A continuation of the story begun in ‘Prologue,’ from our recent installment of Scenes of the Empire.
Sins of the Father
By Robert Denton
Edited by Fred Wan
When she was a little girl, her mother would call her “Kodora.” It meant “little tiger.”
The tiger was her favorite animal. Ever since she saw one on a silk mural during the Koshōgatsu festival. She stared at it moon-eyed, magnificent in depiction and resplendent with the hues of colored lanterns. The tiger represented courage, strength, confidence, and ferocity, things that were desirable in samurai. But it also represented anger.
Ichigiku never thought of herself as an angry person. Not really. She did lose her temper now and again, but that was normal. There was the time she slapped Toru’s face because he’d dared to try and hold her hand during the Bon festival, but they were only children. And there was the time she lost her temper in the noodle house, but that was due mostly to revulsion; she’d smashed the ceramic bowl of soup on the floor, and was rewarded for her outburst with a new one, this time with no fly. Perhaps her anger was intense, but it certainly wasn’t the norm. Usually her demeanor was like winter, quiet and icy, as befitting a magistrate of the Crane. Times where she slipped, and her anger, her Tiger, began to show, were rare.
That is what she believed until weeks ago, when she’d lost her temper and gone too far…
The sound of a sōzu broke the silence of the garden. In her mind, Ichigiku pictured the device; a wide segment of bamboo, suspended above a flat rock at a slant, slowly filling with a trickle of water until it was full, tipping the balance and driving it down against the stone. The sharp noise was intended to startle birds and other animals that might disturb the gardens. She focused on the ripple, feeling how the ambient sound of the gardens rushed to fill the wake.
She opened her eyes. She stood in the spring gardens of the magistrate station of Shizuka Toshi. She wore a simple gi of white, as she always did during her morning exercises. Her Tiger was awake, but it was still and quiet; practicing the movements of her mizu-do kata was like weaving a great chain around it, rendering it docile. Easy to control.
Sweat trickled down her nose as she completed each motion, transitioning between poses without pause, completing the kata with a gentle exhale. She came to a stop as she spotted movement at the gardens’ entrance. A servant approached, burdened with a heavy scroll he carried with both hands. Ichigiku recognized the personal mon of the Chief Magistrate on the scroll. The exchange was brief, the servant avoiding her gaze, bowing neatly and extending the scroll. Her Tiger stirred. It knew, as she knew, what it contained. She had been summoned.
* * * * *
Through a busy corridor within the magistrate station, Ichigiku walked with purpose. Gone was the white gi and the sweat of morning exercise. She now wore her good kimono of pale blue silk, dark formal hakama, and her navy blue haori, embroidered with a Mon that announced her station. Although the letter had the tone of urgency, she’d taken the take time to bathe and dress herself formally, a task she’d managed in just under an hour. She knew better than to present herself to her superiors in anything less than her best. The only compromise had been her hair; she’d pulled it out of her eyes and into a disciplined ponytail, less formal than she would have liked but it would have to suffice. She did not have access to a hairdresser and she did not trust the task to herself.
She kept her face serene as she walked the long hallway, passing through the glances and prolonged stares of the magistrates that populated the hall. She could feel every glance, and in the periphery of her vision, noticed as they bent to whisper to one-another, obscuring their mouths with cupped hands or peering over open fans. They gave her wide berth, some even pressing their backs flat against the wall as she passed.
“Is that her?” she heard one whisper too loudly.
“Shut up!” his companion hissed, pulling him away as she passed them by. She could feel that their words drew the attention of the Tiger, but she was able to soothe it without breathing her mantra. She knew that she was not what the rumors had made her out to be. And she would show them; the ice of her On would not crack so easily.
She arrived at the quarters of the Chief Magistrate. Even the guards seemed wary of her, inspecting her scroll of summons only as briefly as necessary. They led her through another hall and into the Chief Magistrate’s office. She was surprised that her audience would be granted here, and not in the receiving room, but she did not mention this. When the guards left, she took a respectful seiza on a narrow black pillow at the center of the room.
The office was tastefully furnished, with brilliant rice-paper walls and a window affording a view of Osari Mori outside. Seated at his desk, Kakita Kazan gave no acknowledgement that Ichigiku had even arrived, tending to a scroll on his desk at a leisurely pace. Ichigiku bowed to him regardless, her forehead touching the floor. The man who stood beside the desk, Kazan’s lieutenant named Doji Genshin, scowled openly as he watched her. She could feel the weight of his eyes as she bowed.
As she rose, she caught a glimpse of another scroll laying on the edge of Kazan’s desk. It was tightly bound with green ribbon and looked brittle from sea air. She noticed the Mon of the Mantis Clan stamped on the paper. Her breath caught at the sight, and she clenched her jaw. So this was why she was summoned… a reprimand for what had happened. She was going to be punished for… the incident.
She closed her eyes. She knew, even on that day, with the blood still fresh on her blade, that retribution would come. Now, opening her eyes to what lay on Kazan’s desk, she accepted these consequences and readied herself for whatever came next.
