CHAPTER 3, Part 2
“There is a tendency for my friends and comrades to see me as ‘the one with all the answers’. It is normally a position I take pride in. When one of them is troubled, and I am able to either offer advice or point them towards a book from my shelves that will help, the feeling of satisfaction, of contentment, is something I would not trade for all the gold in Sankami.
“However… in times like that winter, being ‘the one with the answers’ felt as though I had been placed with a terrible burden. What does one with all the answers do when he finds himself in a quandary that no book can solve? Who does he turn to?
“Though part of me pains to admit it, badgers do not exclusively possess the capacity for profound wisdom. The greatest philosophers among the foxes could articulate ideas in mere sentences that took my kind entire volumes to explain. The wisdom of foxes can be strange, yes, and maddening often, but when one needs the truth, stated simply and plainly, a fox is often the one to turn to.”
[excerpted from Ashpaw’s personal journal]
“You’re a shedding idiot,” said Faun.
“I have… considered that possibility.” Ashpaw nodded unsteadily and gestured with his flagon. His eyes were bloodshot and clouded; Faun was astonished at how well he was holding his wine… and it was good wine, she admitted now that she had drunk about seven or eight tankards of it. No substitute for Firewater, but it served its purpose well.
“Seriously. Shedding idiot.” The vixen leaned forward and set her empty tankard on her knee as she frowned and squinted at him. “What in Gods’ names makes you think you shouldn’t fight anymore? You too good for us or somethin’?”
“No, no, no, no,” said Ashpaw. “No. Not too good. Just the opposite. When I was… controlled…” There was a pause while he took a huge swig. “When I was controlled… I threatened Hanami with terrible, terrible things. I could have crippled her, killed her with… with only one swing of my weapon… not even deliberately, by accident…” Tears started flowing from his eyes again. “Don’t you see…? I forged my morning star… to show my people that I would fight for them, even if they wouldn’t do it for themselves. I proved I could fight, but I did it too well. Far too well. All this time… I’ve been carrying an instrument of horrible death… a savage weapon.”
The morning star lay between them, firelight glinting off the many wicked spikes set into its iron hammer. Its shape threw ominous, sharp shadows on the wall behind them.
“But it wasn’t you, dummy,” said Faun. “It was that shedding whore spider. She was the one… pulling your strings.” She wriggled her fingers for emphasis. “You know better. You’d never hurt Hanami… or anyone else on purpose.” Then she winced, remembering what the spider had made her do. That wasn’t an excuse she could use. Because deep down… Stop it. Don’t think about it.
“Even so.” Ashpaw shook his great striped muzzle. “This thing… I can’t use it again, Faun. I can’t.”
“It’s your head,” said Faun. “You don’t want to fight anymore, I won’t stop you. Don’t ‘xpect me to save your stripy backside without it. So what’re you gonna do? Make it into a lamp?”
Setting down his tankard, the badger searched the wreckage of Faun’s den. “No. I need some things. A hammer. And… what are those things called?”
“You must really be drunk, if you can’t think of a word.”
“Ha ha. A chisel.” He tried to slap his knee and missed, flattening a small wooden end table instead. “That’s it. I need a hammer and chisel.”
“Think I might have ‘em somewhere,” said Faun, sighing and leaning back against her cushion. “But I’m too drunk to look for ‘em now. ‘Sides…” She flashed him a lopsided grin. “So’re you, Stripes. Try to do anything, and you’d smash those big stupid hands of yours flat.”
For a while the two of them stared into the fire.
Then Ashpaw asked the question that cut through Faun’s drunken haze like a sword through flesh. “What did she do to you?”
Faun swallowed heavily, and prayed that the badger had another bottle of wine stashed somewhere in his coat.
Solemnly the procession made its way through the back streets, so as not to alarm the citizens. Both bodies were covered with white burial shrouds, but even underneath them there was no hiding the empty space where Kaoru’s head should have been. The priests walked up front, singing a mournful dirge and sprinkling the ground with holy water as they walked. Their apprentices came next, bearing torches and smoking jars of incense. A small contingent of Militia samurai followed them, their heads bowed, the collars of their robes worn left-over-right, for they had lost two comrades today. Someone had brutally murdered two fine warriors this morning, seemingly for no reason… there were families and friends to inform, but for now the bodies needed to be escorted back to Tachi-cho and given the ritual purification rites. It was all that the Militia could do to go with them, guarding them from any further harm.
