Loyal like a Dog

"You are pathetic, Hatori!"

"W-wh-who are y-you? What do you want from me?" Never in his life had Bayushi Hatori been so afraid. Not only had the unknown man killed all of his vassals, he seemed to know exactly how to infiltrate his home.

"Not so tough on your own? Helpless without a bodyguard? What kind of samurai are you? Surely you are no Scorpion!"

"What is it that you want," Hatori yelled at the unknown man. "Gold? Power? Influence? I can give it to you!"

"You cannot give what is not yours to begin with. What I want is truth…"

"What do you mean?"

"At the very least you will not call me ninpinin again."

* * *


'Brute of a man'

All of his life Kedamono had been associated with stupidity, bruteness, bluntness and simpleness. Even his name implied that he was more a beast than a man. His whole life decided on one seer's false reading of signs…

* * *

"What do you think?"

"It doesn't look good, my lord."

"Evil spirits, Samo?"

"No, lord Rikoji, bad signs. The portents tell of great strength, but also of a great weakness in the mind…"

"What will that mean for the child?"

"My lord, it will be a brute…"

Bayushi Rikoji put his face in his hands. A Scorpion brute would have little use, save for a bodyguard perhaps. He prayed to the Fortunes the shugenja was wrong, but Samo was a respected man, and his forecasts were always accurate… What could he do?

* * *

"My lord? Rikoji-sama?" It was one of the servant girls entering the room. She slid the fusuma screen behind her, closing it carefully.

Rikoji looked up from his hands and asked with a heavy heart, "Yes? What news do you have?"

"You have a healthy, headstrong son, my Lord."

"And my wife?"

"She's fine, but very tired from the struggle to give life to the boy. Apperently he preferred the safe confines of the womb over the world."

Rikoji stood and went to see his wife and son. As soon as he was on the hallway Soshi Samo addressed him. "Sama, please remember that the boy is a simpleton. Be prepared."

"Do not remind me of it, Samo. I am prepared."

With a deep breath Rikoji opened the fusuma screen and entered the room to see his wife and newborn son, prepared for anything.

* * *

"My lord, a son!"

"Do you hear that, Kedamono-kun? You've got a baby brother!" Rikoji's eyes beamed with joy and expectation.

From the corner where he was sitting the four year old Kedamono just stared blankly at his father, betraying hardly any hint of understanding.

Rikoji shook his head and sighed, "I wish you could understand, my son." The minor daimyo of the Scorpion stood and went to see his wife and second son.

When Kedamono was alone he whispered to himself, "I wish you would understand, my father…"

* * *

"Who's he, Hatori? Where's his mask?"

"That's my brother, Kedamono," Hatori answered. "But you can call him ninpinin. It means the same, but it is so much easier on the tongue. Ninpinin! Get over here!"

Slowly Kedamono approached, his ever-blank stare on his face and stopped some distance from his brother.

"Why do you treat him like a dog?"

"Truly, Shosuro Akiko, why do you care so much?"

"And you, Bayushi Hatori, why do you care so little?"

"He's a dog trapped in the body of a man. That he walks on two legs is no proof of intelligence. Even a dog can be taught that." Hatori laughed cruelly, but Akiko only felt sorry.

* * *

"Who's he, Hatori-san? Why doesn't he say anything?"

"That's my brother, Kedamono," Hatori answered. "He is so stupid that he's practically mute. 'Yosh' and 'hai' is about as far as his vocabulary goes. We can speak safely, he does not understand anything we say."

"You understand there is nothing else I can do," said Doji Ponubo as he wathced the simpleton's blank stare. "No one else to turn to. I have tried everything, yet my cousin thwarted every plan and foiled each move I made. I know I can trust you."

"Of course you can; a Scorpion's word is his bond. And all is fair in love and war, no?"

Ponubo nodded and his mood brightened like a clear sky at dawn. Behind his mask Hatori's smile was the poisonous thundercloud waiting behind the horizon.

* * *

"What are you telling me, Hatori-kun? That Kedamono killed this Crane? Impossible!"

"No father. Another Crane, Doji Ponubo, tricked him into this. He will pay, but Kedamono is to be executed. We…"

"No," Rikoji exclaimed, "I shall take the blame and retire from my position."

