A Hero's Death, Chapter 8
By Rich Wulf
"You look lost, my friend," the stranger said, peering down from behind his wide brimmed hat.
The old samurai peered up, eyes bleary from drink and exhaustion. Other than the proprietor, who kept to his own business, they were the only two remaining in the sake house. At this time of night, the wise took to their homes in a city like Ryoko Owari. "Who are you?" the samurai demanded. "What do you want?"
"Me?" the stranger chuckled. "Now that is a complex question if I have ever heard one. Suffice it to say that I sensed something familiar in you." The stranger seated himself across the table from the samurai. "If I am not mistaken, you are one of the ones who returned from the Realm of Slaughter."
The samurai sneered. "Who told you?" he demanded.
"I see it written in your spirit," the stranger replied, folding his hands atop the table. The proprietor approached with a bottle and cup in hand, but a single look from the stranger sent him scurrying back into the rear room.
"No," the samurai chuckled humorlessly. "I went through the ritual. The Phoenix took my glow away. Someone must have told you. Who was it, that worthless Aramasu? Did he send you to kill me? Take out the threat to his command of the Mantis?"
The stranger chuckled. "Aramasu did not send me," the stranger said, "and you are not a threat. You are a shadow, a memory of times the world prefers to forget. I have seen your kind before. From the center of the Way I watched you fight and kill each other for a thousand years."
"Who are you?" the samurai demanded.
"Another shadow," the man said. He tilted his head up, revealing his eyes. Twin pools of pure darkness stared at the broken samurai.
"You're a Goju," the samurai said with a small shake of his head.
"You do not reach for your weapon?" the stranger laughed. "There are many in the Empire who would kill me for what I am."
"Good luck to you," the samurai said, looking around for his cup.
"You're not at all worried?" he asked.
The samurai flicked his wrist; a knife appeared instantly in his hand. With another deft movement, it vanished. "Not at all," he said. "What do you want?"
"To share perspective," the stranger said. "We are much alike, it seems."
The samurai watched the stranger quietly.
"A statement like that simply beggars further explanation," the stranger chuckles. "Excuse my penchant for dramatic silence, a thousand years hovering beyond existence will do that."
"So explain," the samurai said.
The stranger nodded. "Once, I was an assassin. I killed at the whim of my lord, sacrificing my honor for his own. When the existence of my order was exposed, my lord turned upon us. My brethren and I were hunted like beasts. He could have warned us, given us ample time to escape and fade away, as we had been trained to do. My father, my brothers, all of them were all executed. Only through an unholy union with the Lying Darkness were we a few of us able to escape. We became the Goju."
"Are you trying to compare yourself to me, ninja?" the samurai laughed.
"Don't tell me you don't see the comparison," the stranger replied. "I watched you, Gusai. I watched your life. I watched your death. I watched you fight for centuries on the bloodied fields of Toshigoku. I do not think that we are alike, Mantis. I know we are."
"You watched me in Toshigoku?" the samurai snorted in disbelief.
The stranger nodded. "I was assigned to guard the pathways between all
the Spirit Realms, to watch the Ways so that when the day came to open the Gate,
the Goju would be prepared. I often watched the fields of Toshigoku, where
armies of murders struggle against one another in bloody combat only to rise
once more the next day. I saw you single handedly fight the house guard of the
Chuda family. I witnessed your sixteen duels against Hantei XX. I was watching
when Akodo Kenburo cut you open from throat to belly, and I was watching when
you returned the favor. The Realm of Slaughter was a source of great amusement
to me, Gusai. I know you well. For a man so accustomed to death, is it difficult
to find yourself returned to life again? Or is it more difficult to find that no
one remains that cares? None, perhaps, except for the boy - the last of the
followers Aramasu forced upon you. The rest became ronin, did they not? Rather
that, then serve a madman, I suppose."
"What do you want?" the samurai asked.
"To help you," the stranger said.
"I won't be the Shadow's pawn," the samurai said.
"The Shadow is no more, Gusai-san," the stranger replied. "You were there when it died."
"Then what do you want?" the samurai asked.
"I want what you want," the stranger said. "It was the Hantei line that doomed my order. I wish to see the Hantei die."
"Then do it yourself," the samurai said.
The stranger grunted. "I'm afraid not," he said. "A thousand years spent hovering in a realm beyond existence has left me with certain limitations." The stranger extended one hand; it passed through the surface of the table. "I am only a dream now."
"Then why not ask another Goju?" the samurai asked.
"The other Goju have been taken by the Shadowlands," the stranger sneered. "They are not what they once were."
"Then how can you possibly help me, ghost?" the samurai asked.
"I can teach you things," the stranger said. "How to meld with shadow. How to disappear without a trace, how to boost your strength and speed, how to render yourself invulnerable to all but the power of heaven itself. The Lying Darkness is dead, but it's power remains. I can show you how to tap into the power of Nothing, and when we are done you will paint your name across the face of the Empire in the blood of the last Hantei."
"Interesting," the samurai said.
