Chapter Nine: The Imperial City
"Strengthen the spirit as well as the body, and the
depths of the soul will become the steel of the blade."
- Kakita's The Sword
The whirl and rush of the Empire closed in about the samurai, his feet stirring the dusty road as Koshin came finally to the cities of the Hub. Like a wall of humanity the houses enclosed the mighty palace of Otosan Uchi, and within these rich estates the Great Clans played at the games of bureaucracy and diplomacy, holding the Empire together with the now-tenuous peace.
Beneath his kasa, Koshin was cool enough, despite the warmth in the air. As the samurai made his way through the busy streets, his eyes were ready and open, each wandering warrior offering the chance for a true challenge.
By and large, however, the Hub was no place for ronin, no matter their motives. The magistrates watched Koshin with nervous eyes, and everywhere were the yojimbo of cautious courtiers and other, more dangerous men.
The city was bracing, bristling like a cornered wolf.
Feeling the groan of his empty stomach at last, Koshin turned his eyes from the search for challenge and found a small inn, crowded almost beyond capacity. After a moment the samurai was able to get a simple meal of soup and rice, and sat chewing idly as he watched the wide road that led away from the Imperial City.
Koshin had heard from some of the locals of the skills of the Yaruki Jukko, a group of monks that had made the Imperial City their home since before the Coup years ago. Though Koshin could only guess what had happened to the order in the last thirty years, he knew that they were respected as skilled and honorable warriors.
Just the type of men to aid Koshin in the recovery of what he had lost.
For the moment, however, the samurai was happy enough to sit and eat, watching as humanity pushed on to his side. The Hubs were packed with people, rich and poor alike, from the gates of the Imperial Palace to the edge of the city roads. Even to watch it was interesting.
Finished with his meal, Koshin headed down the crowded streets, wondering idly whether the city had changed much in the past thirty years. As a child, the Crane had thought that Otosan Uchi was like the dynasty that lived within it, immortal and unbreakable. Now, both the Hantei and the Otosan Uchi of old were gone forever, leaving a new Empire in their wake.
Following the long roads into the walls of Otosan Uchi, the ronin was amazed, as always, with the opulent splendor of the Imperial land. Though gold had little warmth to him, Koshin had to admit that it could bring about great things.
Halfway down the street that led into the Mejiki District, Koshin heard the sound of hoof beats, moving too quickly through the crowded streets. Merchants cried out as the horse forced its way past them, and the voice of a young man called out harshly for room, another samurai's form leaning over his saddle as well.
Stepping aside at the Temple of the Sun God, Koshin reached out to grab the fury-filled horse, gripping the massive beast tightly as the samurai leapt from his place. Barely acknowledging the ronin at first, the man hauled his companion from the beast, casting a glance towards Koshin as he did.
"My name is Shinjo Abaya, ronin. Touch my horse, or the samurai's blade, and it will be the name that sends you to the fires of the afterlife." With that, the Unicorn magistrate was stumbling hard up the wide steps, calling loudly for assistance as the monks threw open the wide doors.
"Hmph," Koshin sniffed idly, looking over to the horse with feigned insult, "so much for samurai gratitude." For its part, the massive beast just made a soft whinny, then stood calmly to await its owner.
It was less than a moment later that the settling silence of the street was shattered again, as shouting rose up from the thickening throng. Pushing himself through a startled populace, a third young samurai appeared, dressed in a pale grey kimono and sandals, a bloody katana in his hand.
"Where is the owner of that horse?" The young man had his pate shaved in the traditional style, and despite his commanding voice, he was no older than twenty years. Arching an eyebrow at the bloody weapon, Koshin released his hold on the Unicorn's horse, just in case the young man wished to continue to wet his blade. "Speak up, ronin!"
"Abaya-sama is in the temple with an injured man, samurai. I am holding his horse in the meantime." Koshin watched as the man started up the wide steps, holding the blade in both hands, "Wait a moment. There will be no bloodshed in the temple, unless it is your own."
The young man turned to face Koshin, a sneer crossing his sweaty face. "That man killed my father, ronin! No temple will hide him from me!"
"Is it his blood," Koshin asked, "that stains your sword? It seems that you have had your revenge."
The young man snarled, "Not yet. Not until he is dead."
Looking up at the golden temple, then back at the dirty, bloodstained man, Koshin smiled slightly. "Do not do something that you will regret, boy. You serve your father's memory better in honoring his line than in dying for such a foolish cause."
Lowering his sword slightly, the samurai made his voice harder, "Get out of my way."
Loosening his sakaba, Koshin just smiled.
