Ghosts from the Past Never Die
Saibankan exhaled with a shiver as he put down the letter. It seemed as if the Fortunes were punishing him for staying a spirit. First his yoriki tried to do away with him and now he got news that an old friend of his had died. The students of Shinjo Nubei requested his presence to solve the murder, but his duty was elsewhere…
* * *
"You wish to go to Unicorn lands? Why, Saibankan-san?"
"Personal matters, Taro-san."
"You have other duties to the Empire."
"I have spent the last decade in service to the Empire! Now I ask one thing and you deny me?"
"You've known your duties just as long. I am afraid that…"
"You may leave."
Both men looked to their side to see who spoke. What they saw made Taro glare and Saibankan smile.
"Hachi-sama, thank you very much," Saibankan said with a deep bow.
"Do not thank me yet," said the young Emerald Champion. "You will not be able to remain an Emerald Magistrate. You will have to resign from your position." Though this was a serious decision Hachi believed he saw a glint of happiness in Saibankan's eyes.
For all his apparent hidden joy Saibankan only sounded serious. "I know what the consequences are and I am ready to face them."
Hachi nodded. "Then you may go now, as a free man," he said, smiling.
"Then I hereby give you my chains, Hachi-sama," Saibankan said, giving the mon of the Emerald Champion back to the person to whom it belonged and bowed. When Hachi nodded again Saibankan left the room.
When he thought Saibankan could no longer hear them Taro said, "Why, Hachi-sama? He was one of the finest men we had."
"And you gave him the most menial tasks you could find! For the Kami's sake, that man is a hero! Giving him tasks like the ones you gave is degrading. You turned a wonderful gift into a terrible burden and there's no excuse for that!"
"But I… we…"
"We?" Hachi yelled. "So Saibankan was right! There are several people scheming against him. You were giving him those jobs to force him to make a fatal mistake in etiquette. But why? Who are your accomplices?"
"Nobody! And you're wrong!"
"You know what I think?" Saibankan said matter-of-factly as he re-entered the room. "I think you're not who you say you are. You are not really an honorable magistrate."
"You!" Taro exclaimed. "Why did you have to bring Hachi-sama into this?"
Saibankan smiled coldly. "I knew you would not let me go. Besides, your organization does not belong here, in the heart of the Empire."
"What organization do you mean, Saibankan-san?" Hachi asked.
"That's a serious accusation, Saibankan-san. What do you base it on?"
"Why do you think they despise me so, giving me such low tasks? Because I am a spirit! I could upset the Celestial Order and I am not a mortal man. And Tanuko, Jigoku has her soul, knew parts from the lost half of the Tao. Only a few people still know such things. People who truly admire Shinsei, but certainly no Lion sensei."
Taro's pupils widened only slightly, giving Saibankan only a moment to react. It was not enough. Taro fell to the ground and, with a few spasms, died.
"What happened?" Hachi asked with horror written on his face.
"I've seen this before, once. A fake tooth is magically treated to release a poison at will and is then placed in one's mouth."
"So we'll never truly know, will we, Saibankan?"
"I am afraid not Hachi-sama. I am afraid not."
Hachi turned to look Saibankan in the eyes. He had to look up to him, but it felt only right. He then said, "This must stay between us. Taro was quite influential, a bit too influential to let this leak out."
Saibankan bowed and said, "I will be a cage with your word as my key, Hachi-sama." After the young Emerald Champion nodded, Saibankan bowed and quickly left for his quarters.
* * *
Saibankan opened the shoji screen and entered his chambers. Anyone who would enter them would probably think they belonged to a Crab, but nobody entered Saibankan's chambers, not even servants, except he himself. Besides sleeping Saibankan hardly did anything here; he used them mainly for safekeeping possessions and gifts. Especially magical trinkets were to his liking, but not now.
He walked over to his unusual daisho stand and picked up his katana and wakizashi, tucking them into his obi. He then sat on his knees and prayed to his ancestors, asking them to aid his judgement, guide his sword and give him sense of purpose and righteousness. After his prayers Saibankan stood and picked up the blade that had been handed down his family for many generations: Masamichi, an ancestral no-dachi with magical powers. He recited a small prayer that was only slightly younger than the blade and fastened it on his back.
