A Samurai's Face

"… and before we knew it the guards were disabled. The man forced me and my sister out of our palanquins. He took most of our jewelry, except for a few heirloom pieces. From the guards he took any extra weapons, but left their daisho untouched. My sister and I were not harmed, nor did any of the guards get wounded."

"I thank you for your time, Tomiko-san. You may leave us now."

"You are welcome, Nubei-san."

After Otomo Tomiko had left the room Shinjo Nubei rubbed his temples. He sighed and looked at his assembled yoriki. "It seems we are dealing with someone who has enough common sense not to touch someone else's daisho or ancestral items. He is well versed in combat. If six guards cannot subdue him, he either is very fast, or he planned this ahead of time, or he was very, very lucky."

"But where does he leave his loot? Does he sell it? Or hoard it somewhere? Either way we should be able to find something, Nubei-sama."

"Very well observed, Xingto-san. We will check this out. In the meantime we shall increase our vigilance along the roads. This person has already robbed people successfully three times. That is unacceptable! I want him to be found, so we can bring him to justice. You know what to do. Get going!"

After the yoriki had left Nubei rubbed his temples again. He had been a magistrate for nearly fifteen years now, but he never had a case like this. Cases others would attribute to ninja, he'd solve. He had spent his youth among the Kitsuki of the Dragon and even though he could not always admit it, he saw the wisdom in Kitsuki's Method. And now he could teach his ways to his students. Moto Xingto was his best student, but Kiniko, a Horiuchi shugenja, would also come by to learn the ways of a magistrate. Perhaps he could ask her help. Yes, that's what he would do.

* * *

Eyes scanned the caravan. Only two samurai and a dozen ashigaru guards. Several fat merchants and their wares. What would be the spoils today? A kimono, two perhaps, arrows would be useful, a few of those hidden weapons. And the crafts of the artisans would fetch a pretty sum. This one would be easy, without the samurai the peasant would not try anything. "Five minutes," said a gruff voice, more or less to himself. The person to which the voice belonged looked around and nodded, stood and walked lazily towards the caravan: towards the victims and their possessions: the gains.

* * *

Nubei was just discussing the attacks with Xingto and Kiniko when a messenger came running in and bowed.

"Another raid?" Nubei asked.

The messenger nodded quickly and answered, "Yes, sama. A merchant caravan was raided just outside of Toshi sano Kanemochi Kaeru. No one was killed or heavily injured and only very little was stolen.

"Thank you very much, you may go. After the messenger had left Nubei looked sternly at his two pupils. "As you've just heard we're dealing with no ordinary raider. He kills nobody and steals only small amounts, not nearly enough to harm the merchants' profits. It's not a personal dispute with the merchants, but perhaps a simple means of survival."

"Perhaps," started Kiniko, "he has some magical aid, seeing that he is able to take out the guards with incredible speed and stealth."

"Or a monk's training: using atemi techniques to disable his opponents," suggested Xingto.

Nubei nodded thoughtfully. "Things to consider and remember. They would help him very much."

"Him? Are we sure it is a 'he'," Kiniko asked.

"Witnesses say so, we have to assume it is the truth," Nubei explained. "We have too lttle evidence to make any good assumptions."

"I will go to where the caravan was raided and investigate with the other yoriki," Xingto said.

"Then I will speak with the heimin guards," Kiniko said.

"Good, then I shall speak with the merchants."

* * *

Benshin looked around nervously, shifting his stance every few seconds and running his hands along the shaft of his yari. He had never liked guarding his master, but it paid him enough to feed his family for two weeks. Usually his lord would hire several men, but now he probably had some illicit dealings to do. Benshin knew his lord too well, he had been on many trips with him, but he would never get used to them.

"Benshin," yelled his lord. "We are finsihed here. Let's go."

"Yes, sama."

"One more stop and the we're ready. We're goi…"

Benshin heard his master's words turn into a sickening gurgle. He turned around to see him fall to the ground grasping his throat. Behind him stood a dark, smiling figure, Benshin hesitated only a moment, in that moment the killer got away. Suddenly Benshin realized he was screaming.

* * *

Nubei ran into the alleyway and found the merchant he just spoke to lying dead on the ground. His peasant guard only now stopped screaming. "What happened here?" Nubei asked with a demanding tone.

"A dark figure killed my master while my back was turned to him."

"This is serious, my friend. You have failed your lord."

"I know… Can you help me, sama?"

Nubei nodded solemnly.

* * *

"Kiniko-san, can your magics hide somebody from view?"

"Well, yes," Kiniko answered with a frown, "but why do you want to know, Nubei-sama?"

"I was wrong: the raids are personal, someone taunts us and our ability by raiding the caravans and now he's killed a merchant. We are going to see the next caravan safely into Lion provinces."

"How will we do that?" asked Xingto.

"Let me tell you…"

* * *

"Four samurai and a dozen ashigaru; not much of an improvement. One would think they'd learn after a while," said the gruff voice to the air. It would be an easy job once again. No one would notice the patch of shadow sneaking down the hill and towards the caravan.

* * *

The patch of shadow raced across the road and behind him the four samurai fell off their horses. It disappeared in the bushes alongside the road for a moment, but lept back onto the road mere seconds later.

"No tricks and no one gets hurt," yelled the gruff voice at the merchants and the guards, smiling victoriously. But then the guards reached into the carts and all drew their katana! A trick! The figure did not hesitate, jumping onto a horse and rode off. In the corner of his eye he saw three other horse riders appear from out of nowhere and head after him. He spurred the horse and headed towards the contingency plan."

* * *

"Look there the horse is! But where is its rider?"

