings of his family…
It was a beginning, but hardly vengeance enough.
* * *
"You are Matsu Rashina, of the Obsidian Third Legion, aren't you?"
The voice froze the old Lion in his place and sent his large bodyguards rushing forward with hands on the hilts of their blades. All three men stared into the darkness of the streets, probing for some glimpse of the speaker. After a moment, when the light of their lantern ceased to gutter, a slender young man stood barring their way.
Koshin's white hair hung down, veiling his eyes slightly. "Now old man, you will pay for your treachery."
Rashina laughed once, a bitter sound that rattled in his throat. The Lion's bodyguards bristled, holding their positions as their master spoke, "It's just a throwback of a misbegotten family of traitors."
"Stand back," the bigger of the two bodyguards told his master. To Koshin, he howled, "Now die!"
The taint that suffused the bigger man had made him stronger and faster than he would have been otherwise; like a raging tiger he charged over the street and cleared the distance between them, attacking his enemy with sword held high.
There was in Niten a move that used the bottom of the sword like a hammer, drawing without cutting; Koshin used it to crush the Lion's fingers in mid-motion. The white-haired swordsman shattered bone and tendons, the motion spoiling the attack, buying him half a moment in time. Whirling with the impact, he tore through the back of the still-striking attacker, his second hand forcing the blade deeper, cutting through the bushi's spine.
As the two halves divided the swordsman was already running, his eyes on the maho-bujin even as the second yojimbo stepped forward to fight.
This time the attack was horizontal, and Koshin ducked with both swords bared. The Kakita blade rose to take the shocked man through the chin and brain, while the sword of his mother was driven deep into his stomach until it broke through. Corrupted blood splattered on the swordsman, and his ears caught the dull ringing of sandals on stone…the sounds of a fleeing man.
Three minutes later Matsu Rashina gasped as the bloodied warrior stepped from the shadows in front of him, his white hair seeming haunting now. Koshin smiled at the sight of the Obsidian Legionnaire so shocked by his arrival. "You should know your streets better than that, Lion."
"I know who you are now," Rashina roared, obviously trying to attract the others' attention, "you are that assassin we have been searching for!"
Koshin thumbed his blade. "I am a duelist, not an assassin." His eyes shown with both the power of the tattoo and genuine amusement, "Now, Matsu Rashina…duel."
Rashina ran. Koshin cut him down.
"Coward," the Dragon bushi cursed as he cleared his katana of the man's blood and spat on his corpse. "It is no surprise that we lost, with the support of people like you."
From behind him, the man heard the hissing sound of weapons being readied; turning, he saw a small unit of five samurai barring his path deeper into the city, their swords bare and shining and two of the men filled with the taint. Dressed in light armor and helmets, these were no mere patrolmen…
These Lion were out hunting a killer, and now that he listened to the distant whistles and shouts of yoriki, Koshin knew that they were not alone. The quiet streets of Toshi Ranbo had been filled with the lanterns and swords of the Obsidian Legions; they had been waiting and hoping for this fight.
"Armor won't save you," he said, "just cut open your stomachs and die!"
"We will never fail our Emperor!" one of them cried.
Koshin no longer smiled. "You are all going to die."
* * *
Natsugusa stood among the broken trash in the alleyway, watching the fight and feeling her heart pound. This was none of her business. She had no weapons. She was a storyteller, not a samurai. She was not a Crane. There was nothing to connect her with this man with his white hair and white-hot fury and nothing she could do to aid him, even if there was.
Suddenly the swordsman staggered as a Lion blade drew a delicate line of blood across his chest. Natsugusa grabbed a loose slat of wood from an abandoned crate and raced out of the alley. Using the slat she tripped one of the guardsman into his fellow, and then whirled on a third and thrust the wood towards his face. The soldier knocked her blow aside easily--and then died, his head swept off with a single perfect stroke. The woman staggered back in surprise and looked around to discover that she and the stranger where the only ones still alive.
"Domo arigato," the white-haired man said, bowing after wiping his katana and sheathing them.
Natsugusa felt her mind snap back into focus, remembering the large numbers of soldiers she had seen on the streets this night and adding them up with distant shouts she now heard. "You are the one they are chasing."
He smiled sharply, as if she had just told a joke. "Yes, I--"
"No! No talking yet! Come with me." She fled back down the alley she had come, following it as it twisted between tofu shops and rice merchants until it intersected a muddy street that was hardly any wider than itself. Natsugusa paused to listen to the sounds of the hunt, then turned to the man and pointed at the alley across the street. "Stay hidden there and do nothing until I tell you," she said, her voice harsh with urgency. "Do you understand?"