At the door Saibankan looked at his trusted chambers and sighed, not knowing if he'd ever see them again. Finally he took a deep breath, closed the screen and turned around, ready to see what the Fortunes had in store for him.
* * *
"Do you think he'll come?"
"I would not worry about that, Kiniko-chan. Tadaji-sama assured me they were good friends at Nubei's funeral."
Kiniko sighed as she looked sadly at Xingto. "It is just that I feel so helpless. We could do nothing to save Nubei. Twice. Will this Saibankan character see us as anything else but evidence?"
Xingto laughed heartily. "Really Kiniko-chan, you should not judge people before you've even met them!"
Kiniko folded her arms across her chest and turned away. "I'm sorry, but the idea of the Dragon just doesn't feel right. I've never understood them."
"He is a Kitsuki, they are the most wordly of them," Xingto said with a smile.
"He is a Kitsuki, and he has arrived," said a new voice.
Both Xingto and Kiniko whirled around to see who it was. Standing at the other end of the small courtyard of Nubei's estate was a large man with stern features and scrutinizing green eyes. A smile crept across his face, like the Sun across the sky, lightening his stern features to show friendly ones.
"You must be Xingto and Kiniko, Nubei told me about the two of you. Greetings. I am Kitsuki Saibankan." Saibankan walked over to the pair and gently closed Kiniko's opened mouth before he bowed to them.
Xingto got his tongue back first, bowed and said, "My apologies, Saibankan-sama, we had not expected you to arrive this timely."
"How did you get here so fast?" Kiniko asked, a bit taken aback by Saibankan's actions.
"The Way of the Dragon is a mysterious one, young one. Travel is something that needs not last long, with the proper powers."
"Wh-what?" Xingto and Kiniko stuttered almost in chorus.
"You Unicorn aren't the only Clan with fine steeds. As a former Emerald Magistrate my horse is of the finest stock. The finest stock outside of Unicorn lands, that is."
The two Unicorn looked strangely at each other and then at Saibankan, who just smiled. Kiniko was the first to respond, "Saibankan-sama, would you like to come in for some tea?"
"No. Not unless you stop calling me sama. I hate that."
"Saibankan-san, would you like to come in for some tea?
"Yes, I would very much like that."
Xingto shook his head and laughed at Kiniko's confused expression. He opened the shoji screen to allow entrance into the house.
* * *
"From what you tell me, I strongly believe there are at least two or more of these ronin 'bandits'."
"We never saw more than one, Saibankan-san. Are you sure?" Xingto asked.
"Quite. Nubei was about to write when he noticed something that made him stop before he had begun. That's the dot of ink right over there on the paper, the ink brush rested there for a moment. He then recognized who it was, I'll assume it was the man you had captured at the village, and wrote down my name casually. He didn't hurry himself, even though he guessed the purpose of the visit: his death. He probably conversed with the man, since he was oblivious to the person behind him who stabbed him. That person was also a samurai as he let Nubei go before he died and none of them moved him to see what he had written. They must obviously think they are too good to touch the dead. You did good to note the details, or at least have the eta do so. His blood ran down his back, meaning he was in a more or less upright position, such as hunched over a stone like the one he was writing on. But why kill a man who was already dead to the world?"
"Perhaps he knew too much?" Kiniko suggested.
"No… Then they would've come after you two too. And he didn't think anything special about these acts until the moment they came to kill him, else he would not have written down my name. You said that you were not sure the man you saw at the caravan and the man you caught at the village were one and the same. Obviously the one who was caught was the more eloquent and was able to convince the judge to let him go. Now that we're speaking of it, who was the judge?"
"Daidoji Shangen," Xingto answered.
Saibankan sighed. "Impossible."
"I saw it with my own eyes," Kiniko protested.
"Shangen has been struck ill. He has been bed-ridden for the past two months or so. You've been deceived. It was probably a shugenja, so that means that there are at least three of them, or one of the two men was a shugenja."
"Certainly not," Kiniko said firmly, "I have seen shugenja and I've seen samurai, but the ones we've seen we're no shugenja. The Kami who make magic happen always act differently about one who can manipulate them, I felt nothing like that with those two… But I did not bother to check with Shangen, as Nubei said he knew him."