Hatori's confidence wavered for a moment; this would be more successful than he had expected! "But father," he continued, "Kedamono-kun is…"

"Your brother and my son," Rikoji interrupted angrily, "and very dear to me. You and your brother are the only ones that were left to me after your mother had died. Protect him, Hatori, I won't be able to do so much longer. That's my last wish, my last command."

"Yes, my lord," said Hatori as he bowed respectfully.

* * *

"Yojiro-sama, it is my honor to receive you in my family's ancestral home. I have readied your quarters."

"Yes, yes, Hatori-san. Take me to my quarters and afterwards I want to visit your father."

"Hai, my lord. May I inquire how you know him?"

"Your father is one of my cousins, that's all."

Yojiro frowned as he saw his lavish quarters, he traveled lightly and want to stay no more than one night. "Post a guard at my room, Hatori-san."

"Yes, sama."

"Now take me to your father."

"Yes, sama."

* * *

Yojiro left early the next morning, and just before he would ride off he looked at Hatori and asked, "Could anybody have entered my room yesterday?"

"No, Yojiro-sama! Absolutely not! Kedamono-san, my brother, would not let anyone pass and no one would try if they knew how strong he is. Kedamono-san himself is too stupid to take action of his own initiative. Why do you ask?"

"No reason, Hatori-san," said Yojiro, spurred his horse and rode off. While he was on the road he thought about the paper he had found in his room. It read: 'Shinriko: Do not fear those people who hide their intentions behind masks, fear those who do not need masks to hide them.' Yojiro smiled to himself, knowing that his efforts were safe.

* * *

"What! Is this one of your sick jokes again, Hatori?"

Hatori smiled devilish, but Akiko could not see that. With a calm voice Hatori repeated his statement again. "You were to be married to my father's first son, the one who would become daimyo."

Akiko was furious, she spat out her words as if the were venom. "Kedamono is first born, not you."

"Kedamono is a dog! I am the first real son my father ever had!"

"Better to marry a dog than a rat!"

As Akiko walked off Hatori looked at his brother, who was staring at something that could not be seen. More to himself than anything else Hatori said, "Women, ninpinin… If I don't understand them now, how will you ever? How will you ever understand at all?"

* * *

"But I have no such magic! I doubt even the Phoenix have."

"That does not matter," said the deep, powerful voice from behind the mask covering the large figure's face. "As long as Hatori thinks you have."

"And what is there in return for this favor?"

"I am in a unique position to, perhaps, restore your family to a Clan. Not your own, but it is more than nothing, and at the moment nothing is all you have, Chuda Mutomo."

"You are right, we have an agreement."

* * *

"Who are you anyway," asked Akiko as her eyes scanned the large form for anything she recognized. He was clad in blood red armor and wore a night black cloak. His mask covered his entire face and showed only the glint of his cunning eyes.

"Someone," said the unknown figure, "who cares enough about truth and loyalty to face Hatori."

* * *

"Ah, Akiko-chan! Have you returned to give yourself to me? Be sensible."

"No," Akiko said with unwavering confidence.

"No?" Hatori's eyes showed utter confusion.

"I have decided that I will honour the arrangement made between our fathers. I shall marry Kedamono-san."

"What!" Hatori's eyes flooded with rage, flushing out his confusion.

"You may remain family daimyo, but when our first child is old enough you -will- step down." With these words Akiko left Hatori.

* * *

"What is it that you want, Chuda? I am not in the mood for idle trifles."

Chuda Mutomo smiled friendly, ignoring the insult and said, "But I bring good news, Hatori-sama. I spoke to your father and I believe I have magic that might restore your brother's mind!"

Hatori slumped in his seat. He felt miserable and wished he could open up the earth and disappear within. He waved the shugenja off and sent for Samo. He had assassinations to plan. The Chuda should die, lest he restored Kedamono to his full intelligence. Akiko would have to die too, especially if she already bore Kedamono a child. He would leave nothing to coincidence: his brother would 'disappear' as well.

* * *

Soshi Samo was walking back to his small adobe, an hour's walk from the castle of the family he served. Hatori had charged him to find a way to do away with three people who threatened his position. While Hatori himself would find solace in the arms of one or another geisha, perhaps more, Samo would have to do the dirty work. It was at moments like these that he remembered how it was serving under lord Rikoji; a just and fair daimyo, who knew to what and when to do it. Samo was not some servant, but a trusted advisor. Hatori was too paranoid to put his trust in anyone, he had never even trusted his own father. He entered his house, more of a tower actually, and closed the shoji behind him. He was shocked to hear a voice coming from the shadows.