"Think it over," the stranger replied. "We have all the time in the world…"
"Gusai-sama?" said a voice from the door of the sake house.
The samurai looked up. A young Mantis, little more than a boy, stood in the doorway. He peered around the sake house, confused.
"I thought I heard you talking to someone," Kakau said.
"It was Nothing," Gusai said, looking at the empty seat where the stranger had been a moment before.
"Have you seen her?" Kijuro asked, pulling his steed to a halt. The animal was exhausted; all of them were. The group had barely paused to rest since leaving Ox territory. Now, with Otosan Uchi almost in sight, they hurried even more.
"Yu-Pan is over the next hill," Akemi said, gesturing in that direction as she reigned in her own horse to meet the Ox. "She paused just long enough to report that the road is clear ahead."
"And to complain about the low quality of her Ox steed compared to her former one, no doubt," Kijuro chuckled. Though the Ox was obviously tired, his eyes were still bright.
"No," Akemi said, her face grave. "She said nothing of the kind."
"Hm," Kijuro replied, looking off in the direction Akemi had indicated. "So she's still the same. No rage, no anger, no emotion of any kind."
"Ever since she discovered Kakau was a traitor," Akemi said.
"That worries me," Kijuro sighed. "I almost think I should have let her kill the Mantis when I could have. Maybe she wouldn't be like this now."
"Who can say?" Akemi asked. "We all deal with betrayal differently." She peered at the Ox curiously for several moments.
"What?" Kijuro asked, sensing her gaze and turning to face her.
"You haven't told the others," she said.
"Told them what?" Kijuro asked. "That you're a Scorpion?"
Akemi said nothing.
Kijuro was silent for a moment as well. "Akemi," he said finally. "When we fought Gusai in Yasuki Kaneko's home, do you remember what happened?"
"Vaguely," she said. "The battle was swift."
"I fell," he replied. "Yu-Pan fell. You were the only one remaining. You stood against Gusai with nothing more than the magical writ your Shosuro masters gave you. You defended a woman you don't know, at the risk of your own life, against an enemy you weren't even certain you could defeat. You may not be who you claim to be, Shosuro Tani, but I have seen who you truly are."
"And what is that?" she asked.
"You are a samurai that I am proud to call my comrade," Kijuro said, and for once his face and tone were completely serious. A moment later, he broke into his wide grin again. "And if I weren't married, I would flirt with you far more seriously than I have been."
Akemi smiled. "Thank you, Kijuro," she said with a bow of her head. "I only regret that our association has been so brief."
"Oh?" Kijuro replied. "I assumed when this was over that you would remain with us. Surely once we save the Anvil's life he will have some other grand mission for us to undertake."
"Perhaps not for me," Akemi said.
Kijuro grunted curiously.
"Three other butei have died hunting for the assassin we now know to be Gusai," Akemi said. "All they were able to determine was that the killer had some connection to Nothing. When Naseru began his plan to organize this group, he asked Bayushi Yojiro to provide a Scorpion Butei, someone who knew how to combat the Lying Darkness, but whom our enemy would not suspect. I was the only one available. Normally the butei spend months or years developing their cover. They spend their lives disguised as someone who never existed, prepared to do the bidding of the Scorpion. In many cases, their false identity is more real than their original self. I was a special case. No true Falcon would ever believe I am who I claim to be."
"So what's the problem?" Kijuro asked. "Don't go near Falcon lands."
"It is not that simple," she replied. "The butei are successful only because most people do not realize we exist. My continued existence as Toritaka Akemi could raise… uncomfortable questions. Already, my identity has been exposed," she gestured at Kijuro. "When this mission is over, I will be far too great a risk to the Scorpion Clan to continue in my position. I suspected as much before I left to join the group, so I asked my sensei what would become of me when the mission was complete."
"And what did he say?" Kijuro asked.
"I will be recalled to a secluded dojo somewhere in the lands of my family," Akemi said, "and I will remain there, forever."
"Are you certain?" Kijuro asked. "You seem a very valuable agent to waste."
"I will not be wasted," she replied, shrugging slightly and pushing her long hair out of her eyes. "I will become teacher, a sensei preparing the next generation of butei."
"You hardly sound excited at the prospect," Kijuro said.
"I am trained to be a spy, not a teacher," Akemi spat.
"A true conundrum," Kijuro said, stroking his chin. "Well, one thing is for certain. Whatever should happen, you will always be welcome among the Ox Clan, Shosuro Tani. A samurai can easily lose herself in our mountains, even from the eyes of Bayushi Yojiro."
Akemi frowned. "Are you suggesting I flee from my own clan?"
"Of course not," Kijuro said. "That would be silly, neh? I'm sure you'll enjoy being a sensei. At any rate, I should return and check on Shoin and the others. Keep our Battle Maiden out of trouble!" With a roguish grin, the big Ox wheeled his horse and galloped off.
The woman who called herself Toritaka Akemi watched him leave, brow creased in thought.