Sitting in the small dojo of the Nitanki family, Koshin leaned back and closed his eyes as the young man before him was tended to by his sister's doctor. The boy complained a great deal for someone so willing to wet his blade in others, and Koshin was already tired from carrying the unconscious man back through the streets to the family's home.
"He shouldn't have interfered," the man snapped through the blackness, the voice focused towards the corner where Koshin was resting. "Now Gayu will recover! All of my effort, for nothing."
His sister's voice was calmer than her younger brother, a match to her quiet demeanor. "It does not matter, Tanoshi…one of the monks has announced that Yotsu Gayu is dead. You should be more concerned with Shinjo Abaya, now that you have involved the law."
Tanoshi's voice became indignant quickly, "It was a legal duel!"
"But not to the death, brother. You should have yielded after the first strike…"
"Like Gayu 'yielded' for our father? I think not." Rising roughly from his seat, Tanoshi's feet made an echoing sound in the empty dojo, and the man was gone quickly, snatching up his katana from where it had lain beside Koshin.
To the ronin, he offered only an angry gaze. Koshin was quickly becoming quite disappointed in the thanks he was receiving today.
Rising slowly and tucking his swords away, Koshin turned to Tanoshi's sister, bowing slightly as she approached. Nitanki Masanko was a pretty woman, thrust into the control of her family's estate by the death of her father two months ago.
It had strained her, and though her hair was long, and her face fair, Koshin could see in her black eyes where hope had turned to steel and stone. "Pay no attention to my brother, samurai-san; he has a gift with the sword, but his manners are poor. We are grateful for your help."
Koshin nodded, "He has potential, though crossing magistrates is a poor way to train a blade."
Her laugh was swift and abrupt, pleasantly composed, and then Masanko nodded in agreement. "That is true, but my brother thinks to avenge our father's death. It is something that has become his sole ambition, though I feel that his skill is not enough."
"But he killed his enemy," Koshin said, wondering why the noblewoman was telling him so much of the tale, "Obviously his skill was enough to overcome this man Gayu."
Shaking her head slowly, Masanko continued, "Our father was not killed by Yotsu Gayu alone, samurai-san. Gayu was only the yojimbo of the murderer; Tanoshi felt obliged to challenge him first, to save the man and the Yotsu face, rather than to fail his lord."
"Who is Gayu's lord?" Koshin already could see that he was not going to like the answer.
Walking over to look out into the small, pretty Nitanki garden, the girl spoke, "His name is Lord Horii…he is a master of the Iron Fan school of Toshi Ranbo wo Shien Shite Reigasho. He will return in three days…"
Finishing her words from the look in Masanko's eyes, Koshin shook his head, "And your brother cannot defeat him."
The woman nodded at his words, her eyes drifting to the swords tucked into Koshin's obi. "That is why you must kill him."
The air of evening was cool and dusty, and beyond the simple doorway was the rolling wave of humanity that forever filled Otosan Uchi's street. Koshin leaned against the house's stone wall, his swords resting against his shoulder as the world passed him by. After several hours of thought considering Masanko's offer, the samurai was still no closer to a decision.
He knew nothing of House Nitanki; how could he trust the girl's words as the truth? Perhaps Horii had a good reason for the death of Tanoshi and Masanko's father; but surely the boy also had a right to avenging the feud.
Certainly Tanoshi would not wish for Koshin's interference…it might be considered an affront to the young man's honor, which would mean another duel, this one to the death.
However, if he did not accept Masanko's offer, and her brother died…would Koshin regret not trying to help the young man?
Honor waged a war against itself within, and then the samurai rose slowly from his seat, turning to reenter the Nitanki estate. As he turned, the samurai caught the scent of soft perfume, and faced Masanko again, watching him from the door. She had been standing there for some time, Koshin imagined, waiting for him to decide.
"Will you help me, Koshin-san?" The girl's voice was well trained, and conveyed a great wealth of emotion, not all of it mere courtier's art.
Running a nervous hand through his long hair, Koshin looked up at the woman. "If I challenge Horii and win, then your brother will feel that his debt is incomplete. He has already killed Horii's yojimbo; to fail in finishing his oath is to dishonor himself."
Masanko nodded, "My brother's life is more important than his standing in court, Koshin-san."
The samurai watched her hands fidget, seeing the genuine concern in her eyes. The woman was desperate for his help, that much was obvious. Finally, she spoke again, placing her final hope in the poorly clothed ronin.
"I am to be married to Otomo Shinriji in less than half a year. My brother is the only heir to the House of Nitanki. If he is allowed to kill himself in a battle that he cannot win, then my family will vanish forever."
The samurai nodded, knowing now that he could not leave without regrets,
"I will fight Horii for you, Masanko. Let me speak with Tanoshi."
The Choice is Made…