"Soshi Samo…"

"Who's there," shouted Samo as he moved his hand in the folds of his crimson robe and put his fingers around a scroll.

"I am a condemned man, Samo, and it is by your doing."

"I never," stammered Samo.

"Oh really," interrupted the voice from the shadows, "are you sure? Don't you remember condemning me to a life of silence before I was even born?"

"Who…" Samo could not, for the love of the Kami, remember any such thing.

"I am the rightful daimyo of my family," said the voice as its figure stepped from the shadows. A men in blood red armor and a night black cloak was revealed. He held his mask in hand to reveal a face Samo was intimately familiar with, except that he had never seen it without a blank, senseless stare.

"Kedamono-kun… How? You speak? Your eyes show intelligence… How?"

"From my youth I was treated like a dog, it was not hard to act like one if nobody sees you like anything else. Your false prophecy was the cause of all of this. Do you know how many times I could've killed you for condemning me? But I knew that you would come in handy one day. That day is now."

"Wh-what do you mean?"

"I will give you one last chance to save your life. Give me the respect I am due, obey me and do this task for me and I will forget what you did to me."

"Yes, my lord. What would you have me do?"

"You will tell Hatori that you've taken care of all three of us, that he should not consider himself with our burdens any longer…"

"As you wish, sama."

"…And when his few close allies turn up dead, then you will tell him that our vengeful spirits might've come back for revenge. You will tell him that you shall protect our home with spells and ofuda and that he will have to stay inside to be safe. You will conjure up sounds of haunting ghosts around the house to scare him even more. This is what you will do to stay alive."

Samo swallowed hard and nodded, bowing deeply. When he looked up again Kedamono was gone.

* * *

"Who is it this time, Samo?"

"Fukori, Hatori-sama. He was found maimed in the forest near his home. The official statement is that he was attacked and killed by a wild boar.

"Just like the others… What does this mean, Samo?"

Another thing Samo found irritating about Hatori, he would only address people properly if he saw the need to do so. Staying polite he said, "In all of my years I have seen much. I must attribute this to ghosts. To be honest, I think that Akiko, Kedamono and the Chuda have come for revenge. I have heard of boar attacks, but not so many in quick succession and none that killed parties of five men. This is too much to be coincidence, lord."

"What can we do? I do not wish to end up like them!"

Hatori's eyes betrayed fear and Samo drank it as if it was blood and he a pennaggolan. With satisfaction he said, "I will summon the Kami to protect you and use ofuda to seal off the house.

"Good… good…"

* * *

Kedamono strode through the ancestral home he had inhibited all of his life, as usual people stepped aside to let him pass, but this time they could little else than gape at him. Where normally had been no expression and a blank stare, there now was determination and a fire like they had never seen before. From the look on his face it was evident he had come to claim what was his, and he was headed to Hatori's 'throne' room.

Before he opened the fusuma he put on his mask, which look like a cross between a hellish dog and a wild boar.

As he stepped into the room, Kedamono yelled, "Hatori! I have come for you! Face what you deserve!"

Hatori was standing with his back to the entrance and whirled around as he heard the voice. "Wh-what?" When he saw the mask he thought that a real oni had entered his home; the enchantment Chuda Mutomo had put on Kedamono's mask gave him a ghostly shimmering glow.

"I am revenge incarnate, for Akiko, Kedamono and Mutomo I shall finish you!"

Hatori fell backwards and scrambled away from the ghostly figure, whimpering like a little girl.

"You are pathetic, Hatori!"

"W-wh-who are y-you? What do you want from me?"

"Not so tough on your own? Helpless without a bodyguard? What kind of samurai are you? Surely you are no Scorpion!"

"What is it, that you want," Hatori yelled at the unknown man. "Gold? Power? Influence? I can give it to you!"

"You cannot give what is not yours to begin with. What I want is truth…"

"What do you mean?"

"At the very least you will not call me ninpinin again."

Hatori finally began to understand who he was talking about. As realization began to dawn in his eyes, Kedamono removed the mask covering his face and smiled wryly. "Now do you understand, Hatori-kun? You fell for the trick, everybody did. All those years, all those secrets."

