Isawa Toshiji vs Kitsuki Otojiro
by Shawn Carman
Years ago, an innocent young woman left her home in the Phoenix lands to study alongside the serene sensei found in the Dragon Clan provinces. Asako Tsuruko was a gentle soul, and one who hoped to help bury the lingering animosity between Dragon and Phoenix after their war was at an end. Unfortunately, Tsukuro’s good intentions led only to a terrible end. Falling under the influence of the Blade of Fury, a dreaded Shamesword crafted by the madman Kokujin, Tsukuro slowly went mad. Even as the blade devoured her sanity, it bolstered her power, and in her madness, she ruthlessly murdered the Mirumoto family daimyo, Mirumoto Uso. For years, the great leader’s murder went unsolved until the monk Kaelung and the young samurai Mirumoto Kenzo, himself an expert at resisting the siren call of a cursed blade, uncovered the truth. By that time, Tsukuro had already fallen to the blade’s influence, murdered by her beloved yojimbo. Finally, the tale was at an end, and the spirits of the dead could rest.
Or so it was believed.
Isawa Toshiji is a man with a great burden. As a judge in the Phoenix provinces, he passes judgment every day on the crimes of others. It falls to his calm, even temper to determine the fates of those who are incapable of ruling their own baser instincts. It is a difficult job, but Toshiji is a good man and his judgments are widely regarded as both merciful and fair. And yet, despite his reputation, Toshiji has harbored a secret fire in his heart for years. Tsukuro was his beloved, and her death has left him empty inside. Where once there was even-handed compassion, now there is only resentment and anger. The Dragon failed to protect his love. The Dragon allowed a madman from their ranks to destroy her. The Dragon must be punished.
Kitsuki Otojiro was the magistrate who investigated Tsukuro’s murder at the behest of his lord Mirumoto Rosanjin. Before Rosanjin, Otojiro served the great general Mirumoto Uso, a man he admired and respected. Otojiro was one of Uso’s principle advisors, and the old man looked upon Uso as a son. His death was a tragedy, and despite Rosanjin’s apologies to the Phoenix for Tsukuro’s death, none among the Phoenix have ever offered their apologies for the death of a great man. Otojiro is a magistrate, an enforcer of the law, and in this he feels the Phoenix have failed. They must make restitution, and Otojiro will see it done before his death. If he should face Uso in the afterlife, how can he bear to meet his eyes if the old magistrate does not do everything in his power to ensure that his lord’s base murder is avenged?
The Shrine of the Ki-Rin was one of the oldest and most sacred sites in all the Phoenix lands. Lying as it did along the easternmost Phoenix border, the shrine was on the border of the vast, unclaimed Dragon Heart Plain. This had led some to insist that the shrine was not under the Phoenix’s jurisdiction. It was a ridiculous claim, and one that even the clan’s closest neighbors, the Dragon and Ox, found ludicrous, but at times it had caused hardship. In previous years, the unfortunate war between the Dragon and Phoenix had seen the shrine play host to one of the earliest and most gruesome battles between the two clans. It had been, in fact, the battle where the infamous and later disgraced general Mirumoto Junnosuke had gained his much-deserved reputation for brutality.
Kitsuki Otojiro looked around the shrine with a wistful expression. That any member of his clan could have damaged such a sacred site made him sick with shame. And yet, he had to wonder if his purpose here was any less damaging. He presumed much, dealing with an insult to his clan’s honor and his lord’s memory in such a manner. It was the duty of one’s clan to deal with such matters, not a lone samurai. If none other could or would, however, then how could he let it go unanswered? Was he to bow to politics rather than honor? No. He was too old to allow a blemish to persist.
“You are Otojiro, then.” The shugenja near the shrine’s entrance was stern of feature, but his voice was calm and even. It was a practiced mannerism, that much was clear to Otojiro. The Phoenix’s composure was purchased with sheer willpower. “You are the one that wrote to me.”
“I am,” the magistrate said. “You are the only living relation of Asako Tsukuro, and even that claim is tenuous at best.”
“I am Toshiji,” the priest said. “She and I were betrothed.”
Otojiro frowned. “You are a judge for the Phoenix?”
“I am,” Toshiji said.
“Incredible,” the old man said, shaking his head. “You stand in judgment of others every day, levying atonement for those incapable of taking that responsibility upon themselves, and yet you are so completely blind as to overlook the fact that your intended bride was a Bloodspeaker.”
“Lies,” Toshiji said, his stoic exterior clearly strained. “And from such a source! As if your clan were spared the Blood Rain and those who conspired with Iuchiban. As if you were somehow faultless. Do you find it a simple manner to find fault with others while turning a blind eye to your own?”
“That would be your stock in trade, would it not?” Otojiro returned coolly.
“You pompous, hypocritical fool,” Toshiji sneered.
“Perhaps so,” Otojiro said with a dismissive shrug, “but I have not failed in my duties.”
“You failed to protect her!” Toshiji shouted. “She was a guest in your home! She was your responsibility! And you let her die!”
“I failed, of that there is no question,” Otojiro said. “And lord Rosanjin has offered his apologies to the Phoenix for my failure. I offered my seppuku, but he declined. Can you say as much?”
“What?” Toshiji said, taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“Your duty is to protect the Phoenix from the predations of those without honor,” Otojiro continued. He withdrew an old scroll from his obi. “This is an account of Tsukuro’s corruption, first by the Bloodspeakers and then by the Bloodsword Fury, written in her own hand. I recovered it during my investigation of her death.”
Toshiji took the scroll wordlessly and unwrapped it, reading it with shaking hands.
“She sought to escape the influence of the cult,” Otojiro said, his voice somewhat milder. “Take heart in that, at least.”
“This cannot be,” the judge whispered.
“But it is,” Otojiro insisted. “She claimed the life of a Dragon lord, all because her corruption escaped your notice. You looked upon her with love, and not with a sense of duty.”
Toshiji grew quiet, and slowly rolled the scroll up. The color was gone from his face. After several tense moments, he performed a deep, if brief, bow. “I have failed,” he rasped. “Had I not been weak, lord Uso-sama might yet live. I apologize for my failure, Otojiro-san, and I will seek permission to perform the three cuts.”
Otojiro nodded and bowed. Somehow, the sense of satisfaction he had expected was absent. He turned to leave, walking past the broken shugenja. He stopped a short distance behind Toshiji, and both men stood with their backs to one another. “Strange,” he said in a soft voice. “Somehow, the loss of Uso feels no less than before.”
“Perhaps& perhaps loss cannot be cleansed,” Toshiji said. “Only forgotten.”
“Perhaps,” Otojiro said. “And in that, perhaps, you are more fortunate than I.”
The two men parted without another word, and in a week’s time, only one survived to see the sunrise.