"Hai, my Lord." The kneeling form called out from his position on the tatami floor mat.
"You understand, your orders require…the utmost subtly… in this matter?" A black silk mask covered the speaker's face, melding it with the shadows.
"Hai. My lord, you should expect no less," the warrior servant replied.
The masked man only smiled, Yes, he thought, you serve with unyielding loyalty. He reached beside him, picking up a katana from its stand.
"Please hand me your father's sword Sopiko, I would not wish to dishonor his blade with this foul act."
Shuffling on his knees, Toshino Sopiko reached for his father's blade and presented it to his lord. Not once, did his eyes leave the floor. "Yes, my lord, hai. Domo arigato for shielding my father's honor."
The masked man on the throne took Sopiko's sword and placed the other in his hands. The Lord of Shadows and the Toshino Clan, placed the blade from Sopiko on the sword stand.
"Leave now Sopiko, this very night."
"Hai, my lord Shisou-sama," Sopiko replied. He bowed once before standing and then placed his newly acquired sword in his obi. He bowed again before opening the door, and then left.
Sopiko undressed in his small room in the Shiro. He removed his kimono and dressed in loose fitting leggings. He donned a black shirt and a mask that fully covered his features. He picked up the blade given to him by his Lord Shisou, and gazed down at the sheath. It was matter black; it absorbed the light around it.
Kill them Sopiko, but be prepared for the consequences.
Hai, my lord. Any action to further the cause of the family.
Sopiko then turned and jumped out his window just as twilight faded to a moonless night.
Shadows wavered as the shiro guards made their rounds carrying torches. From out of the darkness, a katana blade flashed and the pair of guards fell. A black form skirted the shadows of the castle wall, rushing from the scene of the attack. It then jumped up onto the wall and scaled up and over it, into the heart of the castle.
"But Dunkigo-san, how sure are you the Nigiyaka Clan will fall for your ploy? It requires too much time in the Imperial Court, and Champion of the Nigiyaka Clan cares little for Court intrigue," the adviser Johitomo said to his friend Dunkigo.
"Ah yes, but you forget how dependent the Nigiyaka is on their trade routes through out the Empire; simply have the Emperor regulate trade and they will come to the Court." Dunkigo smiled and sipped his tea; the flawless educate hid the calculating mind of the courtier.
A laugh came from the adviser, "The Emperor himself, regulating trade? You believe he would even consider such dishonorable act." Dunkigo only smiled, staring down into his teacup. "Lord Shisou didn't make you lord of Shiro no Tofondichi for your stupidity Dunkigo-san." Johitomo chuckled again.
A knocking came from just outside the rice-paper door; a servant opened the door and bowed low, touching her head to the floor. "Please excuse me, my Lord, but your cousin Sopiko -sama has come with a message for you." The servant bowed again, awaiting her orders.
Dunkigo looked up for a moment and considered the situation, Sopiko was ordered by Lord Shisou himself to return home from the Imperial Court. That order only came four days ago, how could have Sopiko set out so quickly from Lord Shisou's castle? Dunkigo thought to himself.
After a few moments Dunkigo spoke, "Please show him to a guest room, and offer him a warm meal and a hot bath; if there is nothing else he requires till tomorrow morning, I will see him then."
The servant bowed low and a shiver ran up her spine, she opened her mouth, "Yes my Lord, but he has asked repeatedly to see you, this evening." The servant spoke quickly as she neared the end of her thought; her life hung in the balance if she offended her lord, Dunkigo.
However, Dunkigo again considered the obvious, of course he wants to see me now. The servant would not have bothered me till tomorrow afternoon...but a cold man with cold steel intimidates the weak-minded. More than a man with an elegant kimono and fan. He chuckled again.
"Please show my cousin, Sopiko-san in and bring a bottle of hot sake," the courtier studied his cup again as the door slid closed and the servant left.
Johitomo was the first to speak after the serving girl left, "What do you think this is about? More than just trade caravans from the Southern Nigiyaka lands?"
Dunkigo's features suddenly became cold; his face became inhumanly pale. "Yes, more than just trade caravans." He set down his cup and his posture instilled an unbreakable silence across the table.
Moments later, a knock again came from the door, and the servant girl slid it open. Sopiko stood behind the kneeling servant and he quickly stepped in and bowed slightly; behind him, the door closed.
"Konbanwa, Dunkigo-san," he bowed again.
The Lord of Tofondichi Castle stared up at the black clad man, "Konbanwa Sopiko-san, please sit." He waved his hand to an empty pillow on floor, "My servant will return shortly with hot sake."