"We should be in Otosan Uchi soon," Miya Shoin said, looking back at the three horses following him. "By the time we arrive, Yu-Pan and the others should have notified Lord Naseru of our approach. With luck, Gusai will be as exhausted as we-" Shoin cut off suddenly, one hand darting out to seize Agasha Chieh's elbow. Her eyes snapped open; she steadied herself in her saddle.
"Forgive me, Shoin-sama," she said, her face flushed. "I am not used to traveling so far, so swiftly."
"There is something that Agasha Chieh cannot do?" Rezan exclaimed, his tone mildly mocking. "What will happen next? Will the Fortunes tumble from the heavens?"
"Watch your tongue, poet," Chieh said. "I'm still awake enough to summon the fire kami."
"Noted," Rezan said, bowing respectfully from his saddle. "I apologize for amusing myself at your expense. Remember, though, that both Shoin and myself are accustomed to long journeys. He is a messenger for the Imperial Families, and I… well in my younger days there were some parts of the Empire where I was not precisely welcome. Better to keep riding than to risk blundering into a jealous husband or father."
Chieh laughed under her breath. "Sometimes I wonder at all the effort you make to cover the exploits of your past life, Rezan," she said. "I think there are many who would enjoy the tales of your true exploits as much as they enjoy their poetry."
"I never thought about it like that," the ronin said with a mischievous gleam in his eye.
"We should wake Kakau," Shoin said, nodding to their prisoner. The Mantis was unconscious and bound to his saddle; his steed followed Rezan's. Normally, it was considered taboo to tie a samurai with rope, but in this case the bindings served more to keep Kakau in his saddle than to keep him restrained. The Mantis had tired quickly on the breakneck journey back to the capitol. After the fourth time he fell from his saddle, Kijuro had resorted to tying him there.
"Wake up," Rezan said. In a single motion, the ronin drew his katana with blinding speed. Kakau fell to the earth in a heap, the ropes that bound him to the saddle neatly severed. Rezan sheathed his blade slowly.
"You didn't have to do that," Shoin said, hopping from his own saddle and moving to attend the fallen Mantis. Kakau sat up with a groan.
"What do I care?" Rezan asked, lip curling as he glared down at the Mantis. "He chose to serve a murderer."
"I had no choice," Kakau said, staggering to his feet with Shoin's assistance. Ropes still bound Kakau's arms to his sides. "Gusai was the only lord I have ever known."
"Your family chose," Rezan replied. "They became ronin."
"Ronin?" Kakau spat. "You think I would become a filthy--"
"Finish that sentence," the ronin poet said, hand resting on the hilt of his katana. "Please."
Kakau paled, but did not turn away from the ronin's icy stare.
"Rezan-san, hold your blade," Shoin said.
"But I am only a ronin, Shoin-sama," Rezan said, taking a step toward Kakau. "I owe fealty to no one. I have responsibility to no one, not even a magistrate of the Imperial heir." He drew the blade a fraction of an inch. Shoin tensed slightly, wondering if Rezan would cut Kakau down right there. Sweat moistened Kakau's forehead. "I answer to no one but myself."
In another blinding flash, the ronin's sword flew free, slicing the air before Moshi Kakau. A leaf hovered in midair near Kakau's face, sliced neatly in two. The poet stared into Kakau's eyes again and sheathed his blade.
"Shoin, step away," Rezan said. "I wish to talk to the prisoner."
Shoin paused for an instant, then nodded and moved away. Rezan leaned close to Moshi Kakau, whispering so that only he could hear.
"There is still time to choose, Moshi Kakau," he said.
"I am a traitor," Kakau said. "Would you have me betray Gusai as well, and have my entire life be for nothing? You keep me alive only so that they can use me against Gusai. All that waits for me is death."
"But what comes after death?" Rezan said. "Time. Lots of time. Time to think about everything you did wrong, and it's amazing what you can remember with that much time on your hands."
"He is my ancestor," Kakau said, "I cannot betray him."
"You are betraying him," Rezan answered.
"What?" Kakau replied.
"You don't understand what Gusai has been through," Rezan said, "He wandered the Realm of Slaughter for centuries. Maybe one day he would have been ready for reincarnation, but Oblivion's Gate altered the kharmic cycle. He's not the man he once was; he knows nothing but death. Gusai should not be here. By serving the creature he's become, you're doing a greater disservice to his memory than… well… I really can't think of anything, but I made my point."
"What about you, poet?" Kakau asked. "You came back through Oblivion's Gate as well. You should not be here, either."
"And a day doesn't go by that I don't regret leaving Yomi," Rezan said, his voice strangely hollow. "But until I start making pacts with dark powers and murdering people in their beds, I think I still have the moral high ground here. There's still time to make the right choice, Kakau."
"How?" Kakau asked. "Even if I wanted to help, there's no way any of you would trust me again."
"Don't ask me, I'm just a grubby ronin," Rezan shrugged. "I thought your clan was supposed to be resourceful."
