Blood Brothers Part II
By Rich Wulf
Kuma stared blankly into space, his gaze unfocused and distant. He shook his head after several moments, as if trying to concentrate amid a loud racket. All was silence in the darkened chamber. The Seppun looked down at him with quiet, patient pity.
“What’s wrong, Kuma-sama?” he asked in a soft voice. “Are you having trouble remembering your journey to the Tomb?”
“It is somewhat hazy,” Kuma said, eyes narrowing as he looked up at his friend. “But that’s not really it. I’m just& I’m just curious. You were there during the journey. You were with us all the while. Why is it that you wish to hear a tale of something that you witnessed yourself, Saito-san?” Kuma’s eyes flicked from one corner of the chamber to another, as if searching for an escape, or perhaps a weapon.
Saito sighed. With a soft grunt, the fat Seppun settled himself onto the floor beside the Crab. “Kuma-sama, you have known me for almost a year now,” he said. “You know that I am not a strong man. I am not a brave man. But I like to think that I know something about the hearts and minds of others. What I do here is not for my benefit but your own. Have you never walked a path that you trod once when you were a child? Do you not recall how memories flood back, images and dreams that were long forgotten? So it is now. You have forgotten much, Kuma, and I worry for you. It all began with the Tomb, so I hope to help you remember. Tell me what you know, and I will guide you on the path when you stumble. I know this is painful for you, you have been through a great deal, but you are among friends.”
Kuma looked at the other man for a long moment, then drew a deep breath. “I& I am sorry to have misjudged you, Saito-san,” he said finally.
The Seppun nodded with a faint grin. “No apologies are necessary, Kuma-sama, I know how difficult this is for you. I was there.”
Kuma said nothing, lost in memory. He buried his face in his hands and huddled in the corner of the room. He was silent for a long time, unable or unwilling to speak.
“If you cannot speak of the Tomb, then speak of something else,” the Seppun said. “Just speak, do not become lost to the pain or it will consume you.”
Kuma looked up, his eyes red-rimmed. “What should I talk about?” he asked.
“Whatever comes to mind,” the Seppun shrugged. “Tell me about your brother.”
“Katamari,” Kuma said, and for a moment, the anguish that creased his features faded.
“You two are very good friends,” the Seppun replied, “but it is my understanding that it was not always so.”
“No,” Kuma said with a low chuckle. “Not in the least.”
* * * * *
Kuma dodged quickly to one side just as the Unicorn’s spear butt passed through the area where he had been standing. He ducked backward quickly as another whiff of air passed before him, the weapon moving so quickly this time that he could not even see it. He brought up his tetsubo in reply. His strike was not as swift, but was more powerful and accurate. The weapon took the Unicorn in the side with a crack, sending him staggering back on one knee with a grunt.
The Unicorn smiled.
Kuma frowned as he realized his mistake too late. The Unicorn rolled with the blow, catching the tetsubo under one arm. He lunged forward, dropping his spear and taking Kuma across the chin with a vicious elbow. The Crab winced as he bit down on his tongue. He fell back hard on the ground, blood streaming from his mouth. Katamari wrenched the weapon from his grip, spun it about in midair, and leveled the tip at his throat.
“Who are you?” Kuma whispered, glaring up at his attacker.
“I am Katamari of House Iuchi,” the Unicorn replied, his voice devoid of all emotion. “I have come to cleanse the shame your family has heaped upon mine, and as our father is dead, it seems I must begin with you.”
“Our father?” Kuma asked, surprised.
Before he could say more the Unicorn reared back and thrust the tetsubo forward. Kuma barely grabbed the haft in time and ducked to one side, yanking the weapon hard and throwing the Unicorn off balance. Katamari stumbled and Kuma seized him with his free arm, kneeing him hard in the groin. The Unicorn doubled over and Kuma slammed his forehead into the man’s nose, causing him to crumble backward on the ground. Kuma lunged on top of him, twisting one arm painfully behind his back as he pinned him to the earth. He looked around for any sign of help, but there was none. He had been deep in the mountains, exploring as was his tendency, when the Unicorn had fallen upon him. He would have to deal with this alone.
“What did you say about my father?” Kuma demanded.
The Unicorn spoke one word in a language that Kuma did not understand. The crystal amulet hanging about the man’s throat suddenly flared with a bright purple light, and Kuma’s field of vision was consumed in a haze of pain. He fell back screaming, his arms and legs refusing to obey his commands.
“I do not like being forced to use my magic to prove my strength, Crab,” Katamari said, rising and looking down at Kuma with a sneer. “Iuchi magic has the power to make and unmake the world. Obviously it should make short work of you.”
“What do you want from me?” Kuma hissed through the pain.
“I told you already, I want to cleanse my family name,” Katamari said, circling the Crab slowly. “My father was a great armorsmith. He once traveled the Unicorn lands to learn the secrets of blacksmithing we borrowed from the gaijin, and in his journeys he met my mother, Iuchi Yi. He stayed only a short time in the Unicorn lands, but long enough that I was the result. Mother never told me my father’s name, until the day she died.” Katamari sneered. “She did not wish to cause him any undue shame, not that he bothered to return the favor. His name was Kenru.”