He nodded and slipped across the street and into the shadows. Natsugusa hurried out into the street and calmly laid herself face-first into the mud. She waited until she was sure her kimono was sopped, then pushed herself to her knees and started wiping the mud off of her face. She hadn't accomplished much when she heard running feet behind her and a man's rough voice.
"You! In the Emperor's name, identify yourself!"
"Danna," she replied, keeping her head lowered respectfully and tucking her right arm closer to her body and clenching its fingers, "I am Natsu--"
"Murdering Crane!" the man snarled, hearing her accent, and grabbed her by the left arm. "Kanya! I have her!"
"Her?" said a familiar voice. Natsugusa cautiously looked around. The soldier who had seized her wore the mon of the Obsidian Legion, as did one of the men hurrying towards them. The other was one of Toshi Ranbo's regular yoriki. The storyteller recognized him and allowed the fingers of her right hand to relax, just a little. Matsu Osamu was intelligent, honorable, and a regular at the sake houses where Natsugusa worked. Perhaps, she thought, the Fortunes really did favor idiots and madwomen.
"At last," the second Legionnaire growled. His eyes glowed with the early signs of Taint. "We will show this city what the Emperor does with those who attack his servants."
"You will, indeed," agreed Osamu. "But this woman is Natsugusa, the storyteller, and she could not possibly be the person you are hunting."
The soldiers looked at him in silent enmity. "You are quick to defend this Crane," the first one said, giving her a hard shake. "Where are your loyalties, yoriki?"
"I am a samurai of the Lion Clan, and my oaths bind me to the Emperor's service," Osamu said. Natsugusa heard the thin thread of bitterness in the words. "And I will not let fear of you cause me to fail in that service. 'Kusa! Show them your arm."
Slowly, as if reluctant to obey, the storyteller pulled her right arm away from her body and held it up. One of the Legionnaires hissed in surprise, and Natsugusa knew what he saw: a forearm that ended in a stump, the hand and wrist cleaved off midway through the tattoo that had once marked her as an Iron Crane. In her mind's eye she saw the arm whole, the serpent and spear clutched in the grip of a soaring crane and the fingers that ached endlessly from cold through the winter, because she had no way to glove them. Those fingers now made an obscene gesture at the Lions, and she hastily closed them into a fist. She was reasonably sure that no one else could see them, but it was foolish to take chances.
"What is the meaning of this?" the one named Kanya asked.
Natsugusa simply hung her head, and Osamu spoke. "You can say many things about the Crane, but you cannot say they believed in half-measures. Natsugusa failed her lord, and he made sure she would never forget it. Isn't that right, 'Kusa?"
"My lord was just," she mumbled, a lost soul holding on to one last shred of honor. "I do not contest his judgment." The soldier let go of her and she dropped back to her knees, holding the right arm close to her body again and hunching slightly over it.
"So we've lost him. Again." The first soldier swore angrily and drummed his fingers against his armor in frustration.
"Danna?" Natsugusa said timidly. "Where you chasing someone?"
That got their attention. "You saw someone?" Osamu said.
"Osamu-sama, it was just moments before you and the other danna arrived. I was taking the shortcut to the Liquid Pearl," she nodded towards the alley she had led the black-clad stranger through, "and I had only gone a few steps in when I saw a samurai running towards me. I tried to back out, and give him way--I swear it, Osamu-sama!--but he didn't let me! He shoved me back into the street and pushed me into the mud."
"What did he look like?" one of the Legionnaires asked, excited.
"Danna, I did not see his face clearly, but he must be an older man, for his hair was white."
"An old man?" Kanya said, thumbing his blade. "Or a Crane?"
"Ie, danna, he could not have been a Crane--he carried two katana, and his kimono had a Dragon mon."
"Dragon? Are you sure?"
"Hai, danna. It shone like gold against his kimono. The fabric must have been a very dark green, because it looked black."
"Niten," Osamu said wonderingly. "That's why the wounds on that patrol looked so strange. They were fighting a Niten stylist! 'Kusa! Where did he go?"
"Danna, I could not say for sure, my eyes were full of mud, but I think he went down the street." She pointed in the direction opposite of the way they came, and the three Lions took off at a dead run. Natsugusa waited until she could no longer see them before getting up an walking into the alley. "I live in the garden wing of the Dew Drop, " she said without looking around. "Follow me, but not too close."
* * *
The inn was nothing particularly notable or special; in better days Koshin would have tried to avoid spending the night here, in a small room flanked on either side by the sounds of travelers and thieves. Now, as the samurai allowed his wound to be bound he was grateful for the shabby walls and the heat of a tiny brazier.
Natsugusa looked different in the light of the lantern that illuminated the room; she was not very old, and, like Koshin, would have once been called quite attractive, before fate and worry had etched so much exertion into those eyes. Dark hair and a missing hand did nothing to diminish her noble bearing or calmness with wounds and fighting.