"You returned to tell me that my life is in danger," Hantei Naseru said, his face bland as he studied the three travel-worn samurai standing before him. "This is news? Do you have any idea how many people in Rokugan wish me dead?" The Imperial Heir seemed distracted, almost bored. Large stacks of paper waited in neat stacks upon his desk; an ink stone and brush were close at hand, only momentarily set aside.
"Naseru-sama, these are extraordinary circumstances," Miya Shoin said. He stepped forward slightly; Kijuro and Chieh remained where they were.
"I have no doubt that this assassin is extraordinary," Naseru replied. "Yet I recall organizing an extraordinary group to deal with the matter. I have complete faith in you, Miya Shoin. I am certain you will deal with the matter appropriately."
"You are not safe here, Naseru-sama," Shoin said. "We should move you-"
"Where?" Naseru asked, fixing his single eye upon the herald. "Where in all of Rokugan is safer than the Imperial Palace? What assurance do I have that this assassin is not waiting in ambush beyond the castle? That leaving the premises is the very opportunity he awaits? You admitted already that there was a spy among your group, that you were manipulated into revealing information that allowed the assassin to move more easily. How do I know such a thing has not occurred again? No, Miya Shoin. When in doubt, I rely upon what I know, and I know that the Palace is safe."
"With all due respect, my lord, Moshi Kakau was assigned to my group," he said. "It was not my decision to rely upon him."
"No, but it was your decision to trust him," Naseru countered. "I merely gave you the tools, shisha. It was your responsibility to use them wisely. Six strangers, gathered from across the face of an Empire at the brink of war, and you only found one with anything to hide? All things considered, I think you did rather well."
Kijuro looked at the floor.
"Do not misunderstand me, Shoin-san," Naseru continued, reaching for the top document from a nearby stack. "I take your warning seriously. If I did not believe you, you would not have been gained admittance. However, I must take it into consideration with the myriad other dangers to the Empire and myself at this time. If you need the aid of the miharu, they are at your disposal. I believe we even have an Utaku steed on the premises that the Battle Maiden may take if she desires; it was a gift to the Imperial House from her family some years ago. I fear we have little crystal to offer; it has become quite a sought-after commodity since the War Against the Shadow. Other than the one weapon, most that I have on hand has been used to maintain the wards upon the Palace."
"My lord," Shoin pressed, "we were hoping that-"
"That I would move to safety?" The Anvil smiled. "If I fled in terror every time someone threatened me, who would ever get any work done around here?"
"Of course, Lord Naseru," Shoin said, bowing his head. "I apologize for the interruption."
"No need for that," Naseru said, turning his attention to the
documents. "Simply leave me in peace and I will be most grateful."
The three bowed a final time and exited. The doors closed heavily behind them.
"The arrogance," Shoin said once they were out of earshot. "It is as if he did not even care his life was in danger."
"Hai," Kijuro nodded solemnly. "I like him too. I hope he becomes Emperor."
Shoin looked at Kijuro curiously.
The Ox gave a wide smile. "I'm serious!" he said. "His life is in imminent danger, but he's not about to change his schedule. That's a kind of bravery you don't see every day. Plus, he has total faith in us. He recognizes that with the mighty Kijuro to protect him, there can be no danger. That is the sort of wisdom we need on the throne."
"Kijuro," Shoin said, holding his temple to ward off a coming headache.
"No, in a way the Ox is correct," Chieh said. "Naseru has done us the greatest favor possible."
"I don't understand," Shoin replied.
"Naseru is staying out of our way," she replied. "He knows we know the situation better than he does. He knows we do not have time to make a full report. He has chosen to leave the matter in the hands of those who can deal with the situation best. That is not arrogance. That is leadership."
"I still think it's careless," Shoin said.
"Of course you do," she said. "You're the one who has to do all the real work."
"Where do we begin?" Shoin asked. "Should we alert the miharu?"
"I think not," Chieh said. "We should finish this ourselves. Gusai relies upon stealth and misdirection, and as a denizen of Toshigoku he has endless patience. If he finds the guard unusually alert, he may suspect we are aware of him and merely return at a later time."
"What do you suggest?" Shoin asked. "We simply wait here until Gusai appears, then attack?"
"No waiting is necessary," she said. "I have no doubt that Gusai is already here, merely waiting for a chance to strike."
"So we give him one," Kijuro said, folding his arms across his broad chest.
"Could you create an illusion of Naseru over a straw target, as you did with me?" Shoin asked.
"No," Chieh replied. "I still owe the fire kami too much from the last time. However, I believe I could wrap such an illusion about myself; as you know I am quite talented at altering my appearance."
"That could be very dangerous, Chieh," Kijuro said. "Gusai is very powerful. What happens when he attacks you?"
"Then 'the mighty Kijuro' stops him," Shoin said. Kijuro gave the herald a greatly amused grin. "Come, let us find the others," Shoin said. "We have much to plan."
"Good to get that out of the way," Kijuro said with a curt nod. "Get all your planning out of the way early. That way when something goes wrong, and the plan falls apart, you can accept it and move on."
