By Rich Wulf
On the twenty-seventh day of the Month of the Serpent, Year 1159 (Isawa Calendar)
Kitsuki Remata stood alone in the gardens of Kyuden Miya. He stared up thoughtfully as he paced the winding path, paying no attention to where he walked. The skies above were crystal blue. Remata considered it ironic that the world above should be so clear and untroubled while the world below was anything but. He glanced down at his fine silken kimono, bright gold and green so dark it was nearly black. The chrysanthemum mon of the Emerald Magistrates was emblazoned there, over his heart, signifying his dedication to justice. His father had been a magistrate, as had his grandfather and great-grandfather. The tradition of the Kitsuki family was not as ancient as those of other families – stretching back only a little over three centuries – but it was no less proud.
Remata wondered if his ancestors would be proud of him now.
A door slid open to Remata’s left and a well dressed servant appeared. “Kitsuki-sama,” she said in a quiet voice, bowing deeply to the visiting Dragon, “Master Heikichi will see you now.”
Remata nodded quietly and followed the servant. She led him to a small room decorated with silken kakemono paintings portraying birds in flight, elegant trees, and other scenes of nature. At a small table set in the center of the room knelt Miya Heikichi, the elderly custodian of the Miya heraldic archives. Heikichi had never been a large man, old age had diminished him even further. He vaguely resembled a delicate origami sculpture in the shape of a man; Remata imagined he might crumple up and blow away in a stiff wind.
“Konichiwa, magistrate,” Heikichi said, rising and bowing as much as his arthritic bones would permit. “I had thought that you might return.”
“I have more questions,” Remata said, returning the old herald’s bow.
“Of course you do.” Heikichi nodded and knelt once more, gesturing toward a seat prepared for Remata. “Please, partake of a cup of sake if you will. It is daiginzyoo-syu, brewed only in Friendly Traveler Village. It is the best, you know.” Heikichi poured a small cup and offered it to Remata.
“Many thanks, but I must decline,” Remata said, holding up one hand politely. “I have more traveling today and I must keep my wits about me.”
Heikichi shrugged, looked at the extra cup for a moment, and swallowed down its contents with a satisfied sigh. “Are you certain you will not stay, at least tonight?” Heikichi asked after the sake was gone. “Did you not find our house’s hospitality satisfactory during your last visit?”
“The Miya are most courteous hosts,” Remata replied. “It is my duty that drives me on, and that returns me here.”
“What duty is that?” Heikichi asked, pouring himself another cup of sake.
“The truth,” Remata replied.
“A noble duty,” Heikichi agreed. “To truth!” He lifted his cup in toast and sipped with great delight. Setting his cup down, he peered at Remata again. Remata could tell the man was sharp and alert despite the apparent relish with which he consumed his daiginzyoo- syu. “What truth are we seeking today, Kitsuki-san?” he asked.
“I would like another chance to study those heraldic documents, if you please,” Remata replied. “The ones that named the geisha Hatsuko as a daughter of the Yasuki central family line.”
“Ah,” Heikichi said, chewing the air for several moments, sake bottle paused halfway to the cup.
“Is there a problem?” Remata asked.
“No, no problem,” Heikichi replied. “No problem at all. It is merely that those documents were requisitioned from Kyuden Miya earlier this week.”
“They were taken?” Remata said. Somehow, he was not surprised. “By whom?”
“By an omoidasu from the Ikoma family,” Heikichi said. “He was quite excited to learn of the wealth of knowledge we have locked away here. He took the Hatsuko scroll, and several others as well. He claimed that the scrolls would help a great deal in restoring the damaged archives of the Ikoma. Historians of the Empire, you know. And what are we without our history, hm?” Heikichi poured himself another cup of sake.
Remata shook his head slowly. “I can scarcely believe that it would take thirty years for the Ikoma to recall that the Miya archives are such an invaluable historical resource. Surely they visited you before.”
“Ah, yes,” Heikichi nodded vigorously as he drank. “Several times. But the records are extensive. We’re always finding new things, and one never knows what may be useful in application until an application presents itself. Surely an experienced investigator such as yourself would know that.” Heikichi smiled again.
“Tell me,” Remata said, rubbing his chin with one hand as he considered his next move. “What was this Ikoma’s name? Was it Fudai?”