"Nearby, Xingto. Closer than you'd expect."

"Where did he go then?"

"Over there," Nubei said as he indicated the peasant village nearby.

Six of the disguised samurai had gotten onto horses and joined them. Together they rode towards the village. Once they arrived Nubei addressed the peasants. "You are harboring a criminal! Hand him over or suffer the consequences!"

The peasants remained silent.

"Have it your way! Burn the village, if he has not place left to hide, we'll catch him!."

"Nubei-sama!" It was Kiniko who rode up to Nubei and with a hushed tone she continued, "You were right: this is getting far too personal!"

Xingto rode up to them and interrupted, "Kiniko-san, it is not your place to question! Nubei-sama is right, if they won't hand him over, they are helping a criminal."

"But what if they are afraid?"

"Fear should not cloud their duty to their lord," Nubei said gravely, leaving no room for further contradiction. "Now do it! I do not like it any more than you."

The village houses caught fire quickly and soon all of them were on fire. Before the village had become ashes Xingto had returned with the apprehended villain.

Nubei looked at the black-clad man and frowned, "Do you fancy yourself a ninja, man?"

"No," the man answered in a well-mannered tone, "I am a hero."

"Are you sure this is the one? He looks smaller and sounds less manly." Nubei wished he had a Kitsuki's eye for detail now.

At that moment Kiniko arrived from her trip to the city, she had to tell the magistrates why the village was aflame. "Nubei-sama, one of the caravan merchants has requested trial with a judge. He said that Daidoji Shangen was already on his way here."

Nubei cursed. Shangen was a Crane Kenshinzen of no small renown, but one of the most conservative judges alive. Nubei's methods would not suit this man.

* * *

Normally the marketplace of the City of the Rich Frog would be full of activity. Now it was teeming with people who wanted to see the trial of the criminal.

Shangen started the trial. "Both of you will get a chance to tell your story. Nubei-san, you may start."

"My words are hardly needed. We apprehended this man after we saw him flee to the village. Many can attest to it."

Shangen turned to the other man, "And you, what is your name, ronin? What do you have to say?"

"You may call me…" The man paused to look around with a sinister grin. "You may call me gi… or yu, or jin, or rei, or meyo, or makoto, or chugo."

Nubei exclaimed, "How dare you compare yourself to a samurai! You sneak, steal and kill to further your own gains! You are a thug, not the eptiome of bushido!"

Shangen sat back as he allowed the discussion that had started to play out.

"You accuse me? Where is your honesty? You killed the poor peasant who was with the merchant. He was innocent, but the merchat was a twisted man, responsible for the suffering of many heimin."

"The peasant had failed his lord."

"Where is your compassion? You could have let him go!"

"He faced public execution! A samurai would have seppuku to attone, he had no such option. I spared him the shame."

"You simply spared him the courage to allow him a running chance. You were afraid of facing the consequences."

"You sneak and kill from behind! You are the one without courage!"

"I have the courage to oppose the abusing merchants! I show compassion by giving much to the peasants from which it was stolen in the first place. You, however, burn their villages."

"It was my duty to find you and theirs to hand you over, failing their duty got them the punishment! You have no duty!"

"My duty is to the heimin, to give back some of what is stolen. The silk for a kimono earns a peasant enough to feed his family a week, maybe two at best. A kimono feeds them a whole year. This is where my honor lies as well."

"And rei, where lies your courtesy? You killed the merchant."

"Did I kill anyone but the merchant? No! But the merchant was no samurai, he deserved no courtesy of mine. I give courtesy to heimin, where you only give them punishment."

Shangen cleared his throat and spoke up, "It seems, Nubei-san, that your case is not as solid as you thought. Unless you can make sure that this man is the same man you saw attempting to rob the caravan, I am forced to find him innocent. Eye witnesses say they are not sure it was this person, even though they got a good look at the bandit."

Nubei could not believe this! The man asked for the one thing he did not have: evidence! He needed more time, but the merchant had called Shangen prematurely. Of course Nubei caught him prematurely too, at least, considering evidence. He just shook his head.

"Very well," Shangen said, "you are free to go, ronin, and do no need to account for the merchant's death, since he was not of the samurai caste. I am sure you must've had your reasons. However, do not make a habit out of it."

Smiling, the man left behind an ashamed Nubei.

* * *

Two weeks later Nubei had retired to the monestary to attone for his failure. The raids had stopped immediately after the trial.

Nubei was going to write a letter to Xingto and Kiniko while enjoying the peace of the monestary garden. He sat down with a scroll, ink and a quill when he suddenly heard a sound behind him, but paid no heed.

"You had almost solved the case, Shinjo Nubei." It was the voice of the man they had captured at the village! Nubei did not stop his writing until the man entered his vision. The bandit stopped in front of him and said with a smile, "You had nearly foiled us."

"Us?" Nubei asked with great surprise.

The man laughed and from behind Nubei the large samurai appeared. "Almost," he said with the gruff voice of the man who halted the caravan.
Then a form lept down from the far wall and dashed towards them, when it stopped nearby Nubei saw a lithe and athletic woman, obviously with monk's training. Finally a man appeared from out of nowhere, just like Kiniko made them appear out of nowhere: magic.

"Why?" It was all Nubei wanted to know, he could figure out the rest by himself.

"That, old man, you'll never know," answered a fifth voice from behind and Nubei felt the chill of cold steel going through his flesh and piercing his already broken heart.

* * *

The next day the news reached Xingto and Kiniko: Nubei had been murdered, the only things left near his dead body were the blade that killed him and a letter in his handwriting, bearing only a name: 'Kitsuki Saibankan.'

[To be continued]