"Please excuse me," Sopiko bowed, "but I must leave soon. I bear a message for you from Lord Shisou-sama..." Pulling forth a letter from his layered shirt, he bowed, presenting the letter to Dunkigo.
From across the table, he took the letter and studied it; the seal bore the chop of Lord Shisou. Dunkigo carefully broke the seal and unfurled the parchment; his eyes started to flick back and forth, reading the message. As his face pulled up from the letter, a shuriken buried itself in the courtier's neck. A silent scream escaped just before an aiguchi caused him to fall onto the table. Johitomo recoiled against the castle wall, almost falling out the window. Sopiko reached toward his back, reveling a magically hidden katana; the adviser fell to the floor.
With a flick of the wrist, the assassin cleaned his blade, placing it again on his back. He turned to the door just as it opened; the servant girl returned with two bottles of steaming sake. As she started to scream, Sopiko ran backwards and jumped the table, leaping out the window.
Early in the morning, the servant was put to death. She spoke out against the assassin and stated it was Dunkigo's cousin Sopiko. Other samurai vouched for Sopiko, saying there was no way he could have been in Shiro no Tofondichi. How could the word of a heimin compare to the honor of samurai?
Sopiko awoke and stared out the window as the sun rose over the mountains. He scrambled out of bed and sprinted towards his desk. After several deft strokes, he twirled his writing brush across his knuckles.
A sun rises up
over its Mountains, and yet
one Shadow remains.
He read the haiku again and picked up a book of loose-leaf paper. Placing the newly written haiku in the book, as he turned, the samurai assassin snapped the book shut. A servant opened the screen door, and he walked down the maze-like corridors of the palace. Sunlight crept into the west windows over looking the ocean. The water sparkled...
Beaming rays soak the-
"Ah, Sopiko, I did not think you would be up this early!" a voice called from down the hallway.
Sopiko turned from the beautiful waves and towards the voice; he smiled upon recognizing his friend Sanzo. "Konnichiwa, Sanzo. When I am in the Imperial City, I ways take the time to admire the sunrise."
Sanzo neared his friend; he wore red armor, accented in white signifying his office in the Imperial Guard. He contrasted with the dark black kimono and purple obi Sopiko wore.
"Hai, Sopiko. The mornings and evenings are always breath-taking in the Shining Prince's City."
Sopiko nodded and they both continued down the hallway, turning at seemingly random corners.
"You left suddenly last month," Sanzo stated, eyed his friend as they walked.
"I did, Sanzo. My Lord Shisou-sama called me home; there was a need for great urgency." Sopiko bowed, "If you will excuse me Sanzo-san, but I must attend to His Majesty's Adviser this early morning."
"Of course, my friend. Please, stop by my quarters this evening after my watch. I found a wonderful tea house in the east quarter of the city," both friends bowed and departed.
As Sopiko rounded the corned and faced the huge, ornate doors of the Throne Room, Imperial Guardsmen rushed towards him. One lowed his yari, prepared to spear the assassin; the other charged him and grasped Sopiko's wakizashi, removing the sword from his obi.
"Sopiko-san, I must ask you to enter the Throne Room." The Guardsmen stated. The Guardsmen did not push or touch Sopiko, which would be a dishonorable act. If Sopiko did not comply with the Guardsmen, he would dishonor himself. Slowly, Sopiko stepped forward across the threshold of the doorway.
Scanning the Throne Room, people sat kneeling on pillows; even the Emperor was on the Shining Throne.
Sopiko immediately bowed low, head touching the floor, "Otennoo-sama," he mumbled.
A courtier rose from her seat next to the Throne, His Majesty's Adviser. Bowing low to the Emperor with an alluring grace, she also bowed to Sopiko. A slight smile spread across her face, like one would see on a victorious general. Only Sopiko saw the smile, as he bowed, a fan covered the face of His Majesty's Adviser. She stood, stalking towards Sopiko like a tigress claiming a kill.
The Throne Room of people looked on at the spectacle with mute antiapation. Sopiko only kneeled, expressionless. As the Adviser neared him, the samurai assassin noticed the pattern of her kimono. Crimson red and brilliant orange mingled together, several birds, phoenixes, decorated the silk fabric. Twin bright orange feathers adorned the Adviser's hair, which she wore down across her back, in Nigiyaka clan style.
The Adviser lowered herself just next to Sopiko's left ear, "Thank you...for eliminating my rival for me. I wish there were some way for me to repay you, but the mandates of honor..." She rose again and fanned herself, never taking her eyes from Sopiko.
Mandates of honor? What is honor without loyalty? Loyalty to the very family that rose... Sopiko's thought was cut off.