Heikichi nodded again. “That was him,” he replied. “A well- mannered young man, and a brilliant storyteller. He was the one who brought me this sake.” Heikichi caressed the finely enameled bottle fondly.
Remata folded his arms across his chest and frowned. Ikoma Fudai was a vocal supporter of Hantei Naseru, the notorious Anvil. Naseru was the one who had initially dispatched Remata on his mission to discover the truth of Akodo Kaneka’s heritage. Remata had thought at first that Naseru had intended to disprove Kaneka’s claim on the throne. That proof was not forthcoming.
Now, if rumor could be held as fact, Akodo Kaneka had seized upon the information Remata discovered and led an army of Akodo to seize the Yasuki lands in the name of his mother. The rumor had shocked the courts of Rokugan, at least those that were not familiar with Kaneka.
Now one of Naseru’s own supporters had taken the proof of Kaneka’s heritage. Why? Did he intend to conceal it? If he wished it hidden, why investigate it in the first place? Why commission a Kitsuki to do so – Naseru would have known that the Kitsuki family’s dedication to truth would prevent Remata from concealing the results of his investigation no matter how troublesome they were. Was the Anvil so confident that Kaneka’s heritage would eliminate him from the contest for the throne?
Remata knew overconfidence and poor planning hardly seemed trademarks of Hantei Naseru.
Remata had hoped to have a chance to study the scrolls again personally. Perhaps there was something he had missed the first time, perhaps there was another lost line of the family… something. But no. Instead, the sky was becoming cloudier by the moment.
“You look troubled,” Heikichi said, tilting his head as he regarded the young Kitsuki. “Perhaps I can help.”
“How?” Remata looked up hopefully.
Heikichi held up the sake bottle. “It is the best, you know.”
Remata laughed despite himself. “Perhaps you are right,” he said, taking an unused cup from the table. “It can’t possibly dull my wits any further.” On the first day of the Month of the Horse, Year 1159 (Isawa Calendar)
The Hall of Ancestors was a dim, lonely place, especially of late. The smell of burnt flesh hung thick in the air, and rubble was strewn everywhere. Many of the great clay vessels holding relics of the Lion ancestors were overturned or broken. Kitsu in robes of white and gold moved here and there in the shadows, collecting and sorting what they could, placing that which they could not identify in communal bins with a short prayer begging for the shiryo’s forgiveness. The wretched Tsuno had shown no mercy in their raids. Though their true target had been the Kitsu Tombs, the sacred Hall of Ancestors had been defiled by their attack. The Lion had rapidly restored order to their holiest of temples, but the scars remained.
Matsu Nimuro lit a stick of incense with a long taper, allowing fragrant smoke to drift in spiraling plumes before the statue of a bold samurai. The stone figure clutched a spear in one hand and a great war banner in the other. The chiseled features of the statue’s wide, square-jawed face resembled Nimuro’s to an uncanny degree. Nimuro chanted slowly, singing of the proud bloodlines of the Matsu. His deep bass voice filled the gloomy halls. Deep in his soul, Nimuro knew the souls of his ancestors echoed his song.
A young scout in a rough kimono entered the halls, her kimono stained with the mud and grass of the road. She peered about at the massive stone statues with the wide eyes of a person facing the power of eternity. She clutched a curled scroll in one hand, holding it against her chest as if it would protect her from the wrath of angry ancestors. She scampered past the piercing gazes of the massive statues, halting a respectful distance from Matsu Nimuro and bowing deeply until the Lion Champion had completed his prayers.
“Report,” Nimuro said, his chanting complete. The sudden command echoed sharply through the halls and startled a nearby priest. The scout glanced up in terror, then lowered her head again. She had not realized Nimuro had noticed her arrival.
“A message for you, my lord,” she said. “From Akodo Kaneka.”
Nimuro said nothing, did not even turn to face her. He merely stretched his left hand outward and waited. She rose, head lowered respectfully, and delivered the scroll to Nimuro’s hand. He inspected the seal for a brief moment, then unfurled the scroll. As he inspected the contents, his face slowly darkened.
“Leave,” Nimuro ordered the scout. “Rest and return in the morning. I shall give you a reply to deliver to Kaneka. You are dismissed.”
