Authors: Ree Soesbee
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Historical
The tent was quiet, and only the hushed whisper of wind disturbed the sleep of the wounded. A rattling breath, and another— the occupant was still alive, despite the ravages worn on him by time and the swords of his enemies. Outside, two guards stood at respectful attention as a young man passed between them, carrying water and rice to serve his father.
The Crane Champion rested on his futon, his bandages covered in blood, seeping through from the wound that had torn apart his stomach. White hair, dyed in the style of the Crane Clan, hung limply on his pillow, and his wrinkled and callused hands clutched angrily at the blanket that covered him. As he saw his eldest son enter, the man's weary face contorted with rage and hatred.
"I need no . . . nursemaid." Satsume's voice was shadowed, an echo of his brave
war cries. He had led the troops that morning in the assault against the Scorpion. Now he had only the strength to cough sharply, and blood trickled between his lips as his eyes narrowed.
"You must rest, Father," the youth said, kneeling beside the low cushions on which his father rested. "You will need your strength to heal." Cautiously, he offered the small bowl of rice, lowering his head in respect.
Doji Satsume snatched the bowl and cursed once as he threw it across the tent. The porcelain shattered into shards on the wooden arm of his dai-sho holder. The aged samurai lifted himself to one elbow to face his son. "You will never lead the clan," he snarled, the white scar across his cheek twisting his mouth into a sadistic smile.
"Bring me the shugenja. The Asahina. I must rename my heir. Where is Tomo? Shidai?"
"Father ..." The youth knelt by the bed, the specter of the man that he would become hovering at his shoulder. "You need to rest. Shidai is dead. He died protecting you in the city, helping me get you to safety."
"Safety." Satsume coughed again and lay back. "What safety can there be in Rokugan while a Scorpion rests on the emperor's throne?" His eyes closed for a moment. Their lightning flames diminished as his anger passed. "The shugenja is dead ... the emperor is dead ... and soon, when I die, the Crane will die with me."
The young man's face showed no sign of the bitter pain caused by his father's words, and he reached to offer the cup of water from the small tray at his side. "You don't know what you're saying. Your wound is grave. They've gone to get the finest healers from Kyuden Seppun, to bring all the aid they can."
"Useless." The aged Crane Champion flexed his powerful hands. With a grunt, he pushed himself into a crouch. "Their magic will no more undo the poison in my blood than will your pathetic rice. Give me my armor and my sword, and I will kill this Scorpion usurper myself."
"Father, you have to lie still."
With a tremendous thrust, Doji Satsume slammed his fist into his son's jaw, knocking the gray-eyed youth back against the low table. Kneeling by the mahogany, the youth cradled a split lip. He looked up at Satsume.
"Never," the man hissed like a striking serpent, "dare to tell me what I can and cannot do. You are not the champion of the Crane yet. You are a mewling, pathetic infant, of no more use than your mother." The words were choked as Satsume rose atop legs bowed from years of riding. "If you had truly been my son, you would have done as I told you. Now, fetch my armor."
The son of Satsume felt an old anger rise in his belly, spreading like a thick fire of hatred and regret. He closed his eyes, and an image flashed in his mind: his mother, her blue eyes turned toward the sky as her blood spread into the ocean's shifting tide. Her body had been broken on the magnificent sea cliffs below Kyuden Doji. She lay still in death, her hair floating about her like strange seaweed. Her skin was pale, her golden kimono tattered by the rocks—a doll thrown aside by some giant hand. He opened his eyes. The image faded, leaving only the smile that had graced her face—a smile of triumph that had haunted her son since the day of her suicide.
He had been ten years old.
Satsume turned, leaning heavily on the low table that held his swords. His face reddened, his eyes black with fury. "Eh?" he bawled, surprised. "So, my son thinks to become the champion a few days early, does he? Is that it?" Doji Sat-sume's snarling lip twisted beneath the grinning scar. He took a staggering step closer to the youth. "Do you think the Scorpion have killed me, boy?" The champion of the Crane took another step, reaching toward his katana on the stand.
"Do you think that Shoju's bushi have done you a favor?"
Satsume was built as if by Kaiu engineers, his short form burly and well muscled even in age. Blood seeped through his bandages, staining the hand he kept on his opened belly. The dark roots of his bleached hair were slicked with sweat, but his hand was firm and steady upon the katana's sheath.
Undaunted, Satsume's eldest son rose. He bore no weapon, no sheathed tanto or arrogant punch. He simply stood, nearly a head taller than his father. A presence radiated from the youth's inner chi, and from the memory of a hundred other times when he had knelt to receive his father's punishments. The scars of such 'lessons' still laced his shoulders, and a single trail of white marred the otherwise perfect cheekbone of the young man's face.
In that moment, his father wavered. Uncertainty touched his hand. When had his son become so large? When had those pale eyes, so weak and gray, turned into chips of stone? Even as they had marched together toward the captured city of Otosan Uchi, Satsume did not remember his son standing so proudly. Still, he was nothing but a boy, a stripling, hardly old enough to be given the name of his manhood. His gem-puku could not have been so long ago, and memories of the cowering, whimpering child still echoed in Satsume's mind.
The boy was so like his mother.
"Get my armor," Satsume's voice was low, dangerous. The naked katana hung at his side, needing only the swift flicker of his hand to cover itself in the blood of a worthless son.
"You are too weak to fight. Your stomach has been pared open by Shoju's men. Even now, your blood trails away from your wound." The anger in the youth's eyes did not fade. "I will not allow you to destroy yourself." As you destroyed her. Unspoken, the words hung between them.