Kuma sat up, the pain beginning to clear as Katamari released his spell. He looked at the Unicorn blankly.
“Well, Crab, what do you have to say for yourself?” Katamari demanded. “Will you demand that I take back my words? Will you swear that your father would never do such a thing? Will you dare call my dead mother a liar?”
“No,” Kuma said, shaking his head slowly. “I knew my father well enough to know that what you suggest is not impossible. I will defend his honor, but I will not lie for him. If he brought you shame, I am sorry.” Kuma bowed his head to the Unicorn.
Katamari’s eyes widened, surprised by the sudden show of humility. He looked down at the weapon in his hand, as if uncertain now what to do with it. “Damn you,” he said in a low voice. “Damn you, Kaiu.”
Kuma looked up at Katamari in surprise. “I do not understand,” he said. “Why do you curse me so?”
“All my life I have been filled with anger,” the Unicorn said, dropping his weapon. “All my life I have sought vengeance against my father for the way he used and abandoned my mother. When I learned that he was dead, I hoped that perhaps you would be as arrogant and worthless as he. I have prepared all these years for a vengeance that will never come. If I punished you for what he did, I would be no better than those who blamed my mother. I have wasted my life.”
“Why do you say that?” Kuma asked.
Katamari chuckled. “I am a bastard, born to a low-ranking branch of the Iuchi,” he said. “There is nothing for me now but to spend my life in a temple, sorting amulets and scrolls.”
“I think not,” Kuma said. “You obviously have great power over the kami, you have bested me in combat, and you are a man with strong convictions if you would go to such trouble to defend your mother’s honor. If your family cannot see the worth in such a samurai, I can assure you that I do.” Kuma reached into his obi and drew out a jade badge on a long chain. He held it up to Katamari and allowed it to catch the light of the setting sun.
“You are an Emerald Magistrate,” Katamari said, “one of the Emperor’s enforcers.”
Kuma nodded. “We can use men such as you, Katamari,” he said.
“But you have only just met me,” Katamari replied. “You know nothing of me.”
“Some investigation into your background will be essential before anything can be made official, naturally,” Kuma said. “But I have no reason to believe anything you have told me is a lie, Katamari-san. I believe there is a place for you among the Emerald Magistrates, if you would have it.”
Katamari frowned. “I& I will need some time to think on this,” he replied.
“By all means,” Kuma answered. “In the meantime, I would invite you to return with me to Kaiu Shiro. We have our entire lifetimes to catch up on, brother.”
Katamari nodded, the anger and frustration in his eyes slowly replace by respect. He picked up his spear and threw the lost tetsubo to his brother, and followed him home.
* * * * *
“Quite a memorable meeting, but not entirely surprising,” the Seppun said with a chuckle. “I have often mused that your tales would be an inspiration to the ages.”
Kuma looked around, a faint expression of confusion on his face. “Where?” he asked in a distant voice.
“Where is Katamari now? My brother is always somewhere nearby. Where has he gone?”
“Do not worry for Katamari,” the Seppun replied in a calming voice. “He can take care of himself, I think.”
“And Genjiko?” he asked. “What of the Inquisitor who led is to the Tomb? Is she well, Saito-san?”
“She is well enough,” the Seppun said with a concerned frown, “though I find it odd that you would ask for her welfare before you asked for Sui’s.”
“Sui.” Kuma said, tasting the name and finding it unfamiliar. “Where is my wife?”
“By the Fortunes,” the Seppun said. He sat down on the floor closer to Kuma, studying
the Crab’s face intently. “You do not remember what became of her?”
Kuma’s brow furrowed in thought. “I& I do not recall,” he said. “I just assumed she was safe. She is always safe& She was always the strongest of us.”
“I agree,” the Seppun replied. “You were fortunate to have such a wise, beautiful, and powerful bride. She was trained by the Kitsu, was she not?”
Kuma nodded. For a moment, he thought he saw a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye, something beckoning to him, but when he looked it was not there. “She is a full-blooded sodan-senzo,” he replied. “She can see the ancestors, speak to them, and channel their strength. She honors them and they protect her.”
“Unusual for the Lion to marry one of their most powerful shugenja into the Crab, is it not?” the Seppun asked. “It seems that in this Empire, there are rules, and there are exceptions, and your family is made up of exceptions, Kaiu Kuma.” The Seppun chuckled.
Kuma did not laugh, only nodded soberly. “Yes,” he replied. He looked up at the other man intently. “Why can’t I remember what happened to my wife? Tell me what happened to her.”
“In good time,” the Seppun said, holding out a calming hand. “Your mind is badly wounded. Like a man with an arrow thrust into his flesh, we cannot draw out the weapon too quickly or we risk doing more damage. Instead, let us speak of your wife for a time. Perhaps that will ease your memories.”