“Yes, my lord,” the scout nodded gratefully and fled.
Nimuro twisted the parchment in his large hands, closing his eyes and bowing his head. This time he was lost not in prayer, but in simple thought.
“Matsu Domotai,” said a voice from behind Nimuro.
The Lion Champion’s eyes opened quickly. He glanced back over one shoulder, face twisting in irritation at being surprised.
A tall figure in a long black cloak separated itself from the shadows, staring up into the eyes of the statue. His face was pale, handsome, and honest. He appeared neither young nor old, though his hair was streaked with grey. Few people alive in Rokugan recognized that man’s face, but Nimuro was one of them.
“Yojiro,” Nimuro said simply.
“Nimuro,” the Scorpion Champion returned the Lion’s acknowledgment.
“Matsu Domotai was a great hero of our clan,” Nimuro said gravely, nodding at the statue. “At the Battle of Stolen Graves, he stood alone against many and returned victorious. My brother now carries his name.”
“Shiryo Domotai-sama seems a bit the worse for wear.” Yojiro gestured at the deep crack in the statue’s left leg as he knelt respectfully beside Nimuro to honor his great ancestor.
“The statue fell during the Tsuno attack,” Nimuro replied. “The Kitsu did their best to repair it, but there will always be damage.”
“Wounded but never broken,” Yojiro replied. “Much like the spirit of your clan. Please accept my sympathies regarding the loss of your brother.”
“Arigato,” Nimuro replied. “How did you hear of his abduction so quickly?”
Yojiro only bowed slightly, one corner of his mouth turning in a faint grin.
“You do not wear your mask, Yojiro,” Nimuro said. “And you did not announce yourself. This is highly irregular, even for the Master of Secrets.”
The Scorpion shrugged. “Interesting times, as the Akodo would say,” he replied. “I come before you unmasked because I have nothing to hide. We are equals, Golden Lion, and we have much to discuss.”
“Kaneka,” the Lion said.
Yojiro only nodded. “His actions are questionable.”
“Not to me,” Nimuro said. “Kaneka carries the blessing of Akodo Ginawa. I trust Ginawa’s judgment.”
“Kaneka has become the laughing stock of the courts,” Yojiro replied. “The Doji openly denounce him. They say that he is a walking defilement of the Celestial Order, claiming the name of the Yasuki due to some spurious relation to a geisha – a non-person. Kaneka cannot claim inheritance from a geisha. We both know this.”
“The Doji seek only to pad their own claim,” Nimuro replied. “Kaneka does not claim to be a Yasuki. He takes the Yasuki lands because he sees it as his right. While the Crane and Crab squabble like brats the Horde has conquered the Carpenter Wall. Kaneka seeks to restore order.”
“Order through chaos?” Yojiro asked, his tone mild and unconcerned. He lifted a long stick of incense, considering its fine grain with an expert eye. “The Crane, Hachi, has the legal claim. The Crab have the greater need. Does Kaneka believe he will find justice where even Toturi could not?”
“Kaneka has the Akodo by his side,” Nimuro replied. “You know Ginawa. You fought by his side at Oblivion’s Gate. Would he support Kaneka if his ends were dishonorable?”
“I know this,” Yojiro said, applying the stick of incense to a candle’s flame. “You know this. Perhaps even Doji Kurohito knows this. But the Crane color the mood of the court like the brush of a talented painter. Kaneka may become the villain of this play yet.”
“Why have you come here, Yojiro?” Nimuro asked.
“To remind you that there are other voices in the court,” Yojiro said, peering at Nimuro through the hovering smoke. “Voices stronger than any the Crane can bring to bear.”
Nimuro frowned. “I thought that your clan supported the Anvil,” Nimuro said.
“The Scorpion have realized that it would not suit our purposes to defy any of the Winds,” Yojiro answered. “Not yet.”
“You support all so that you will be certain to win the bet,” Nimuro replied. “You wager like a Yasuki.”
“Or a Matsu,” Yojiro answered. “Your Kitsu support Sezaru. The Ikoma strongly favor Naseru. The Akodo grant their name to Kaneka, and your own family are strong supporters of Tsudao.”
Nimuro’s frown deepened.