"The plan won't fall apart, Kijuro," Chieh admonished.
"Of course it will," Kijuro said. "It's a plan, isn't it?"
Kakau crouched in the corner of his cell, staring at his folded hands. The little Mantis scowled in thought, turning over the ronin's words in his mind. He did not like feeling like this. All his life he had known what was right - obey his lord, as he had been taught. Even when his teachers had turned away, Kakau remained loyal. He had been born in Gusai's service; he had known nothing else. And if he, too, had left, what then? What purpose would that serve? Where would that leave his lord?
Now he had doubts. Now he wondered if he had wasted his life. He found himself envying the ronin, a man who lived in the shadow of his own false legend. Was he any different? In the legends, Gusai was clever, ambitious, and resourceful - everything a Mantis should be. The man he served was not the Gusai of legend.
"Thinking about your death, Mantis?" asked a cold voice.
"Yu-Pan," Kakau said, looking up. He had been so engrossed in thought he had not even heard Utaku Yu-Pan approach. The Battle Maiden was dressed in light armor of lavender and white. She held a short spear in one hand. Her face was still blank, expressionless, like a corpse.
"It wasn't anything but a horse to you," she said. "To me, she was the only friend I had."
"I'm sorry," he said simply, knowing at once how feeble it sounded.
"I know," she said. "There was no way you could have known. Don't worry. I've come to get you out of here."
Kakau blinked. "What?" he said.
"You did what you did out of loyalty," she said. "I can't blame you; you were manipulated by Gusai. The others want you dead, but they don't know you. They don't know me, either. They never bothered to talk to me like you did. They don't understand. They just think of me as the crazy Battle Maiden, and they think of you as the traitor." She crouched and extended one hand into the cell, opening her palm toward her in the Unicorn custom.
Kakau said nothing; he could think of nothing to say. He clasped her hand in his own.
"I'm ready to give you a second chance, Moshi Kakau," she said. "I'm ready to break you out of here. You only have to do one thing for me, and I will give you a second chance."
"Name it," Kakau said, "and I will do it."
Yu-Pan smiled sweetly. "Bleed into the sand over seven days while the sun bakes your worthless corpse." With a fierce tug, Yu-Pan yanked Moshi Kakau's arm. The Mantis hit the bars face first with a clang and collapsed on the floor groaning.
Yu-Pan stood and spat on him. Through the bars of the cell, she kicked him in the shoulder. "Now you know how it feels to have all hope torn from you, pig," she hissed. "When I return, you will see your ancestor's severed head grinning at you from the tip of this spear, and then you will die."
With that, Utaku Yu-Pan turned and left the dungeons. The sound of her purposeful bootfalls echoed for several moments.
"I deserved that," Kakau concluded, staring up at the ceiling and clutching his face in pain.
"Kakau…" a voice whispered near his ear. "Do you yet live?"
Kakau opened his eyes.
"Kakau?" the voice repeated. "Are you yet their prisoner?"
Kakau flicked his wrist in the manner his ancestor had taught him. Rather than a knife, a sacred ofuda - a holy scroll - appeared in his hand. Kakau unrolled it and cast the spell, allowing him to speak to his master at a distance. "Yes, Gusai-sama," he said. "I am here, and they come for you. The Battle Maiden has promised me that she will kill you personally."
"Is that so?" he chuckled. "How many are there?"
Kakau paused for a brief moment, then made a choice. "Only five," he said. "They left the poet at North Hub."
"Why?" Gusai asked, his voice suspicious.
"He claimed that he made a negative impression on Lord Naseru the last time he visited Otosan Uchi," he said.
"That sounds like Rezan," Gusai said.
"Shall I escape, my lord?" he asked. "They do not yet realize I am shugenja. I could easily break out of this dungeon. We could fight them together, two sons of Osano Wo, standing as one."
Gusai chuckled again. "Son of Osano Wo?" he said. "I think not. You are as worthy a descendant as I could hope for in these weak times, Kakau, but you have much to learn yet. Escape if you must, but I do not require your aid. This game is nearly done. I expect they'll try to deceive me again, as they did when they made me believe I killed that Miya brat. No matter. If they would try to lead me into a trap, let them. I shall kill them all and attend to the last Hantei in due time. I will contact you again when I am ready to act."
"Yes, my lord," Kakau said, bowing his head and ending the spell. He could hear his ancestor's voice no more.
Moshi Kakau hugged his knees to his chest in the dank Imperial dungeon, alone.
The moon was full and bright over Otosan Uchi. The weather was calm and peaceful; a perfect summer's evening. Kumanosuke paused and took a deep breath. The air was rich and fragrant with the smell of the sea. It was the simple pleasures that made life worth living. When you were as poor as Kumanosuke was, you pretty much had to enjoy the simple pleasures or you would have no pleasures to enjoy at all. The old merchant unshouldered the heavy bale of wool he carried over one shoulder. He was already late in delivering it; surely they wouldn't mind if he took a bit of extra time. He leaned against one of the heavy beams supporting the Road of the Most High and dug around in his furoshiki for his pipe and that pouch of Yobanjin pipeweed Jun had sold him last week.