"What does this all mean, Saibankan-san?" Xingto asked.
"It seems someone is weaving a web of deceit and clever ploys around us. But why…? Can I see the weapon with which Nubei was stabbed?"
Kiniko swallowed hard as Xingto nodded solemnly and produced a pouch with a heavy item in it. Though cleaned of all blood, Xingto would not touch the weapon, still detesting it for the death it caused to his sensei. He opened the pouch and let the weapon slide out onto the table, where it rang with a strange sound upon hitting the wood.
"That weapon!" Saibankan gasped.
* * *
As Saibankan walked through the forest he whistled a merry tune. He looked up at the blue sky and at Lady Sun and smiled. Could things get more perfect? Beautiful weather, peaceful nature all around him, no courtiers bothering him or making fun of his name. And over there: the cottage. As he started to see its white walls Saibankan sped up his pace to reach it even faster.
Sliding open the shoji screen Saibankan yelled with a joyful voice, "Aseki-chan! Where are you? It is I, Saibankan." Smiling, he waited for any response. None came. A frown burrowed across his brow, even if she was out back in the garden, she should hear him and he hear if she responded. "Aseki-chan!" he yelled again. "Are you here?" Again no response. He quickly closed his eyes and let his senses do the work… … There it was! Heavy, slow and soft, but breathing it was! Without wasting any time Saibankan burst through the fusuma screen. What he saw would change his life.
On the floor, surrounded by blood, lay his wife, her breaths came with great effort and the sound of blood filling her lungs. "My love…" she whispered.
"Please, spare your strength, you must not die, Aseki! You musn't!"
"It is too… late… for me. Please… find… my… murderuh…uhrrr…"
"Noooooh! Aseki-chan! Don't leave me!"
* * *
"Saibankan-san! What is wrong?" Kiniko was honestly worried when she saw Saibankan recoil from the blade as if it were a snake.
Saibankan took a few deep breaths, closed his eyes, exhaled and pulled a piece of silk from his robes. He put it on the table and unfolded it, what was inside made both Kiniko and Xingto gasp.
"Ih…It's the same weapon!" Xingto exclaimed, his face a mix of dread and confusion.
First Saibankan nodded, but then he dared to speak again. "It was the same weapon with which my wife was killed. She and I were only married a few days when it happened. It was a crime much like this, but I pursued the killer and even gave chase several times. Back then it was only one." Saibankan looked down and traced his hand down his face, starting with his brow, moving over his left eye, down his cheek and jaw onto his neck.
* * *
Saibankan closed his left eye as he tightened his grip onto Masamichi. He felt the blood streaming out of the wound over his face. It would not kill him, but it would leave a scar without immediate magical attention. None was near.
"You murdered my wife, you filthy dog! I will have your heart for this and see you buried on the other side of Kaiu Kabe!" Saibankan spit the mixture of water and blood that had gotten into his mouth at the man.
"You will have to catch me first, Saibankan… You've already failed to catch me twice, and now I even wounded you! Give up! You are cornered."
Saibankan looked around. The assassin was right, his back was turned to a steep ridge. Rain pouring down on his face, he looked back at the black-clad man and smiled. "You know what they say about a cornered tiger."
The man frowned, "What?"
With a spine-chilling shout Saibankan charged the assassin and brought down the no-dachi upon his opponent, who was barely able to dodge the attack. Saibankan followed through with a swing to his right; this time he opened up a wound in the hollow of the man's knee, severing flesh and sinew.
"Zakennayo!" the man screamed as he felt the crippling wound open up. He dropped his ninja-to and pulled a small ball from his belt, throwing it at Saibankan.
The ball exploded with a blinding flash and Saibankan could no longer see his opponent, but even through the pouring rain he could hear him stumble away, but the direction of the man's flight was lost to Saibankan. Saibankan lowered himself onto his knees and wished he was dead. He felt his blood pouring down his face and neck, into and onto his clothes. As he sat there he felt rage boiling up inside of him and he knew that he would not be able to control it forever if he kept it hidden away in the depths of his soul. Saibankan closed his eyes and, in one swift motion, he lifted Masamichi, charged, swung the blade overhead and with all his hatred for the assassin struck the rock of the cliff wall. When he opened his eyes again he saw that Masamichi was stuck in the bedrock.