"Where is your brother?" Satsume roared, falling to his knees. The pain of his wound had grown too much to bear. "Where is my son—my true son—Kuwanan? Kuwanan!" The command went unanswered. Doji Kuwanan, the youngest son of the Crane Champion, was in the lands of the Lion, his tutelage with the Akodo drawing to an end.
"Kuwanan is worthy of this clan." The words were as hateful as the wound in Satsume's body. "But they will not bring him to me. Even now, outside the clan, they call you 'Champion.' " Satsume spit the words. "Kuwanan should have been born first, should have been my heir. He is everything you are not."
"I am your son, Father, and all your words will not change that."
"No, it will not. But my sword could." A deep rumbling began in Satsume's chest. The cough that followed brought more than blood to the old man's lips. He knelt, sheathing the weapon and clutching it at his side as if trying to reclaim his strength through the cool smoothness of the enameled saya. After a moment, his eyes opened again, trying to focus on the young man before him. "Bring me my armor.... Let me die in battle, avenging the emperor I have failed."
Satsume cursed, falling back onto the sheets of the futon. "When I am dead, you will lead this clan into ruin. You are nothing. Worthless." Satsume clutched the sword tightly. His labored breathing rasped in the quiet tent. "Weak and untempered. I should butcher you here, with my last breath. I should take your soul to ligoku with mine and throw you before the gates of oblivion rather than leaving you here to destroy all that I have built. I cannot kill you. That is my failing. You are a miserable excuse for an heir. You are ... your mother's son."
The young man's response was quiet and bitter. "Yes, thank the Fortunes, I am." As he picked up the shattered pieces of pottery, he heard his father whisper one final time.
"I hate you, Hoturi."
"I know, Father." Hoturi said, lifting the flap of the tent and biting back his icy fury. "She loved me more than you."
whispers of the past
Autumn had turned the leaves to red and gold, shifting in a wind that smelled of rain. Hoofbeats echoed like thunder through the woods. Birds leaped into the air as two cloaked riders passed.
The samurai ignored the chill, their silvery cloaks billowing over dark blue hakima pants and gi—wrapped shirts of thick silk.
The first frost had fallen, and the last grains of rice had been brought in. Fall meant festivals and celebrations of the harvest. It was also a time of remembrance, a season of death and remorse for the actions of the past year. Autumn winds blew the words of the ancestors to the listening ears of holy men. White blossoms of summer fell, foretelling the snow that would soon follow.
At the southern palace of the Kakita, decorations were placed high upon the towering
gold of the open gates. The emperor's own mon hung beside the symbol of the snow-white Crane. Kobune boats sailed up the coast, carrying rice and sake for the great festival, and artisans from every clan traveled to the palace in their palanquins. The Festival of the Last Harvest was one of the grandest celebrations in the land, and those who were lucky enough to attend told stories of the glory of Doji halls, the beauty wrought by Kakita artisans. Guests whispered through the winter of the magnificent sights of the Crane Court.
To the champion of the Crane, though, Kyuden Kakita was home, and autumn was time to return to it.
Doji Hoturi rode with the grace of one born to hold the attention of others. Even astride a shaggy mountain pony, he had a presence that spoke of courts and celebrations, of command and dignity. When he moved, the way before him opened. When he spoke, all other voices fell silent. Such was the birthright of the Doji Lord, the Crane Champion.
These woods were his homeland. For twenty-eight years, he had lived among them, playing at battle in their thickly branched groves. Now he returned to them as their lord and master. Satsume's death, more than two years ago, had granted the title and responsibility of Crane Champion to his eldest son. Those years had aged Hoturi. Now his face bore the firmness of manhood as well as the responsibility of command. Although he was the youngest clan champion in the empire, already his fame had won him respect—and allies.
At his side rode his sensei, Kakita Toshimoko, gray hair flying in loose threads from his grinning face. The horses charged together through the wood, recognizing the roads of their homeland. Toshimoko lifted his hand and caught a low branch as it whipped past, snapping it back toward the tree with a merry flip. Though Toshimoko had aged more than fifty years, no man in the empire would dare suggest he retire to the monastery.
"Come, samurai," Toshimoko said roguishly, "put a smile on your face. We're nearly to the castle, and if you ride to those gates with such a gray frown, the Kakita will grab their swords and kill someone."
Despite himself, Hoturi broke into a weary smile. "Let them kill the bushi of the Lion."
Toshimoko's usually cheerful face pulled into grave lines. He slowed his pony to match the gait of Hoturi's steed. "Especially now that the Matsu and the Ikoma have begun to marshal troops near the Osari Plains." Then, as suddenly, the somber face was gone, and a twinkle shone in the man's eyes. "Is your sword ready for battle, student?"
Hoturi grinned back. "The only time it wasn't ready was when we fought the Shosuro, and then only because you kept tossing so many in my direction!"
"Bah," Toshimoko snorted, leaning back on his steed. "I wanted to be sure you weren't bored."
"Bored?" Hoturi scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Well, perhaps after the twentieth or thirtieth one. But that was because you kept all the difficult fights for yourself."
"That's what they'll place on my ancestral marker, you know. 'Kakita Toshimoko rests here, the ashes of a greedy man.' Ha!"
"Greedy, by Jigoku," the Crane Champion swore. "You just wanted to finish with the Shosuro so you could claim their geisha houses before dark."
"And that's no virtue to a samurai. You should be praying in the Ancestral Hall."
"Bother with virtue. It gets in the way of the blade."