Kumanosuke paused, listening. He could swear that he heard the sounds of heavy footsteps echoing on wood. That would mean someone was using the Road of the Most High. Since the death of the Emperor, the elevated wooden path cut through the heart of the Imperial City had fallen into disuse. The Four Winds used it from time to time; technically they really didn't have a right to, but who was going to tell them that? Glancing around to make sure that no one was looking, Kumanosuke shimmied up the seven-foot pole and poked his head over the side. Resting his stubble-covered chin on the most sacrosanct of Imperial roads, he glanced in either direction. From the heart of the city, he could see torches approaching.
"Excuse me, sir, but what are you doing?" a voice said to his left.
Kumanosuke yelped and dropped back down to the street. The man wore the dark robes of the Kanrinin, the caretakers chosen by the Miya family to maintain and protect the Emperor's road. Samurai! Kumanosuke immediately fell prostrate on the earth. His "I am sorry, my lord!" Kumanosuke whimpered. "I meant no disrespect, I was only curious!"
"Get out of here," the man commanded.
"Yes, my lord!" the old merchant said. He quickly rose, shouldered his bale of wool, and hurried off down the street. The caretaker drew a small sanding tool from his robes and began patiently polishing the sacred beams of the Road of the Most High.
"Problem?" asked a second Kanrinin, stepping out of the shadows beside the first.
"Just a peasant. He didn't even notice the ward," Shoin said, looking down at the coiled silken ribbon that dangled from the sanding tool. "Are you sure that these writs will injure him?"
"Akemi says that they will," Kijuro whispered, trying to look nonchalant as he began working on a nearby beam with his own tool. "I believe her. Not that it matters. This is the fourth night we have done this. Kijuro has begun to develop blisters! Kijuro is a samurai not a carpenter, Shoin-sama."
"You are a Kanrinin," he corrected. "Keep sanding."
"Still wondering what's going to go wrong," Kijuro said, looking at one open palm. "Though I already have a good idea."
Kijuro sighed. "I think I hear 'Lord Naseru,'" he whispered.
"I hope she's ready," Shoin said nervously.
"Yu-Pan is always ready," Kijuro replied.
Shoin nodded, looking up as footsteps approached on the bridge above. As per custom, the two men bowed prostrate on the ground as three figures passed overhead - Lord Naseru and two heavily armed yojimbo. In truth, it was merely Agasha Chieh disguised as Naseru, accompanied by two figures in the armor of Seppun Miharu. With Chieh's illusions in place, Gusai would hopefully be unable to tell the difference. Shoin and Kijuro waited until they passed overhead, then rose. The streets around the Road of the Most High were clear on either side, as they had been since the road was first built. The two men had a clear view of their allies on the road above. So would Gusai. Shoin's right hand rested against a thick beam and the yumi hidden there. His left hand hovered over the bucket by his feet, ready to toss aside the cover, draw an arrow from within, and fire.
"Hm," Shoin said, frowning. "No luck so far. Let's move closer, Kijuro."
Suddenly Kijuro charged into Shoin from behind. The two men sprawled in the street, grunting in pain. A swift wind seemed to cut through the air above them. Shoin watched in disbelief as the beam that had been beside his head exploded into splinters, not making a sound. Something dark swiftly scampered up the beams onto the bridge.
"Shoin…" Kijuro whispered. "I figured out what's wrong with the plan…"
Shoin glanced back. Blood streamed down the Ox's chin. A large wound was open on Kijuro's left side; the Ox had been swift enough to push Shoin aside, but he could not save himself.
"The problem…" Kijuro said, "is that Kijuro will not be there to finish it."
"No!" Shoin shouted. "Kijuro, hold on." He rolled the big samurai onto his back and looked around desperately. He could see the shadowy figure moving swiftly along the road of the Most High, toward the others. Chieh! Rezan! Yu-Pan! Beware!" They did not seem to hear him. Shoin swore, took his yumi from its hiding place and drew and arrow from the bucket. One of Akemi's wards hung from the arrowhead. He loosed the arrow at the assassin. The creature paused for a moment, looked back, and kept moving. A cloud of darkness boiled around it, obscuring any chance at a second shot.
"Damn!" Shoin swore. "Kijuro, hold on, I'll be back!"
"No!" Kijuro shouted so fiercely that Shoin stopped. "Come back," the Ox said, "Kijuro has one more thing to give you…"
"Lord Naseru, look out!" Akemi shouted just as the shadowed creature lunged into them. It struck Akemi hard, sending her flying from the Emperor's road. She landed in the street with a thud and lay still. A roiling black fog rolled in around them; it seemed almost as if the world was only the Road of the Most High, and nothing else.
"Fortunes!" Chieh swore, turning to face the assassin. He was a strange mix of man and shadow with disproportionately long limbs and long, jagged claws. Its face was that of an elderly man, twisted in hatred.