“Speak of Sui?” he asked. “What do you wish to know?”
“Let us begin like we began with your brother,” he replied. “Tell me how you met.”
* * * * *
Kuma smoothed the rich blue kimono over his chest and tugged at his topknot uncertainly. For the thousandth time he adjusted his obi slightly, moving the inro box that hung from it so that it would be displayed in the most appealing manner.
“Perhaps we are not brothers after all,” Katamari said from the doorway of his chambers. “From the way you preen, I think your father must have been a Crane.”
Kuma laughed out loud and turned to meet his brother. He extended one hand, clasping Katamari’s in the Unicorn tradition. Katamari smiled and bowed deeply to Kuma in return.
“I am pleased that you could make it,” Kuma said.
“I would not miss my brother’s wedding,” he replied with a smile.
“How were your patrols in the southern provinces?” Kuma asked.
“The usual,” Katamari shrugged. “Increased bandit activity near the village of Kakita Bogu. The local magistrates are little more than peasants who were given a sword one day. They seem quite incapable of dealing with the matter themselves, I fear we may have to take a more personal hand in the matter.”
“Of course,” Kuma said resolutely. “I can send for aid from Otosan Uchi at once. We can ride out today, and meet with any aid the Emerald Champion sends us when it arrives.”
Katamari raised an eyebrow at Kuma. “Should you not meet with your wife first?” he asked.
Kuma blinked, then looked down at the rich formal robe he was wearing. He laughed out loud at himself. “Yes, I do suppose that would be appropriate,” he said wryly. “Sometimes I forget myself.”
“To become lost in duty is not so great a sin, Kuma,” Katamari said, clapping his brother on the shoulder.
“There are far worse things to be consumed by. Now tell me of your bride.”
“I do not know much of her, to tell the truth,” Kuma said with a shrug. “We are to meet for the first time today. She is the youngest granddaughter of Kitsu Juri, the lord of that family.”
Katamari’s eyes widened. “Impressive.”
Kuma nodded. “And quite intimidating, too,” Kuma said with a sigh. “Apparently father made some armor for Juri’s son that saved his life during the Battle of Oblivion’s Gate. Juri was grateful, and promised the hand of his granddaughter for the life of his son. I inherited father’s reward, and though I am flattered I find it difficult to accept the rewards of someone else’s heroism.”
“Enjoy it while you can,” Katamari said. “Better to be praised for someone else’s good deeds than blamed for their misdeeds. I hear there are a handful of fools out there that blame sons for the sins of their father.”
Kuma laughed at his brother, and Katamari grinned broadly in reply. The door behind them opened slightly, and an elderly servant poked his head into the room. “Kaiu-sama,” the old man said respectfully, “Lady Kitsu Sui awaits you in your audience chamber.”
“You have good timing, Katamari,” Kuma said to his brother. “Come with me, and we will meet her together.”
“Of course,” Katamari replied, following his brother as he led the way down the hall. “It sounds like a great deal of entertainment for me either way.”
“Either way?” Kuma asked, looking back at Katamari.
“If she is lovely and intelligent, then I look forward to meeting her and welcoming her to our family,” he replied.
“If she is hideous and stupid, I shall enjoy watching you twist in the wind.”
“You are a horrible person, Iuchi Katamari,” Kuma said, rolling his eyes.
“So I am told,” his brother replied with a grin.
The two walked in silence for a time. Kuma’s chest was puffed out, his hands balled tight into fists. His forehead had strung into a cold sweat. Katamari looked at him with an amused smile, and placed a calming hand on his shoulder. “Worry not, Kuma,” he said. “She is beautiful.”
“Oh?” Kuma asked, looking sharply at his brother. “How do you know?”
“She is a sodan-senzo,” he replied. “The spirits swirl around her like leaves in a hurricane. Remember, they speak to me as well. They came to me in great excitement the moment I arrived, whispering to me of her arrival. She is a woman of great wisdom and a powerful, indomitable spirit. What other beauty truly matters?”
Kuma’s shoulders loosened. He let out a deep breath. “Thank you, Katamari,” he said.
“Of course,” Katamari replied with a chuckle. “Now let us go and meet your bride to be.”
* * * * *
“Interesting,” the Seppun said, interrupting Kuma’s tale and drawing a confused look from the Crab. “It sounds as if your brother was quite taken with your wife from the start.”
Kuma frowned. “He admired Sui greatly, that is true,” the Crab replied. “He loved her as a member of his family, he guarded her honor as he guarded mine, as he guarded his own.”
“Guarded?” the Seppun asked. “Not guards? Why do you speak of your brother as if he were in the past?”
“I& do not know,” Kuma said. “I cannot remember what became of him, but he seems& far away now.” Kuma’s expression became worried. He looked down at his hands, noticing for the first time the deep cuts that marked his palms and wrists. “What has become of Katamari? Is he well? Where is he?”
“Calm yourself, Kaiu-sama,” the Seppun said in a soothing voice. “It is not yet time for that part of the tale.”