“But is it not only natural, for a clan as large as yours to have diverse interests?” Yojiro smiled, waving away the implication of Lion subterfuge with a trail of fragrant smoke. “We Scorpion agree heartily, and follow in your noble example. Hantei Naseru and Toturi Tsudao already both bend their ear to my hand-picked advisors. Kaneka could benefit greatly from our assistance in the courts.”
“And what would you demand in return?” Nimuro asked frankly.
“Directly to the point as always,” Yojiro said, setting his incense at the base of the statue. “I should make time to visit you more often, Golden Lion. Your boldness is refreshing.”
“Answer the question,” Nimuro said.
“We want the ear of Toturi Sezaru,” Yojiro said. “He has proven… difficult to influence.”
“I do not have such a gift to give,” Nimuro said.
“Ah, but they do,” Yojiro pointed to the robed priests of the Hall of Ancestors. “It is an often overlooked fact that Sezaru studied the lore of the Spirit Realms among the sodan-senzo. Surely there must be one among them that can arrange a meeting with the Wolf and one of my representatives.”
“I have no great love for Sezaru,” Nimuro said, “but he is the son of the Emperor. If I arrange such a meeting, and he comes to any harm, we will have words again, Yojiro.”
“Understood,” Yojiro said.
“One meeting?” Nimuro continued. “That is all you ask.”
“That is all I will require,” the Master of Secrets replied. “In return, I will command Bayushi Kaukatsu to turn his attentions to promoting your friend Kaneka’s side of the Yasuki argument. If the logic of Kaneka’s actions cannot dissuade your dissenters, perhaps sheer terror in the face of the most fearsome courtier in the Empire will.”
“Second most fearsome,” Nimuro said, looking directly at Yojiro as he rose.
Yojiro laughed. “I gained my position at the whim of the Lady Kachiko,” he replied. “None ever feared me. I was always the Honest Scorpion.”
“Of course,” Nimuro replied, “and that has always made you the most dangerous.” Nimuro strode away through the darkened halls, leaving Yojiro alone in the smoke and darkness. On the third day of the Month of the Horse, Year 1159 (Isawa Calendar)
The last time Yasuki Hachi had stood at the gates of Friendly Traveler Village, he had marched out in disgrace, his plans for a peaceful settlement nearly destroyed by his very presence. As the Emerald Champion stood before those same gates now, he feared that today would be no different. Though the forces of the Fifth Legion spread out behind him, he felt very much alone as he prepared to face the leader of the invading Lion troops.
Son of Toturi I.
The wandering samurai known as the Bastard.
“Careful, Hachi,” Doji Nagori had warned him. “Kaneka is a dangerous man.”
“So am I,” Hachi had replied under his breath. He hoped now it was the truth. Hachi may have a reputation as an expert duelists, but Kaneka’s own talent with the sword was almost legendary. He had defeated dozens of opponents in his brief career, both in formal duels and large-scale battles.
As Kaneka emerged from the Lion ranks, Hachi realized that he was taller than he had imagined. The Emerald Champion had to peer upward to face Kaneka beneath the cumbersome helm of the Emerald Armor. The sun was in Hachi’s eyes – a decided disadvantage should their confrontation turn violent. Hachi had no doubt in his mind that Kaneka had planned their meeting this way.
“Emerald Champion,” Kaneka drawled as he approached, his tone easy and informal. He swiped at the reeds with a short stick as he made his way down the road, his other hand resting easily on the hilt of his blade. “Good afternoon. What brings you to Friendly Traveler Village? The sake? I hear it’s the best.”
“I could ask you why you are here as well, Kaneka-san,” Hachi said, stressing the inferior suffix. “What is the meaning of this?” Hachi gestured at the sea of Akodo banners lining the horizon.
Kaneka looked back over one shoulder, peered at the Akodo troops as if he had not realized they were there, and looked back with a wide smile. “We are on a mercy mission,” he replied. “Crab and Crane cannot agree upon what is theirs. I have come to settle the matter and bring peace to the Yasuki lands.”
“By taking them for yourself?” Hachi asked.
“Yes,” Kaneka replied. “The current daimyo seems incapable of maintaining order, but I’d expect no less from Daidoji blood.” Kaneka smoothed one hand against his simple brown kimono, just above his swords, and stared directly at Hachi.