"Let's dispose of the deception, shall we?" Gusai cackled. It flicked its wrist and the illusion covering Agasha Chieh shattered. The Phoenix stood revealed in her true form, an exotic young woman with a long white topknot. Chieh shouted a prayer to the kami, but Gusai hurled an orb of darkness at the shugenja. The cloud struck her in the face, writhing as spiraling tendrils streamed into her nose and mouth. Unable to speak or breathe, she dropped to her knees.
"Release her, Gusai!" the other guardsman demanded, taking a martial stance with katana still sheathed. "I think you'll find me a bit more challenging than the Falcon."
"Which one of the whelps are you?" Gusai demanded. "Your voice sounds too deep for a Battle Maiden."
"No whelp," the samurai said, drawing off his mempo and tossing it aside. "Four two centuries I served in the armies of Yomi, training with the finest samurai in all of history. The Heroes of Rokugan were no friends of mine, but they deserved better deaths than you gave them. I am ready to face you, demon, and send you screaming back to Toshigoku."
"The drunken poet," Gusai said, surprised.
"Sober enough to kill one more Goju," Rezan replied.
"I am not a Goju!" Gusai screamed, lunging at Rezan.
The poet's blade came free in a blinding flash, a black ribbon dangling from the blade. It cut through Gusai's body as if it were nothing but shadow. The creature parted in two halves melting through the slats of the bridge, and was seen no more. Rezan held his blade steady for a moment, prepared for a second attack. Then, with a flick of his wrist, he quickly sheathed the weapon and knelt to help Chieh.
"Should have waited a moment longer," Gusai's voice hissed. A great claw shot up between the planks of the bridge, seizing Rezan by the throat. The shadow assassin melted through the Road of the Most High, lifting the ronin into the air. With a triumphant cackle, he tossed Rezan away into the mist. Somewhere, the sound of a body crashing through a wooden wall could be heard.
Gusai turned to look down at Agasha Chieh, still choking helplessly on the globule of darkness. "Silly Scorpion wards," he laughed. "The Lying Darkness is dead and gone. You'd think after the first three butei they would have learned..." The assassin extended one claw toward Agasha Chieh's throat, until the most disconcerting sound gave him pause.
The sound of hoofbeats on the Road of the Most High.
Gusai looked up incredulously as a fully armored Battle Maiden emerged from the mist, mounted on a fully barded steed. "Stand away from Chieh," Utaku Yu-Pan commanded. She leveled her long spear, pointing it toward the assassin.
"Heh." Gusai rubbed one long claw across his lips. "Do you have more ribbons to attack me with?"
"Not at all," Yu-Pan replied. She gave the spear a flick to one side. The cover on the tip fell free, revealing a brightly shining crystal blade. Without another word, Yu-Pan charged. Agasha Chieh quickly rolled to one side, taking her chances with the fall from the bridge rather than remaining in the Battle Maiden's Path. Gusai gave an animal hiss and lunged at her in turn, his body stretching into a long plane of darkness. Horse and assassin collided in a spray of blood and sparks. Someone screamed. The horse fell shrieking from the bridge, injured by Gusai's attack. Yu-Pan hit the bridge with a thud and rolled several times, losing her spear in the process. Several feet away, Gusai crouched on the bridge, holding one claw to his side. A stream of white energy boiled upward from the wound she had given him, he stared at her in hatred.
"Attack the horse. Battle Maidens can't fight without the horse," Gusai said with a pained grin. "That's what they always say, isn't it?"
"Famous last words of many a samurai," Yu-Pan replied. She searched desperately for her spear; something was glowing in the street below.
"We shall see," Gusai said, lunging at her again.
The Battle Maiden rolled to one side just as Gusai passed above her. She landed in a crouch and turned to find the light of the spear; it was somewhere on the other side of the bridge. She could see a ripple in the darkness on that side; Gusai had landed near the spear. She began to clamber through the timbers, but almost instantly stopped. The strength drained from her body as she stared in disbelief.
Moshi Kakau stood in the street before her, holding the crystal-tipped spear. With a defiant scowl, he threw it over one shoulder. The spear disappeared into the shadows.
"Well done, descendant," Gusai said, limping toward Kakau while fixing the Battle Maiden with a savage grin. "Perhaps you are a child of Osano Wo after all."
"Yes," Kakau said. "We are both children of Osano Wo. Now let us go to meet him."
Gusai looked at Kakau, confused. The small man lunged toward his ancestor, grabbing the assassin's wrists with a defiant cry to the heavens. The heavens shouted in return, and a bolt of clear white lightning echoed down at the shugenja's call. Feeding his life into the spell, Kakau and Gusai were consumed with bright light. The shadows surrounding them boiled away, and for several moments the road surrounding the city of Otosan Uchi was as bright as noonday.
When it was done, Moshi Kakau's burnt corpse fell to the street. The tattered figure of Gusai stumbled, body smoking with white energy. "Just like all the others," Gusai sneered, kicking the burnt corpse. "You don't deserve to call yourself a Mantis! You don't deserve to call yourself samurai! None of you!" Gusai gestured at the city, and as he looked up he noticed Miya Shoin's glowing figure standing on the Road of the Most High with his bow drawn.