"You must stay here, with my ancestors. I cannot face them or wield you until I have returned to the path of righteousness, returned to Masamichi," Saibankan said, bowing to the sword. He turned around and walked off, tearing off a piece of his kimono to staunch the bleeding.
Not far away the Darkness smiled…
* * *
"How terrible to have lost her so soon after getting married," Kiniko whispered, imagining the unbearable pain without any success.
"It suffices to say I never caught the assassin, I was killed by the Lying Shadow while on a mission. Of course, I never knew what it was back then."
"So, do you think we will be able to catch the assassins now?" Xingto asked, worried.
"Of course we will," Saibankan said with good spirit. "The Lying Shadow was practically destroyed, so it is unlikely we'll face that problem again."
Xingto and Kiniko blinked.
"I was just joking… Seriously… At least Nubei appreciated my jokes."
"That was a very morbid joke, Saibankan-san," Kiniko said, a bit offended.
"No! Wait a minute!" Xingto exclaimed as something struck his mind. "You are *the* Kitsuki Saibankan! You are one of the Heroes who returned through Oblivion's Gate and fought side by side with Toturi."
'Here we go again,' Saibankan thought. "Yes, that's me."
"You mean that he actually died and came back?" Kiniko asked.
"Yes! He is one of the greatest magistrates Rokugan has ever known! He made great effort to get Kitsuki's Method accepted by other Clans." Xingto was more excited than he ever had been.
Kiniko smiled sheepishly. "I am afraid I have never heard of you, Saibankan-san."
"And that's exactly why I am already very fond of you, Kiniko-san," Saibankan said sarcastically. "I really don't want all this upheaval about me. Listen carefully. I am still a spirit, I stayed this way in the hope that someone might've found out more about the murder on my wife. It was a slim chance, but I had to try. But then Toturi asked me to become an Emerald Magistrate and I never was able to get away. Until now. There are three options at large: One: the assassin somehow was able to survive all these centuries and has acquired followers. Two: we have several dedicated individuals on our hands, either descendants of the assassin or of a student. Three, the one I fear is most likely: the assassin died a long time ago, but returned through Oblivion's Gate too. In that case recognizing him will be much harder."
"How so?" Xingto asked. "I don't see why that is the case."
"During a battle with him I wounded him near the knee, the wound would have crippled him severely. But if he returned through Oblivion's Gate, it would no longer be there… I know." Again Saibankan's hand traced his hand down his face.
* * *
Saibankan looked around. The site had not changed much. Of course it was dry now and the foliage was a lot thicker. He ran his hand across his face again: no scar. He still couldn't believe it. But what would he do with this new 'life'? What would he do with this chance he was offered? He had heard about Hantei XVI, in his time the stories had been more vivid, since it had only been a few generations past. Here, in this time, only now the horrors found their way back to people's memory. Now that he was ravaging the Empire people would remember the Steel Chrysanthemum. Would they remember him? Kistuki Saibankan, magistrate and weakling? Unable to protect his own wife and unable to defend himself when it was most necessary. Or would they remember the other? Kitsuki Saibankan the just, herald of Kitsuki's Method, with Scorpion blood to steel him against tricks and Dragon blood to give him wisdom. Perhaps they would not remember him at all. It would not matter, the Empire needed him and he would not fail it this time!
As he put both hands on the blade's handle Saibankan smiled. It felt so familiar and it filled him with power to see that the magic had not failed. And as he gripped the handle he felt another warm and familiar feeling surrounding him. "Grandfather," he whispered and pulled the blade out of the stone with ease. He closed his eyes and recited the verse he had been taught when he was given the blade, then he prayed to his other ancestors and smiled. He felt content and at peace with himself. As he opened his eyes he happened to look in a small pond that had formed nearby and noticed that his glow was much less than before. "Interesting," he murmured and walked off smiling.
* * *
"So, where do we begin, Saibankan-san?" Kiniko asked as her heart filled with hopes of finding her sensei's murderers and bringing justice to them.
"Yes, tell us: how do we start?" Xingto asked, curiosity and respect all over his face.
Saibankan smiled, a bit wryly, as he remembered… "As with every journey: with a single step."
[To be continued]