"K…K…Ke-kedamono…?" Still Hatori could not fathom what was happening to him, but he sensed his brother did not come here to let him live.

"You are weak and pitiful, this is your last moment. I believe that one can find strength in one's last moment. The pinnacle of a life, when you realize that all may have been for naught, that everything you've done was in vane, that your destiny could very well be to die without having accomplished anything. From that moment you could draw unsurmountable strength. The power to, in an instant, change your destiny forever. The question is, Hatori, what will you do with your last moment? Will you seize the power and change your destiny? Or die like a crying geisha girl?"

Those words seemed to strike something in Hatori, with a renewed drive he drew his sword and charged Kedamono, ready to kill him so that he might live.

But it was in vane. Kedamono sidestepped and thrust his katana backwards, piercing one of Hatori's lungs from behind. The younger brother fell to the floor, gasping and coughing up blood. Kedamono loomed over the fallen man and said, "It was your destiny to die by my hand. I am glad you proved to be a samurai after all and that I did not have to cut you down without a fight."

As Kedamono raised his arms to kill his brother, Hatori looked up at his brother and smiled. With his last breath he spoke: "Kedamono*cough*-kun, tell father I died a samurai's death." With those words on his lips Hatori left the mortal world and journeyed to another place, for better or for worse, only Hatori would know.

* * *


Several days later Kedamono had managed to clear up all confusion, he had gotten word from Yojiro that he was acknowledged as daimyo of Rikoji's family and lands, that he could marry Akiko with his personal approval and best wishes, and that Rikoji was allowed the privilige to commit seppuku to cleanse his reputation. Kedamono had talked to Akiko and told her his entire story and he had been given the chance to choose his own name, a privilege he did not get at what had to pass as his gempukku.

Bayushi Kedamono, now known as Bayushi Yacho, was sitting in the small court room of his family's yakata. Akiko and Mutomo were with him, interested in why he had sent for them.

"Does the Boar Clan mean anything to you," asked Yacho of Akiko and Mutomo.

"I believe," answered Mutomo, "that it was a minor Clan, an off-shoot from the Crab. But they disappeared some five hundred years ago."

"Indeed, they are all but forgotten to most people. The Ikoma have stricken them from their history accounts, but our historians have not. It is commonly believed that every Boar Clan member died, but there were a few who escaped. Most of those became Crab or married into another Clan, but some remained true to their name. Several decades ago the supposedly last Boar died in a monestary. But this was not true."

"How so," asked Akiko," why are you telling us this?"

"Our daimyo had kept a close eye on the remaining Boar, always vigilant for power. Quite some time before this man, Heichi Chokei, died, one of our specially trained samurai-ko visited him in the monestary alone, but she left bearing his child."

Both Akiko and Mutomo looked at Yacho strangely, they still did not understood what he was getting at.

"The Boar Clan was never officially declared as defunct. No one knew what happened to most them and since some remained, they did not see it necessary. This leaves us in a very unique position to strengthen my claim."

"Your claim," Akiko said bewildered.

"That child the samurai-ko give birth to, that child was my grandmother, and my father was hers and I am my father's. I carry the blood of the Boar Clan within me, I am the last descendant of that line at this moment. With effort we might rebuild the Boar Clan as an independent minor Clan. Though we would not mean much, we could establish contact with the Crab, and through that form a bond between them and the Scorpion. And as an independent Clan we can act for the Scorpion without being connected to them all the time."

"And I would become the head of one of the families," asked Chuda Mutomo eagerly.

"I can arrange for you to marry Soshi Samo's beautiful and gifted cousin, Mutomo-san, together you could train those willing to join us. However, these words must stay confined to this room and us. Before we can do anything we must establish more holdings if we ever want to claim to be a Clan. We are near the Crab so my home should suffice. And, as I said, we are in a unique position: since there is no Emperor we can build our holdings fairly unnoticed and when one of the Winds ascends the Throne, we can state our claim. Until then, we must prepare."

Bayushi Akiko and Chuda Mutomo both nodded and smiled, happy that Yacho proved to be a true Scorpion after all.

A plan has been formed, a daring, yet cunning ploy for power. Can it succeed in the current turmoil or is it destined to fail? Destiny favors mortal men, so everything is possible.

[To be continued…]

Shinriko: Never act without a reason, never plan without contingencies, trust only those who depend on you and you might die. Do none of these and you -will- die.