"This man, or should I say animal, has committed sins against the Celestial Order; he has forsaken his honor." The Adviser looked out across the Room, "He has even allowed his wakizashi be taken from him. His very 'soul', he allowed to be stripped from him; like a peasant being levied for taxes."
Murmurs broke out amongst the courtiers assembled in the Throne Room; the Emperor sat with just as much of a reaction as Sopiko, the Shining Prince's face was cool and distant.
His Majesty's Adviser continued, "This...man, Toshino Sopiko, has brutally killed his own family and clansmen; he walked and slept in the Imperial City thinking honor and justice would not find him. In the very heart of the Imperial Palace, Sopiko believed he could hide from the Shining Emperor's eye."
A new wave of murmurs washed over the crowd, the Adviser smiled to her, winking at Sopiko. A samurai-ko stood up and pointed at Sopiko, "By my honor, I saw him leave Shiro no Tofondichi, leaving from Lord Dunkigo's window. By my right and Lord's honor, I demand an ijaitsu duel to the death to cleanse my Lord's honor." The samurai-ko wore the same black and purple motif Sopiko's kimono was, she was of his clan.
The Adviser quickly took advantage of the samurai-ko's outburst, was shocking, not unexpected for the Adviser. She smiled behind her wavering fan, she smiled at Sopiko and she remained silence. Voices slowly built up from the whispers, Sopiko could make out bits and pieces of what people were saying: "Does he have the honor to duel fairly?" "…How could a person commit such acts?"
Someone from the front stood and bowed toward the Emperor; the Emperor returned the bow with a nod. The man wore a deep purple and black kimono, and a mask of purple silk, in a spider-web-like design. "You are correct, Kimoko-san, the death of your Lord demands his honor be cleansed; but the man Sopiko has proven to be far below the Shining face of honorable action."
His Majesty's Adviser's face had a look of annoyance; her fan flickered quickly as Shisou, Lord of Shadows spoke. Sopiko and the samurai-ko bowed low before their lord and the rest of the assemblage gave a respectful bow, even His Majesty's Adviser.
"You yourself have proven yourself unworthy to carry the daisho, Toshino Sopiko. Henceforth, you will be striped of your family name, your daisho shattered and your name stricken from the Toshino Clan's histories." Shisou walked forward, ignoring his Majesty's Adviser who seated herself just below the Emperor. Shisou towered over the kneeling Sopiko, and tore the Toshino Clan Mon from his kimono. He then motioned and an Imperial Guardsmen removed Sopiko from the Throne Room, and the Imperial Palace.
The sun slowly descended behind the ocean's horizon; Sopiko stared in wonderment at the sunset. Inspiration did not come to him, a white page matching a blank white mind. His emotions dull, and his thoughts drifted.
Kill them Sopiko, but be prepared for the consequences.
Hai, my lord. Any action to further the cause of the family.
Sopiko stood, understanding his next course of action; above all others, the virtue of Loyalty mattered the most to the Toshino clan. Bushido was only as strong as a samurai's heart; the virtues of bushido held different means to each and every samurai. Sopiko finally became able to embrace his virtue of bushido.
He stood and walked from the cliff over looking the ocean, heading inland.
The forest of Shinochi seemed to become darker and more menacing as Sopiko traveled deeper into the woods. Local heinin said the forest was haunted, ghosts would walk the forest on moonless nights and strange birds would call out. What do ignorant peasants know?
On his travels, Sopiko began to dream, of forests, trees and blood. Every night, he would kill someone; last night the Emperor, himself fell to Sopiko's blade. Locations always changed...but in each dream, something was always familiar...
Sopiko felt around in this kimono; searching for his aiguchi. Withdrawing the knife, he began to study the sheath; its color matched the void. The sheath was ebony black, it seemed to sallow Sopiko. He felt as if he was falling in open blackness.
"Sopiko, lordless, ronin dog!" a voice called from behind Sopiko. He whirled to see the samurai-ko, Kimoko, who accused him in Court for the killing of his cousin, Toshino Dunkigo. She was charging straight towards Sopiko, katana drawn.
Sopiko sidestepped the clumsy chop, replying with a low kick, trying to trip Kimoko. His foot never hit its target, just as she appeared, the samurai-ko disappeared. Sopiko slowly circled around trees, he has yet to draw his aigushi.
A sudden strike came from behind a wide tree, Sopiko watched as the blade fell, but never cut him. To his realization, his knife had stayed the sword of the female samurai. Kimoko's katana whirled again, but she fell onto her back before she stuck Sopiko.
He was on one knee, yet Sopiko never remembered falling; his knife was also gone. He jerked his eyes quickly from tree to tree, finally resting them on the dead samurai-ko. The hilt of the aiguchi lay in her throat. He stood and took out the blade, during the skirmish, I must have thrown it. But I don't remember doing...that...
