A Hero's Death - Part 3

As the sun crept over the horizon, the aged warrior made his way to the cliff face. It was his ritual: as the first rays of sun touched the lands of his birth, he practiced the ancient battle stances of his people. The steel felt right in his hands, but the ritual did not give him the peace he sought. He had not asked for this second life. He had lived and died, and earned his place in the heavens. His return to the mortal world was not right. It was no longer his time.

Rensei halted his practice and gazed out over the sea. They had asked him to head the Kakita school. He had refused them, just as he had in life. What business did he have teaching young souls when his own was so conflicted? How could he teach them to revere their duty when he had none of his own to fulfill? He was nothing more than an old man torn between service to the Empire and adherence to the Celestial Order.

There was a sound behind him. Rensei focused his senses upon his surroundings. There was someone behind him. Someone dark of spirit and twisted in mind. "Who are you?" he asked simply.

A hissing voice replied "Your death."

Rensei drew his blade once more. "I have been waiting for you." With a fierce kiai shout, he turned and struck with the speed of the wind itself.

"Welcome, honored guests, to Kyuden Seppun, second home of the Emperor." The host, a young courtier named Sutebe, bowed very low before them. Almost too low, Miya Shoin thought. In court, such a thing was sometimes interpreted as a false show of respect and caused the individual in question to be viewed with suspicion. In this case, it was probably just the result of Sutebe being young and eager to please.

Shoin felt a sharp jab in the ribs from Chieh. Remembering himself, he bowed deeply to Sutebe in return, who flashed a broad, genuine grin back at the shisha. Shoin smiled slightly in return and chided himself inwardly. If he was so distracted this early in the mission, then there was little hope of success. He must keep his wits about him if he was to lead this motley band of samurai.

And what a band they were. The trip from Otosan Uchi to Kyuden Seppun took less than half a day, as the palace could be seen on the horizon from the outer wall of the capital city. Yet somehow the brief trip had seen more conflict than Shoin had seen in his few years as a shisha, one of the Emperor's official heralds. Kijuro had begun the journey with a round of his boisterous, often misguided, and occasionally abrasive attempts to engage Utaku Yu Pan and Toritaka Akemi in conversation until Yu Pan had cut the young Ox's advances short by threatening to kick him out of his saddle and trample him into the earth. Kijuro, of course, responded with yet another poorly timed joke, which only maddened the battle maiden further. Then Agasha Chieh had entered the conversation, berating both of them for their dishonorable behavior while on a mission for one of the Emperor's heirs. Moshi Kakau had questioned Chieh's ability to properly judge dishonorable behavior, causing a vehement disagreement between the two of them. In the end, four of the party were screaming at each other while Shoin tried in vain to get them to compose themselves. It was not until Akemi quietly pointed out the approaching Seppun patrol that the shouting had ended.

If the party could succeed at the task set before them by Hantei Naseru, surely it would be only by the will of the Fortunes, because left to their own devices they would likely kill one another long before then.

"Might I inquire as to your purpose at Kyuden Seppun, Miya-sama? Your escort mentioned an edict from Otomo Hoketuhime." Sutebe's polite inquiry brought Shoin back from his unpleasant reverie.

"Of course, Sutebe-san," Shoin said in what he hoped was a very official sounding voice. He was still trying to get used to the idea of representing one of the Winds, even if it was under another name. He held forth the papers given him so recently by Naseru, papers claiming that the magistrates served Otomo Hoketuhime. Though Shoin chafed slightly at the dishonesty, he recognized that the it would not serve their purposes for the assassin they were hunting to realize one of the Winds had personally assembled a group to sniff him or her out. "The reason for our visit involves one of your guests, the poet Rezan. We will need to speak to him at the earliest possible convenience."

A concerned look appeared on Sutebe's face. "Yes, certainly, Miya-sama. Will it be necessary for our guards to bring him to you immediately? Has there been a... transgression of some sort?" Sutebe's tone was strange. Almost... hopeful?

"No, no, nothing of the sort," said Shoin hurriedly. The last thing he needed was to unintentionally implicate Rezan in any sort of wrongdoing. It would likely be difficult to acquire the famous poet's cooperation even without such complications. "It is merely that Otomo Hoketuhime-sama believes Rezan can assist her in a matter of some delicacy."

Sutebe brightened at once. "Yes, yes, of course. Rezan is currently in the court chambers with our other guests, I believe. Would you like to join him now?"

"No, I think it would be appropriate for my colleagues and I to refresh ourselves from the journey first. We have no wish to dishonor the court of the Seppun with our road-weary appearance." Shoin glanced back at the group, hoping secretly that the chance for a moment's rest would settle their tempers somewhat. He seriously doubted it, but it was worth a shot.