Hachi bridled at the insult, but did not rise to Kaneka’s baiting. “You have no right to be here,” Hachi said. “These lands are mine.”
“Says the usurper,” Kaneka sneered. “I thought that your position as Emerald Champion placed you above clan bias.”
“It does,” Hachi replied, “but it so happens that in this case I have the legal claim. The Crab’s position here is arguable, and will be settled in time. Your presence, on the other hand, is an outrage.”
Kaneka shrugged, eyes scanning the troops behind Hachi. “Unbiased?” he mused. “Strange, then, that I see a man in Crane colors among your advisors, but no Crab. Or perhaps that man is more than an advisor?”
Hachi’s hands shook in rage at the man’s gall. Kaneka’s behavior was familiar enough; openly insulting, openly demanding. Hachi had adopted such a facade many times in the past, when hoping to goad an unprepared opponent into a duel. With great effort, Hachi reigned in his temper and attempted diplomacy once more. There was more at stake here than his own pride. However, he could not let the insult go without reply.
“Nagori is an old friend from home,” Hachi replied. “He accompanied me here following rumor that the geisha of the Yasuki family were secretly the finest courtesans in the Empire. Perhaps you could confirm this, son of Hatsuko?”
Kaneka only smiled. If he the insult had affected him, he did not allow the anger to show in his eyes.
“I tell you once more,” Hachi said. “In the name of the Emperor whose blood you claim, vacate these lands. Your presence here shames the name of the Splendid Emperor.”
Kaneka laughed. “I beg to differ, Daidoji. I have every right to be here. The Lion are the right hand of the Emperor. It is our duty to end all threats to the Empire’s peace. Your war has distracted the Crab from their duty, causing six of the Kaiu Wall’s towers to fall to the Horde.”
“The attack on the Wall was not our fault,” Hachi interrupted.
“So you say, Crane,” Kaneka replied. “In the name of the Lion Clan, I therefore take these lands as my own, and shall govern them until such time as I deem fit to surrender them. The Crab may take whatever supplies they need, so long as they do not oppose my occupation. The Crane may flee if they are able, or face the wrath of the Lion. As a gesture of goodwill I will allow your clan to maintain their presence in this village – but that is all. As for you, stand aside and perhaps when I am Emperor you can be my puppet-Emerald- Champion as you are Naseru’s.”
Hachi reached for his sword.
“Draw,” Kaneka said, all humor and emotion suddenly draining from his face. His eyes were flat, emotionless, the eyes of a dead man. Hachi knew in that instant that he could not beat Kaneka. If he drew his sword, he would die.
But that was no reason not to try.
As his hand tightened on the hilt of his katana, a realized dawned upon Yasuki Hachi. Even if he struck down Kaneka, it would become a victory for Naseru, and Hachi would remain a pawn. If Kaneka slew Hachi, the Crane Clan would pay the price for Hachi’s pride in daring to draw upon a son of Toturi.
Hachi’s hand already rested upon the hilt of his sword. The gathered crowd saw that. To back down now would be perceived as cowardice.
Hachi could think of only one way out.
“Show me your stance,” Hachi demanded, his voice a low growl.
Kaneka’s eyes widened slightly. “What?” he said.
“Not all duels are to the death,” Hachi said. “Surely Akodo Ginawa taught you that much. Or did he leave those details to your geisha mother?”
Kaneka snarled. In a flash, his katana was drawn and clutched in both hands. His form was perfect, his technique none other’s but his own. His blade – a gift of the Water Dragon – gleamed with a cold blue light.
Hachi replied by drawing his own blade. His own form was forced, clumsy, intentionally mimicking the most basic kata of the Akodo bushi school. Hachi shrugged, gave a lopsided smile, and bowed with a flourish, acknowledging Kaneka as the victor.
The two regarded one another for a long moment. Kaneka’s lip quivered in anger at the subtle insult. Hachi could tell that the Bastard ached to cut him down there, but to do so would brand him as dishonorable in the eyes of his traditional Akodo followers.
“I will return to reclaim my lands, ronin,” Hachi whispered so that only Kaneka could hear.