He quickly built a small pyre and burnt the body of the honorable samurai-ko.
With but a single
strike, is the string of life
cut and left broken.
Sopiko took the wakizashi from Kimoko's daisho and buried it in the ground next to the burning pyre. He placed her helm on the small sword and the death haiku on the helm. He offered a prayer to the kami and spirits to calm the samurai-ko's soul. May you rest well in the land beyond, he offered, May you reach your honorable end while I still seek mine.
He left the gravesite and continued; the forest did not seem to end. The only noticeable changes in the foliage, was how tall and wide the trees became. They reached high off the ground, ancient things that have never seen the axe man's blade.
The trees carried Sopiko's thoughts into their branches. "How pristine..."
Sopiko continued to his trek amongst the old growth trees; into a familiar clearing, once seen in his dreams.
"Konbanwa, friend!" a man that sat by the warm cook fire called out to Sopiko. As he looked over the man, he was no more than a heimin. The spirits do favor mortal men and women, but how do they react to those wishing to change the Celestial Order? Sopiko walked towards the man and sat down beside him at the fire; the man raised a glass to Sopiko, offering him a cup of warm sake. He refused with the small shaking of his head.
"You must know, by staying here in Shinochi Mori, people just lose
contact with the world. But isn't that why we came here in the first place, to
escape some sort of-- " the heimin hiccupped in the middle of his speech.
"Sake transforms any man into a philosopher, please excuse Noki, but all the rest of us have heard his rambling for almost a year; we know them all by heart now…" the other four men around the fire laughed softly. The new speaker got up and sat down on the other side of Sopiko, and continued speaking. "I am Yumido, chui of the seventh infantry in Lord Wamono's army. " Yumido bowed to the man sitting next to him; Sopiko returned it.
"There must be so much responsibility as a chui, in 'Lord' Wamono's 'army'. Do you know where I might find him? I must speak with him." Yumido pointed off in a direction behind Sopiko, who bowed and left.
Yumido ran, catching up to Sopiko, "To tell you the truth, there isn't much respect for anyone here." Yumido gestured to the camp and cook fires. "We're just a brigands of thieves. But really, we're just misplaced peasants." Sopiko stopped and stared into Yumido's eyes. They held no glory, or even honor. The eyes of the chui were plain, dark and plain.
Yumido's eyes shifted nervously under Sopiko's scrutiny, as he ushered Sopiko onward. "When I was younger, still living in my village, samurai would always pass through it. I somehow came to dreaming that one day I would become one. Whenever I spoke of my secrete dream to my mother, she would slap me," Yumido rubbed his cheek, remembering his mother's strong backhand.
"Forever, I thought my life would never change, I would work the fields, and die. But then I realized that mortals can stand up, and rise up," Yumido's eyes seem to spark as he spoke. "To rise up against the Emperor and his Celestial Order."
Sopiko nodded at the heimin's words, "You want to have the same rights as a samurai and have freedom from their oppression."
"Yes! Exactly!" Yumido almost jumped up and down with this excitement. "You are the first person to understand me! Lord Wamono says that we have the honor of a samurai, and hearts of courage in battle. Yet the only battles we've had are amongst ourselves; people brawl for the last few ounces of sake." Sopiko smiled at Yumido's last comment; Yumido himself broke out into a laugh.
"You are right, Yumido, there is no honor in thievery. Lead me to this 'Lord Wamono' and I will kill him. I will lead to real battle." The light in Sopiko's eyes became cold and distant; Yumido pointed towards a small hastily built house.
And Sopiko killed the Lord Wamono.
Every morning for six months, the "army" of old Lord Wamono trained under Sopiko. One hundred men grew to three hundred and slowly their numbers peaked at five hundred men. Sopiko believed the time was ripe; the time of waiting was over for his companions and himself.
"Armsmen and soldiers, from your very origins, you have all felt the foot of samurai oppression and injustices. But now, without the birthright, you each have the honor of a samurai, and the duty of a samurai." Cheers broke out from the assemblage of Sopiko's troops. "We now take up that duty, shouldering its burden. But you are not alone under its weight, your brother in arms fight beside you, with the same duty."
Sopiko and his men marched from Shinochi Mori to the Imperial City. With them, they bring the social discrimination of the Celestial Order.
During of the Empire's many festivals, Sopiko's small army concealed themselves as presents and took the east quarter of the Imperial City. With that sector of the Shining Prince's City, they controlled the main streets connecting to the Imperial Palace with the rest of the city.