"It would be my great pleasure to arrange rooms for you and your deputies, Miya-sama. Please follow me and I will have you shown to quarters."

Shoin and his companions followed in grateful silence.

A few short hours later, Shoin was feeling much more confident. He had washed away the dust of the road and changed into more presentable attire. With his family mon and badge of office proudly displayed, he felt more like a representative of the Imperial family. Truth be told, Shoin had never truly felt as if he was a member of the Imperial court. He was far more at home on the open plains, bow in hand. Court had always seemed somehow... unnatural to him.

As he approached the court chambers, Shoin mentally prepared himself for the task he was to perform. According to Toritaka Akemi, the Falcon phantom-hunter, the ronin poet Rezan was one of the spirits who remained in Rokugan after the gate to the Spirit Realms was opened at the Battle of Oblivion's Gate. Famous throughout life for his exquisite poetry, Rezan had spent the years since his return exploring the courts of the Empire. He was an enormously popular guest who was always in demand among Rokugan's most prominent hosts, each hoping that Rezan would grace them with the debut of a new collection of poetry.

Shoin smiled. He had never been a student of the arts, but Rezan's work had been required reading during his studies at Kyuden Miya, and Shoin had developed a fondness for the master poet's simple verse. He was very much looking forward to meeting the legendary poet. Shoin's smile died suddenly as he reached the doors to the court chambers. From just inside, he heard a booming noise that was all too familiar.

"So tell me, Rezan-sama, how comely are the women in the Realm of the Blessed Ancestors?"

"Oh no," he whispered, his face white with terror.

Kijuro was already inside.

What was even more shocking to Shoin was the poet's reaction.

"Ah, friend Kijuro," Rezan smiled broadly, "it is good to meet a true kindred spirit!" The poet held a cup of sake up in a gesture of acknowledgment to the bawdy Ox samurai before drinking it in a single gulp. "I suspect proceedings here will be far more interesting with you present." The two young women, one on each of Rezan's arms, covered their faces with their fans and giggled.

Kijuro laughed again in his booming way. "Everywhere he goes Kijuro is the life of the party! But surely you cannot begrudge our hosts among the Seppun! They have been nothing if not hospitable." With this, Kijuro slapped Sutebe squarely on the back in a friendly manner, which nonetheless nearly sent the poor young man sprawling along the floor. Recovering his balance, Sutebe looked back at Kijuro with a sort of quiet horror that implied he would rather face the entire Shadowlands Horde than be trapped with such a strange companion.

"Certainly not," insisted Rezan. "Indeed, I have never been so warmly received as I have at Kyuden Seppun. I merely wished to point out the exceptional tranquility and serenity of their magnificent home. For men of rich character such as you and I, a place such as this can, in time, risk dulling our keen edge. And what a loss to the Empire!"

"Yes," agreed Kijuro with a sage nod. "I am not certain Rokugan would recover from such a tragedy!" Laughing at his own joke, Kijuro was taken aback when he noticed Shoin standing nearby, his face in his hands. "Shoin-sama!" boomed Kijuro, quickly rising to his feet. "Is something amiss?"

Looking up quickly, Shoin said "No, no, certainly not." He glanced at the Seppun in the room and offered, "I was merely praying to the Fortunes for strength." It was not a lie. "Kijuro-san, might I speak with you for a moment?" Shoin stepped away from the revelry to address his colleague. "Kijuro," he began, "while I appreciate your attempt to... develop a rapport with Rezan, I have to wonder if you have even broached the subject of our visit?"

The larger man frowned. "No, Shoin-sama. I thought that was your job. You are the leader, are you not?"

Shoin closed his eyes for a moment and rubbed his left temple with two fingers.

"I had merely hoped to lighten his mood to make your work easier," Kijuro added.

"Of course," Shoin grunted.

"I think it worked," Kijuro added.

Shoin opened his mouth to remind Kijuro of the nature of their group, then thought better of it and simply said "Yes, of course. Well done, Kijuro-san. If you will give the two of us a moment?"

The Ox samurai grinned broadly. "Right away, Shoin-sama! There was a fetching young samurai-ko here a moment ago that I wanted to speak to anyway."

Shoin watched Kijuro move across the chamber with a slight shake of the head. "Shinsei himself would have been baffled by that man," he muttered. He straightened his kimono, squared his shoulders, and crossed the room to bow deeply before the famous poet. "Rezan-sama," Shoin began, "it is a tremendous honor to meet one of such distinguished deeds and works. Your poetry has always been of great interest to me."

"You flatter me, Miya-san," Rezan said, returning the shisha's bow.