"I don't know where you came from," the swordsman said without moving, "but I am thankful to have the help of a Crane."
The woman did not answer him, looking over his slender chest and at the many marks of old wounds. "You will have one more scar once this has mended," she said after a moment, seeming strangely adverse to facing or saying more to him, leaving long strands of silence hanging in the air.
Koshin just nodded, listening as rain began to fall. Natsugusa started to finish his wrappings, but hesitating, lingering behind him long enough to make the Dragon touch his swords. "What are you doing?"
The Dragon pulled his black kimono on quickly, "I have not thought about it in a long time; I suggest that you do the same." He returned his swords to his obi, grimacing slightly at the pain. "The Togashi told me that it was a marking of bitterness and vengeance…I have found that it suits me well."
The sound of the rain was all around the small building now, soaking the cheap ceiling and in places running down the walls. Natsugusa's voice was subdued, as a warrior's before the strike. "So, you have spent these last months assassinating people, in the name of the Crane."
"I am not an assassin," he responded sharply, hoping that there was some kind of truth in those words. "But if you mean that I have committed murder against the 'Emperor,' then yes, that is the life that I chose. What have you done with your life…Daidoji?"
Her back went rigid, but Koshin simply waited, not saying anything more. He hadn't needed the half-tattoo to know what she was. The way she had moved earlier had doubtless been old Daidoji tactics; even in the melee the Dragon swordsman had seen how she had reacted to the Legionnaire's armor as they moved.
"I shared my decision…now what about your truth?"
It had been a long time since someone had called her a Daidoji without irony, and so Natsugusa paused before speaking, waiting for the emotions that Koshin had stirred to die down. He wanted truth, wanted something that could get her killed, something that could undo all of her careful work. And yet…it was so tempting to share herself with him, to know that there was someone who would look at her and see what she really was, and not the careful lie she offered the world.
"I work in the sake houses, telling stories," she said finally. "Funny stories, sad stories, romances, stories of heroes of long ago. Nothing that involves the Shadowlands, or the Emperor, or the Crane--nothing that would bring me to the attention of the magistrates or the lords. The ordinary samurai come to listen to me--the soldiers, the yoriki, the clerks and minor officials--because as long as I speak, they can forget. The sake may taste like watered vinegar, but as long as the stories last they can be happy."
"That is it?" There was fury on that fine, expressive face, and a look of betrayal in his eyes. "You spend you days bringing happiness to the ones who destroyed your clan?" One hand curled around the hilt of a sword.
Natsugusa saw the hand and ignored it. "And what else can I do?" she asked calmly, waving her right arm negligently. "I am unable to hold a sword, and a coward besides."
"Coward?" he spat out. "You attacked a Lion samurai holding nothing more than a stick!"
She folded her arms over her chest and gave him a bland look. "But I must be a coward. Everyone says that it is so, so it must be the truth."
The swordsman started to speak and then stopped, a look of amazement slowly appearing on his face. "Daidoji," he said at last, in a very different tone than the first time. "Daidoji…you have made yourself invisible to them. You live in their city, and walk openly about their streets, and they never wonder what you are doing because it's only 'Kusa…"
Recognition proved too sharp a pleasure to hold in, and she had to close her eyes while she fought for control. "Only Natsugusa," she whispered, "only the aftermath of a brave clan that prized honor above life." In the silence that followed she focused on the sound of water dripping from the ceiling, letting it fill her thoughts until her heart was calm again.
The storyteller opened her eyes again to see that Koshin had also put a public face on. They looked at each other warily until the Dragon spoke. "But why?"
She got up and dug the wooden block that served as her pillow out of her bedding. Sitting back down in front of him she opened it up and handed him the sheaf of papers hidden inside. Koshin accepted them with a puzzled look, then read the opening sentence of the first page. "This is about Kakita's courtship of Lady Doji," he said. He flipped through the pages, stopping now and again to read. "The story of the first Asahina…Doji Hotei…Hayaku." He looked up. "Stories of Crane heroes?"
"Hai," she said quietly. "By the Emperor's command it is forbidden to speak of them, but I have friends who will buy paper for me. On the days I don't work I write out all the stories I know, over and over again."
He looked at her closely. "How? You weren't taught to write with your left hand."
"Kakita said you must practice diligently."
"Iron Crane," the Dragon said, impressed. "And then what do you do with them?"
"I take them and sell them to the merchants who deal in used paper."
He blinked at her, uncomprehending. "You what?"
"By the Emperor's command it is also illegal to distribute written stories about the Crane. Selling paper that happens to have a story written on the back of it is, however, perfectly legal."