"I will go alone to the Imperial Palace, you all must stay here until my return," Sopiko gave the order to his gunso, which included Yumido.
"But Sopiko-san, you cannot leave us, at least allow a small number of us to accompany you! The dangers!" Yumido protested.
"Iie! Your loyalty goes deep, but your intelligence…is quite another matter. All of you will order your men to hold the quarter; I will enter the Imperial Palace alone. And in the morning, raise up the Emperor's head for all to see." A smile broke out over Sopiko's face, and his gunso bowed, leaving him to prepare in his room.
Sopiko undressed in a small room with hidden away in the east quarter. He removed his kimono and dressed in loose fitting leggings. He donned a black shirt and a mask that fully covered his features. He picked up this katana; he still had the one given to him by Lord Shisou. It came to him one night in a dream, golden blood dripped from the blade.
He sheathed the sword, and walked out into the streets, towards the Palace.
Blood. Blood on the walls, blood on the floor, the Throne was drenched in it. Who would have known there was so much of the damnable stuff in such an old man? Sopiko thought.
He turned to leave, but instead bowed low, head touching the floor. A dark, shadowed figure entered the Throne Room.
"My Lord Shisou-sama, you honor a ronin with your presence!"
"And you have killed them Sopiko, but are you prepared for the consequences?"
"Hai, my Lord, my loyalty is never-failing to my Lord and Family."
Shisou smiled from behind his mask, yes, you have always been unyielding with your service to the Clan and Family.
"Sopiko, in return for such loyalty, you will die dishonorable."
"There is no honor, my Lord, without loyalty. My Clan and Family know of my honor. The rest of the Empire does not matter. Only my Clan. Only my Family."
Shisou nodded. "Stab out my left eye, Sopiko."
Sopiko preformed every act he was ordered to do, no matter the cost, even unto death.
"They say the Lord Shisou-sama, single handedly killed the assassin of the Shining Prince," one courtier spoke to her friend.
"Yes, but Shisou-sama lost sight in one of his eyes in the battle. He could not save the Emperor, but came in time to avert the death of the heir," the other courtier spoke in a hushed tone, hiding her face behind an unfolded fan.
"The Toshino army showed up at just the right moment, routing the peasant army that Traitor commanded. The Toshino Clan had full control of the east quarter by morning."
"Who will rule the Empire until the Emperor's son can claim the Throne?"
"Rumors are spreading saying every Clan backs the Toshino and their daimyo Shisou. It seems Shisou will become Imperial Regent; ruling in the young Emperor's name."
"How old is the new Emperor?"
"Only of five years of age; the Toshino Clan has taken him from the Imperial City, fearing for his safety. Shisou has taken him to his kynden in the southern Toshino lands. There they school him in art and culture, it is said Shisou himself teaches young Emperor the ins and outs of Court."
"Yes, but the Nigiyaka are to school him in horses and swordplay."
"Bah, who cares of the Nigiyaka clan? I've heard the Nigiyaka…."
aiguchi- a small concealable knife
Amaterasu- the goddess of the Sun
ashigaru- foot soldier
Bokken- wooden practice sword
bushido- the code of the warrior
-chan- suffix, young one, an endearing term for a child or lover
chi- the seat of power, the soul of the samurai
daisho- the katana and wakizasihi sword combination worn by samurai
domo arigato- thank you very much
domo arigato gozaimasu- thank you very, very much
engawa- roofed veranda
eta- the unclean, the lowest caste who do the dirtiest jobs, such as burying the dead
gambatte- fight on
gambari masu- don't give up
gunso- a sergeant in charge of a small troop of bushi
haramaki-ko- heavy lacquered armor
heimin- peasant class
iaijutsu- fast-draw sword technique
Kabuki- melodramatic theater
kanji- characters, letters, runes
katana- a samurai longsword, part of the daisho
kata- a series f exercise or martial arts forms
konbanwa- good evening
konnichiwa- good day
-kun- suffix, old friend
no-dachi- two-handed sword, taller than a samurai
obi- a belt of folded silk
otennoo-sama- great lord, highness, exalted one (the Emperor)
ronin- samurai without a master and honor
sake- rice wine
-sama- suffix, most esteemed lord, master, highness
-san- suffix, honored, sir
Samurai- "one whom serves", the upper class of society, made up of warriors and courtiars, anyone born into a noble family with be of the samurai caste
Samurai-ko- female samurai warriors, trained in the art of war verse the life of a wife or courtier
seppuku- ritual suicide
shuriken- throwing star or dart
wakizashi- samurai shortsword, part of the daisho, the "soul" of the samurai, used in seppuku
yari- a six-foot spear with a flat blade