"You are too modest, Rezan-sama. I am not well versed in literature, but your series of poems on the serene beauty of the Mantis islands in autumn were simply magnificent."

"Ah, yes," said Rezan with a nod. "I did not write those." Rezan nodded to the young ladies at either side, dismissing them. They quickly vanished with amused giggles and sly looks at Shoin. Shoin smiled back politely.

Shoin stared blankly at Rezan for several seconds. "I beg your pardon?"

Rezan smiled, shrugged, and spoke softly. "If the truth would be told, I was never a particularly gifted poet, Miya-san. Oh, I enjoyed the art of poetry very much, to be sure, but I was not talented. It was simply a diversion to calm my nerves after a hard day fighting as a ronin mercenary."

"A... mercenary?" Shoin replied, making a distinct effort to keep his jaw from dropping.

"Oh, yes," Rezan answered. "I was simply a wandering duelist that happened to find myself, by total random chance, the champion of the Emperor's daughter. I left a Crane in the uncomfortable position of either denouncing my poetry - and insulting the Emperor's daughter - or acknowledging me as the finest poet in all of Rokugan. It was sort of a joke at the time, but it sort of got out of hand."

"Out of... hand?" Shoin nearly stuttered.

"Indeed," Rezan said. "Since that time, my name has been ascribed to a great number of poems that I have never even read, much less actually wrote. If all the volumes of poetry that have been found over the years with my name on them had actually been written by me, I don't know how I would have gotten any time in to practice with the blade. In my first life, I always knew it would be difficult to live up to the legends of the past... I never imagined I would be living up to my own..." Rezan was silent for a moment, staring into space with a sad, somewhat absent smile. For the first time, Shoin noticed the deep lines in the man's face. Despite his youthful appearance, Rezan had spent three decades in Rokugan since Oblivion's Gate had opened, witnessing the legacy of a life he never truly lived. Shoin felt a brief moment of pity for the man. Finally, Rezan returned his focus to the conversation. "I have my suspicions that you did not come here to speak to me about poetry, Miya-san."

"No. No, Rezan-sama, I did not." Shoin was unsure how to proceed. This was not the same man he had imagined meeting so many times. Deciding on the simplest approach, Shoin lowered his voice. "My colleagues and I have been secretly charged by Lord Hantei Naseru to discover the culprit behind a recent rash of murders among those who returned from Oblivion's Gate."

An edge suddenly appeared in Rezan's eyes. "Are you suggesting that I am involved?"

Shoin stared back with no hint of fear or recrimination. "No. The victims have all been former spirits, and we have reason to believe you may be next. We are here to determine if there is any threat to your esteemed personage, and to protect you if necessary."

Unexpectedly, Rezan laughed. "Protect me? I think you have dangerously overestimated the abilities of your party, Miya. After all, we stand in the midst of the Seppun miharu, who have protected the life of the Emperor himself since the dawn of the Empire."

Shoin frowned. Shoin had traversed the entire Empire to gather together a band of hopeless misfits that he was expected to lead on some great mission, one for which he was poorly trained. And now he was being shown nothing but disrespect from a man whose great reputation was nothing more than a shallow lie. All in the name of duty. He would have none of it. Something within the young herald's mind snapped. Stepping in close so that no one else could hear, Shoin fixed Rezan with a glare that would have broken the will of a lesser man. "That's right. I have been given a duty and I will perform it, whether you like it or not. And the next time you think to insult me or my assistants, remember that the miharu protected Emperor Toturi as well, and he is dead."

All the strength rushed from Shoin at once. He stepped back, blinking several times and bringing his hand to his mouth in shock. Had such a thing come from his lips? How could he dishonor his Seppun cousins so? It was unthinkable! He glanced up at Rezan, half expecting to see the poet's blade in his hand to cut Shoin down where he stood.

Instead, Rezan's grin had reappeared. He regarded Shoin with new respect. "There is much of Dosonu in you after all, Shoin. I know he would be pleased."

"Wha-what do you mean by that?" rasped Shoin. "What do you know of my father?"

"I knew your father well," Rezan said cryptically. "Why do you think I chose to tell you, of all the many people I have met in thirty years, the truth about my poetry?"

The sound of someone clearing their throat softly interrupted the intense exchange between the two men. Agasha Chieh stood behind them, resplendent in her blazing orange kimono and carefully arranged, braided red tresses. Even though Shoin knew that much of her appearance was an illusion, it was difficult to believe that beneath her radiant exterior was the drab attire of an ascetic. "I hope you will forgive my intrusion, sirs," Chieh purred demurely, "but as Shoin-sama's yoriki, I wondered if I might be of assistance?" She glanced back and forth between the two with an expression of amused curiosity.