Koshin thought of all the things used paper was used for--household accounts, collections of miso soup recipes, letters to friends and poems written in moments of idleness--innocent, harmless things that one could hold on to for years, and never need to worry about explaining to the Emperor's servants. "They will never be forgotten," he whispered, unashamed of the tears that welled out of his eyes.
"Our glorious Emperor thinks he is the only one who can bring dead Cranes back to life," Natsugusa said, taking her papers back and returning them to her pillow. "He is wrong, so very wrong." There was a deep, passionate savagery in her voice. "He will never know how wrong he is."
"Maybe," Koshin said, an uneasy thought forcing its way into words. "Those Legionnaires now know that you are here. If they get frustrated enough with looking for me…they might come looking for you."
"I know," the woman said quietly. "I should have run away, should have let them kill you. I just couldn't--couldn't--" Her voice failed as she relived the struggle between what she had been once and what she was now.
"Couldn't stop being a Daidoji," the swordsman finished, gently touching the tattoo on her right arm and then pulling her into an embrace. She wrapped her arms around him, and Koshin had the impossible sensation of her right hand pressed against the black crane on his back.
"It's all right," he finally said. "I'll go out, find some more Legionnaires and let them kill me. You'll be safe then."
"Leaving Toshi Ranbo would be just as effective," Natsugusa said, pushing herself away from him.
Koshin laughed bitterly. "And you think you can convince the gate guards to just stand aside and let me walk out?"
"As a matter of fact," the storyteller said, "yes."
* * *
Not much had been said as the two slipped through the dark side streets and alleys that hid the rest of Toshi Ranbo from the Emperor's eyes. The rain had died down to a slow, seeping drizzle, running down the ends of Koshin's white hair and soaking his black kimono to his skin. If the storyteller shared his discomfort, she was not showing it. Natsugusa moved like a phantom just before him, displaying a near-perfect knowledge of the large, winding streets.
"You know, you do not have to do this," he said when they had slipped as close to the gates as guile would allow them. "There are other ways, which would endanger you less. These guards are just ashigaru--I could easily fight my way past them."
Her eyes were cold. "The people that you really want to kill," Natsugusa said, no longer watching him, but instead sizing up the local guards, "are not common yoriki or ashigaru, Koshin. Their deaths would serve no purpose…"
Silence hung between them again, and it seemed to last for a very long time. Somewhere overhead, thunder rumbled, heralding the dying thrashings of the blackened storm.
At last, he smiled, though there was no humor in his words. "Idealism like that is refreshing to me. I will go along with your plan."
Natsugusa sighed slightly, but it was a motion not missed by the Dragon's eyes. Letting her long, wet kimono hide her ruined arm, the storyteller started into the open smoothly, adjusting her gait to appear that she had been walking normally for some time. In the shadows, Koshin's tattoo made his eyes flare up like white embers…it was all he could do to fight against it, as he watched her discussion from afar.
At his side, the Kakita's hand rested on his weapons, gauging the distance and the stances of the soldiers, should the situation sour and he was forced to draw.
That moment never came. The gate guards moved aside and seemed to vanish for a moment, and Natsugusa gestured for him, a smile showing in her eyes.
Outside the walls of Toshi Ranbo, the two dried themselves quickly, knowing that it was only a matter of time before the Legion's morning patrols would begin. Koshin would stand out like a fire among snow with his look and bearing; it was his only chance to escape.
"I did not see my favorite story among your papers," he said after his hair was again immaculate. "I suppose that it is too dangerous, here in Lion Lands. They have long memories, after all."
She looked up at him, as with a question, but the swordsman knew that she would not ask.
He glanced up, like he was searching for something in the Lion banners that flapped in the wind. "When Matsu dueled Kakita for the title of Champion, he did not bow to her, since she had shown no respect to any challenger, of any clan. I remember that my father always told me that he did that to show her humility…to teach her something that someone of her strength would never have found in the blade."
"Now I think how things might have been different…if Kakita had simply finished that duel." His eyes regarded her for a while. "It has been a long time since I have found reason enough to show mercy, or to waste what time is left for me giving lessons to those who do not wish to see."
"We all have our burdens, Koshin," she responded, her left hand unconsciously brushing against her right arm, "and we all fight in our own ways."
The swordsman smiled, half-bitter and half-true. "I did not mean for those words to sound like an accusation, Natsugusa…I meant it as a lament. It is difficult to avenge the spirit of a clan who kept Rokugan living, when the only thing you have mastered is the art of bringing death."
She reached up and brushed the mon on his chest. "You are a Dragon now, but if all you ever found in a sword was death, then you never were a Crane."
He flinched away from her, then gave a bitter chuckle. "No…I'm just another dead Crane, who hasn't been brought back to life yet. " He thought of Taehime, of Kenshuko. "Maybe…I should work on that. Carry the Fortunes, Natsugusa," he said, and slipped off into the darkness.