“I will be waiting,” Kaneka replied, brushing past the Emerald Champion as he stepped through the gates of Friendly Traveler Village. On the seventh day of the Month of the Horse, Year 1159 (Isawa Calendar)
Kitsuki Remata paused at the crest of the hill, reigning in his horse as he gazed about. In the distance, he could see the pickets of the Akodo troops. A forest of golden war banners stretched before him, peppered here and there with the occasional Scorpion mon. Six samurai rode beside Remata, garbed in the scarlet and ivory armor of the Hare Clan. Their leader, a one-eyed bushi with graying hair, brought his horse to a halt beside Remata’s with a grunted command.
“Doji Kurohito struggled to control these lands for months,” Remata said with a sigh. “Now Akodo Kaneka takes them in three days without striking a single blow.”
“It was Kurohito’s own fault for fighting fair,” the old samurai said. “I see some Bayushi mons mixed in there with those Akodo.” He turned and spat on the road beside him.
“Ozaki-sama,” Remata said, turning to regard the Hare. “While I appreciate your offer of aid, I must remind you that the Scorpion are allies of my clan.”
“I don’t hold it against you,” Ozaki said simply, still studying the Lion forces. “And I wouldn’t count Doji Kurohito out of this. Kaneka may have Toturi’s blood, but Kurohito’s ancestry isn’t exactly feeble. I give him two months, best case, before he pulls something from behind his back that makes Kaneka regret he threw his weight around.”
“You think Kurohito will retake Yasuki Yashiki?” Remata asked.
“I never said that,” Ozaki grinned wryly. “I said he’d make Kaneka regret it. You don’t carry on a twelve century feud with the most militant clan in the Empire without learning a thing or two about revenge.”
“Perhaps we should let it be, then?” Remata asked. “Let things sort themselves out without our interference?”
“I never said that,” Ozaki replied with a chuckle. “You were right to come to me, Remata-san. Something doesn’t smell right here, and if we don’t get to the bottom of it a lot of people are going to get hurt. I’ve seen this sort of thing before.” Ozaki’s gaze fixed upon the Lion’s ranks again, his single eye burning with silent rage.
“You think the Scorpion are plotting something?” Remata asked.
“I think that the Scorpion are the least of our worries,” Ozaki answered. On the fifteenth day of the Month of the Horse, Year 1159 (Isawa Calendar)
Hachi winced as he emerged onto the third floor of Kyuden Kakita. Unlike most of the castle, which was filled eternally with the most pleasant smells available in nature, this floor reeked with an unholy stench.
At his left, Doji Nagori paused and pressed a silken cloth over his mouth and nose. At his right, Bayushi Norachai’s face was pale.
“This place smells of death,” Norachai said simply.
Hachi opened his mouth to reply, but cut off when a shoji screen opened suddenly to their right. A shirtless man stepped into the hall. His chest was emblazoned with a golden tattoo of the full moon. His eyes glowed with a strange golden light. His hair was bleached white and cropped short. Though his face was lined with age, his limbs still rippled with sinewy muscle.
Hachi recognized him immediately. “Doji Reju-sama,” he said, bowing to the old samurai. Norachai and Nagori did likewise.
Reju gave the trio a cynical frown. “The Emerald Champion calls a rank and file bushi ‘-sama’? What has the world come to?”
“Emerald Champion I may be, Reju-sama,” Hachi replied, “but you are one of Rokugan’s greatest heroes. At the academy, the instructors spoke highly of your valor at Oblivion’s Gate, and of the seven kata you devised upon your return from–”
“Oblivion’s Gate,” Reju said with an unceremonious wave of his hand. “Save your respect for the ones who didn’t return. Those are the heroes.”
“Hai, Reju-sama,” Hachi replied.
Reju rose an eyebrow. “Well,” he said. “He is waiting for you. I’d hurry if I were you. He gets tired easily.”
Hachi nodded and quickly passed through the door as Reju indicated. Nagori and Norachai followed, and soon the three found themselves in a long hallway.
“I suppose he must have learned etiquette from the Dragon when they gave him that tattoo,” Norachai mused, glancing back disdainfully as they walked.
“Norachai, please,” Hachi said. “We are not here to mock living legends. It is not every samurai who can serve two lords and betray neither.”