"Certainly not, beautiful one," said Rezan slyly. "Wildfire on the plains, the raging heat of Lord Sun. So too burns my soul." With a sidelong glance at a surprised Shoin, Rezan shrugged and remarked "It seems that my skill at verse became somewhat tarnished during my years in the fields of Yomi and in three decades I have been practicing in order to live up to my reputation." He returned his soulful gaze to Chieh. "I fear it may take yet another lifetime, though the inspiration of such this beautiful fire-flower's presence may shorten that period dramatically, Shoin-san was merely informing me of the situation your august party is attempting to resolve. He nobly offered the protection of your group and has managed to convince me that your company might even prove superior to that provided by our esteemed hosts."

Chieh looked at Shoin with scrutiny. "Did he really? Shoin has always had a gift for sparkling conversation."

The mysterious glint had reappeared in Rezan's eyes. "To be sure. But I suspect, lovely one, that you may have much to teach him. I suspect you could even teach me a thing or two." Before the Phoenix could respond to his innuendo, Rezan bowed deeply before her. "I am Rezan, meager poet and free spirit of the Empire. When I compose my next work, what name shall I give to my inspiration?" He looked to Chieh expectedly.

"Agasha Chieh, priestess of the kami and magistrate of the Emperor."

"That is fascinating, particularly because there is not currently an Emperor on the throne. Who do you serve presently? Or are you looking for someone to whom to offer your services? I was once married to an Emperor's daughter, after all, and thus I do claim a relation to the Imperial Line. I could use the services of a fine magistrate." Rezan raised one eyebrow slightly.
Chieh's glare could have melted ice. "Swine graced by the Emperor's presence would still be swine."

"Perhaps we should do away with these... social niceties," Shoin interrupted "and focus on the issue at hand." The last thing he needed right now was for Chieh - thus far his most valuable if occasionally unpredictable ally - to lose interest in protecting their charge. "Rezan-sama," he continued, "have you experienced anything in your travels that would lead you to believe that someone wished you harm?"

Rezan chuckled lightly. "That would be quite a long list, Shoin-san. Do you have a week or so to discuss the matter in depth?"
Shoin's face fell. "Whatever it takes, Rezan-sama. Whatever it takes."

If he had ever been so mentally fatigued, Shoin could not imagine when that might have been. He slumped onto his futon in an exhausted heap. Since his return from Oblivion's Gate, Rezan had apparently managed to offend at least one influential person in virtually every court where he had been a guest. It was not difficult to imagine why. The entire evening had been spent with Shoin asking questions and Rezan turning them into thinly veiled attempts to seduce Chieh. To say that it had not gone well would be an understatement. The poet was even worse than Kijuro, if such a thing was possible. At least the Ox was open with his overtures. At least Akemi and Yu-Pan had occupied themselves scouting the surrounding castle with Kakau and had not been exposed to the poet's lewd advances.

"It has happened again," said a hollow voice.

Shoin leapt up from his futon and snatched his wakizashi from its resting place in a single, fluid movement. He held it before him in a defensive posture, desperately searching the room for the source of the voice.

"Be at ease, Miya Shoin. You have nothing to fear from me. Not at the moment, anyway." A shadowy figure stepped out of the darkness near the door into the dim light of the single candle

"Akemi-chan," breathed Shoin. "You surprised me."

"So it seems." The Crab samurai-ko stared at Shoin with an unreadable expression for a moment, then continued. "It has happened again. Another of the Empire's heroes has been killed."

Shoin straightened and sheathed his blade. "Who?"

"Master Rensei."

The Miya shisha sat down suddenly. Kakita Rensei was one of the finest individual combatants in the Empire's history. His contributions to Toturi's forces during the War of Spirits were countless. That one such as he could be assassinated was devastating news. "How?"

"Rensei was known to practice his kata on a cliff overlooking the sea at dawn. His body was found there. There was blood covering the area, far more than Rensei could have lost."

Shoin nodded appreciatively. "So he claimed the lives of his assailants, then."

"No," Akemi replied. "There were no other bodies found, nor any evidence that anyone fell into the sea below. And the reports seem to indicate that Rensei's wounds were jagged, like those an animal might make."

"I see." Shoin had paled visibly. He was unaccustomed to the visceral descriptions of the Crab. This was no time for weakness, however. He stood swiftly. "See to the others. Tell them we leave at first light."

Akemi bowed and turned to leave wordlessly.

"Akemi," Shoin said. "Be sure to tell Rezan as well. He will be joining us. Perhaps it will draw out the killer. If Kakita Rensei has been taken, there is little the Seppun could do to protect Rezan anyway." She nodded and disappeared through the doorway. He placed his wakizashi back on its rack and sat down once more. It was a very long time before he felt like sleeping again.