The next thing he saw was a single flash of light, reflected from the tip of an arrow tipped with Kijuro's crystal shard.
And Gusai saw nothing after that.
Shoin emerged from the Imperial Palace, squinting at the brightness of the sun. "Bright out today," he observed.
"Considering all the shadows we've dealt with lately, I prefer bright, thank you," Rezan said. The poet sat on a bench in the garden, furoshiki sack over one shoulder.
"I have to agree, Rezan-sama," Shoin said with a laugh.
"Rezan-san, please," he replied. "You know me well enough to know I don't deserve that much respect."
"If you say so, Rezan-sama," Shoin replied.
"Now you're just being annoying," the poet said.
"Are you going somewhere, Rezan?" Shoin asked, nodding at the poet's bag. "Lord Naseru said that you are more than welcome to stay. He offered us all posts as Emerald Magistrates; he could probably get you one as well."
"What did the others say to that?" Rezan asked.
"Yu-Pan said yes," Shoin said, "though she's gone home to deal with some matters in Utaku lands. Akemi disappeared."
"Back to Scorpion lands, or did she take Kijuro up on his offer?" Rezan asked.
Shoin looked surprised. "How did you know about that? Kijuro told me as he died. He said no one else knew."
"After two hundred years it's hard not to pick things up," Rezan said. "Just be careful around Chieh, or she'll rip that little tidbit right out of your mind."
"Right," Shoin laughed. "So what about joining us? With your experience, you'd make a great magistrate."
Rezan laughed. "Not that it wasn't a great adventure, but I have to keep moving," he said. "A little heroism is good for the ego, but I came back for a reason, remember?"
Shoin nodded. "Good luck to you. I hope you find her."
"Thank you," he said. "Are you going to Shiro Morito?"
"Yes," Shoin said.
Rezan paused for a moment, then drew a scrap of paper from his pocket. "Take this there for me, will you? For Kijuro's funeral?"
Shoin looked at the paper.
No man stands alone -
No man with true friends.
Hear the mountain laugh.
"It's rough," Rezan said, looking at the ground with embarrassment. "Like I said, I'm really not a very good poet. I took some liberties with the form and the syllables are all wrong."
"You can do that, you're Rezan, right?" Shoin said.
"That's what I figured," Rezan answered.
"I think that Kijuro would appreciate it," Shoin said, folding the parchment carefully and tucking it in his obi.
"Your father would be proud of you Shoin," Rezan said. "When I get to Yomi, I'll be sure to tell him what he missed."
"I'll see you there, poet," Shoin said.
Rezan smiled, nodded his head a final time, and walked away without saying goodbye.
After some time, Shoin came to the edge of the docks at the far end of the city. He would have expected to find Agasha Chieh here, but there she was. Her form was no longer wrapped in illusion. She appeared as she truly was - a surprisingly young girl with long white hair. She sat at the edge of the docks, watching the burning kobune with a confused frown. Shoin sat beside her.
"I do not understand it," she said, her voice still hoarse from the other night's battle.
"Neither do I," Rezan said, standing at her side. "I always thought Mantis funerary practices were a little weird."
"That is not what I mean," she said. "You gave your report?"
Shoin nodded. "Naseru-sama was quite impressed, especially when I told him of your trick with the straw target. He said that your father himself could not have-"
Chieh gave Shoin a harsh look. "Do you know why I always alter my appearance, Shoin? Why I cover myself with illusions?"
"Er… no," Shoin said.
"My father's name was Agasha Hisojo," she replied.
"Your father was Agasha Hisojo?" Shoin asked, surprised. "I've heard of him. He was a great magistrate; my aunt met him a time or two."
"He was a very great, powerful, and famous magistrate of the Dragon Clan," she corrected him. "It's said that without his negotiations, the Agasha would have never transferred peacefully to the Phoenix. Even when the other Agasha were reviled as traitors, my father was still welcomed by the Kitsuki for his work as a magistrate. Do you have any idea what it's like to be the daughter of a legend in not one, but two clans?" She looked at Shoin.
"Actually, I do," he said. "Remember, my father was a hero in two different eras."
"And since we met it's irritated me how easily you deal with that," she replied. "I've spent my life trying to stay out of my father's shadow, to be greater than what he was, to make people notice me for what I am… but the other night I nearly died… and now I realize none of that matters. Look." She gestured at the burning kobune. Kakau lied to us, deceived us, even sabotaged us. Are we to believe one final heroic act is enough to wipe away an act of villainy?"
"One act of villainy is usually enough to wipe out a whole life of good works," he replied. "Why should it work any differently the other way?"
"Why indeed," she mused, watching the fire.
"So," Chieh said, looking frankly at Shoin. "Why did you not tell me that Akemi was a Scorpion?"
"Some things never change," Shoin said, shaking his head wearily.