At the very back of the line, closest to the bodies on their stretchers, walked Yuudai Yamano. The captain of Squad 042 had his distinctive dragon helmet under one arm. He couldn’t keep his eyes from that empty space atop the shoulders of the one called Kaoru. Yuudai didn’t know either him or his friend Ryuunosuke personally; they were graduates of a different squad, and his seniors besides. There were rumors that the two of them had shirked duty to go to a geisha house a few hours before their deaths. Some would feel the two deserved what they got, he knew, but his stomach churned with disgust at the thought. No one deserved to die like that, no one, duty or not. He had seen the bodies of comrades fallen in similar ways back during the hell that was the Week of Blood, and their loss had convinced him that no matter what the Edicts said, no matter how glorious it was supposed to be to die in battle, life was too precious to be ended by someone else. A few of Yuudai’s subordinates sometimes joked that that kind of attitude belonged in the Silver Order, not the Militia, but he paid the ribbing no mind.
“Captain Yamano Yuudai. I would speak with thee.”
Yuudai stopped in his tracks, stunned. The voice was soft, deep and cultured, coming from directly behind him, but that wasn’t what surprised him. Whoever it was had spoken in Old Standard… Samurai were required to know the language, so Yuudai understood it well enough, but it was mostly a formality nowadays and hardly ever practiced. Save for loan words and a few honorifics, Old Standard had faded from common use centuries ago. More shocking than that, the stranger was using the most formal dialect of the ancient samurai, all but extinct. He had even used the old name order… Yuudai put his hand on his sword hilt and turned around, letting the procession go on without him. “Who are you?” A small part of him noted that he should have answered in the same language and dialect, but –
The sight of the new samurai drove all thoughts of protocol out of his head. Clad head to tail in uniform grey armor, the late morning mist curled around him like the vines of some ghostly plant. His armor was bizarre, some would say overkill: studded with spikes, and with a vicious horned helmet that let nothing of his face show through his mask save for his smoldering dark eyes. Even his tail was bound and covered, a completely unnecessary precaution. “I apologize for interrupting,” said the grey samurai in very polite New Standard, bowing slightly. “You are indeed Yuudai Yamano, Captain of Squad 042? ‘The Eastern Dragon’, am I correct?”
Yuudai’s brows furrowed, and the old scar across the bridge of his nose wrinkled. This was quite a lot of information about him for a stranger to know, but he wasn’t quite concerned just yet; he was fairly well-known for being made Captain at such a young age, after all. “So I am. What of it?”
“I have searched for you,” said the stranger. “The two you were escorting said that you might be able to assist me.”
Now Yuudai’s heart began to beat faster. “Did… did you kill those two samurai?”
“I did.” The simple straightforwardness of his admission was chilling. Samurai were supposed to be calm with the concept of death, but he spoke as if killing them meant nothing more to him than cutting blades of grass.
Fur rose on the back of Yuudai’s neck. “Speak. Who are you, and what do you want with me?”
“I am Gen Tsurugi,” said the grey samurai, bowing again, “and I seek Young Lord Takaichi. You know where he is. Tell me.”
Yuudai’s grip on his sword faltered. The stranger was mad; how could he be anything but? “Gen Tsurugi is a character from a child’s story,” he said, trying to keep his voice even. “One from a thousand years ago. You can’t possibly be who you claim to be… who are you really?”
Slowly, the buck that called himself Gen Tsurugi drew his wicked, serrated blade from the scabbard at his side. “There is only one Gen Tsurugi, and I am he,” he said calmly as his armored hand caressed the weapon. “Please, Captain Yamano, tell me where Takaichi is before I am forced to kill you.”
Yuudai closed his eyes, set his helmet down, and let himself drift into the Centerpoint as he drew his own blade. “Takaichi is my friend, and if you wish him harm…” His eyes snapped open, sharp and focused. “Then I cannot let you pass.”
“You would lock blades with me, knowing who I am?” Gen’s tone was no less calm, but there was amusement in it. The dark eyes behind the mask glinted like cold stars. “I am the samurai who fought the HellSerpent to a draw, the warrior who struck the great Hayaoh a fatal blow. You are indeed courageous, Captain Yamano, that much I can see… but this is not a battle you can win. I will kill you if I must, but not before you tell me where to find Young Lord Takaichi. Only he is my opponent; only he truly deserves the honor of perishing by my blade.” Gen spread his legs into a wide stance and held out his sword, pointing it at Yuudai’s heart. “If it must be so, then come. Make your peace with the Gods.”
END OF CHAPTER 3