“Perhaps,” Norachai replied.
They continued walking, and the stench of rot and death grew greater. Nightingale floors creaked beneath their feet. Nagori grunted. “A skilled hero like Reju and assassin-proof floors to protect one old man?” he asked.
“Perhaps this old man fears for his life,” Norachai replied.
“Who would threaten–” Nagori began.
“Perhaps that is what we are here to discover,” Hachi replied as they stepped into the bedchambers of Kakita Toshiken.
The former Emerald Champion lay weakly upon a heap of silken pillows. His body was withered, nearly skeletal. Dark circles hung beneath his reddened eyes. His lower lip quivered as he recognized his visitors. He was clearly dying, and had been for some time.
“At last…” the old man wheezed, his breath coming in gasps. Every word seemed to be a labor for the withered samurai. “The new Emerald Champion… at last.”
“Toshiken-sama,” Hachi replied, bowing deeply. Nagori and Norachai followed his lead.
“I have heard much about you… Daidoji Hachi,” Toshiken said.
Hachi frowned, not certain whether to correct the old man’s mistake.
Toshiken’s lip quivered into a smile, a ghastly sight. “You think I err when I call you Daidoji? It is what the Akodo called you… and it is what you are… Toturi’s son may be… a fool in many ways but he knows… as I know… of the power of a name…”
“With all due respect, Toshiken-sama, the Yasuki name is mine,” Hachi replied. “My ancestors were Yasuki. The Emperor himself–”
“Was… only a man… despite what we are often told…” Toshiken replied, showing the ghastly smile again. “But he was… the greatest man I have ever known… Toturi… was honorable… and far more clever than most give him credit for… As is his child.”
Hachi frowned. “Kaneka?”
Toshiken gave a wet chuckle, not answering Hachi’s question or not caring. “They knew… father and child knew the truth… Those who started this war… to kill a daimyo… kill two daimyos… to brew a war between two Great Clans… where would it end? Would it be too much… to place one of their own as Emerald Champion? Who would do such a thing? We had to be sure… that you were what you seemed to be.”
“Toshiken-sama, I don’t understand,” Hachi asked, stepping closer to Toshiken’s prone form.
The old man coughed, his thin body spasming painfully for several moments. “No…” he said. “You do not know… and that is one thing that they did not consider… You are a good man, Daidoji Hachi… Toturi’s child was right about you…”
“Which child of Toturi do you mean?” Hachi asked.
Toshiken only smiled again. “You can still fix this, end this war, restore peace, all of it… if you keep your wits about you.”
“End the Yasuki war?” he replied. “But how? I’m not truly the Emerald Champion, not as you were. The Test of the Emerald Champion was a joke. I could have won, but Naseru manipulated events to paint me as his puppet. Now that puppet is all the Empire sees. Did he do this? Is he responsible for this war? Why would he do such a thing?”
Toshiken’s gaze hardened, and for a moment there was steel in his eyes. Hachi was surprised by the strength he saw there. He wondered what sort of Champion this Toshiken might have been, in younger days. “We have two choices in life, Daidoji,” he said. “We can bemoan the circumstances that led us to be where we are… that path leads only to our destruction. Or we can fight.”
“And I that path sets us free?” Hachi replied cynically.
“No,” Toshiken said. “Both paths lead to destruction… All paths end in death, Hachi… but when the time came for me to choose to join my brother in his revenge or to forgive my father for the life he had given me… I chose to fight the weakness in my soul… You may think of me as a decrepit, weak old man, but all the regrets of my life… would have been averted if I had only fought sooner against the path I believed was predestined…” Toshiken’s eyes glazed over for a moment, as if reflecting upon the pain of a long lifetime. When his eyes focused again, they were clear and sharp. “Daidoji, when the time comes for you to choose, will you fight?”
“Honor is my guide,” Hachi replied. “Who began the Yasuki war? If you know, Toshiken-sama, you must tell me.”
Toshiken frowned. “The truth would do you little good, and may only cause more harm… To yourself and to your friends… However, there is one other that you can trust… Who can prepare you for what you may face… I have fought beside him before…”
Hachi nodded, waiting patiently.
“His name,” Toshiken continued. “Is Ozaki…”