The room was quiet. She sat, unmoving, patiently waiting to be acknowledged. Genshin continued to stare at her, and she pointedly avoided his gaze, watching Kazan as he made lazy marks on the scroll on this desk. At last, he seemed satisfied, rolling the paper tightly and working it into a bamboo tube he procured from beneath his desk. He set the scroll aside and looked up. His weathered face smiled gently as he saw Ichigiku for the first time since she’d entered.
“Ichigiku-san,” he greeted, “it has been some time since we last spoke, hasn’t it?”
“At my gempukku, Kazan-sama,” she replied.
He began shuffling the papers on his desk, as if looking for something. “You’re garnering quite a reputation,” he said. “It seems even the Tsuruchi have heard of you.”
Her eyes flicked once more to the Mantis’ scroll on the desk.
“Do you know why I called for you?” He was watching her very closely now, his fingers threaded, hands resting on the desk.
She made a point to meet his eyes. “I believe I do.” Her gut tightened, bracing herself.
His face crinkled as his smile grew. “Word travels quickly,” he said, “did one of the others tell you?”
“They are not speaking with me,” she admitted. She chose her next words carefully. “I have reflected on that day, and if given the chance, I would-”
She was going to say “apologize,” but her words failed when she noticed his expression. Kazan’s brow was pinched and his eyes narrowed, as if confused. She glanced at the other man; Genshin was pointedly not looking at her.
“I think there was been a misunderstanding,” Kazan said, “I have called you here to seek council regarding a situation within Shizuka Toshi.”
Ichigiku blinked. Unsure of what to say, she simply nodded.
Kazan handed Genshin a small piece of paper, which he took and carried to where Ichigiku sat. He thrusted it towards her, maintaining his scowl. She accepted it with a nod and held it before her as Genshin returned to the Chief Magistrate’s side. The paper was an ink-brush depiction of a room within Shizuka Toshi Palace. There were many small details within the painting, but her eyes went immediately to a figure slumped over a desk, and blots of dark ink that she instinctively recognized as a depiction of blood.
“The playwright Kakita Hiro was discovered dead in his room last night.”
Her eyes narrowed. A detailed description of the scene flanked the painting in bold kanji-strokes, the notes of a junior magistrate.
“He was discovered by his apprentice,” Kazan explained, “just last night. However, we have reason to believe he’d been dead for longer, because no one had seen him since the night prior to that. He was found hunched over a scroll… it appears to be a play he was commissioned to write some time ago. His wakizashi was discovered by his side, bloodied. We found the first two cuts of a seppuku on his belly. But not the third.” He paused, watching Ichigiku carefully. “Because he was elderly, we believe he hadn’t the strength for the final cut.”
Ichigiku looked up. She saw Kazan watching her with visible interest. “You have something to say on the matter?” he asked.
She nodded. He gestured for her to speak.
“I am intrigued by the implications of a seppuku performed with only two cuts, my lord.”
Kazan raised an eyebrow. “Explain.”
She drew a deep breath. “The practice of seppuku is an ancient one, and some say it even predates the Empire. It was not always as it is today. It is modern practice to perform three cuts with the wakizashi, all after permission is granted by one’s lord.” As she explained, she traced the cuts with her finger on her obi. “The first, a cut from left to right across the belly. The second, a diagonal cut to below the abdomen. The last, a vertical cut to just below the ribcage. Only after the blade is withdrawn does the kaishakunin finish the job.
“But it was not always performed in this way,” she continued. “Before modern times, only permission to perform the third and final cut was given. On the battlefield, when permission could not be granted, a samurai could still perform seppuku to avoid capture, but could only perform the first two cuts. He did not have permission for the third. This came to be known as ‘oibara.’
“The lack of a third cut prolonged the suffering of the dying considerably, so it was considered an adequate demonstration of remorse to die in this way. Thus it was often performed as an apology for failure.” She looked to the depiction of the bent-over body. “That the playwright chose to die in this way, sprawled over one of his plays, demonstrates considerable vanity and remorse. He must have believed his work to be of great significance, and wanted to attract attention to it with his death.”
Kazan seemed amused. His eyes were twinkling. “You seem to know a lot about the practice, little tiger.”
Ichigiku felt her face flush. It was impossible for him to know the significance of that name. “…I am interested in history…” was all she could manage from the shock.
Kazan was smiling broadly now. He stamped a form on his desk, rolled it into a tube, then walked around the desk to lay it in Ichigiku’s hands. “I am assigning the investigation of Kakita Hiro’s suicide to you,” he said. “Discover the circumstances around his death. I want to know why he committed this ancient seppuku without telling anyone of his plans. If there is some shame to the clan connected to this, I want to know about it.”
As he spoke, Ichigiku felt her heartbeat rise. She’d come expecting a reprimand. Instead, she was just handed an investigation! A small one, perhaps, but it was more than she’d been entrusted with before. She steeled herself, gripping the paper with a determined fist. She knew this for what it was. A chance to prove her worth.
“Hai,” she accepted, bowing her head, “As you command, my lord! I will not fail you.”
“You’d better not.” His smile never faltered.
Only after she’d left did Kazan look to the other man, who was all but glaring at the door. “Your eyes say it all,” he said calmly, “and I will remind you that I do not require your approval for my choices. You are not the head of this magistrate branch yet, Genshin-san.”
Genshin frowned. “I only wonder why you would entrust any case, no matter how insignificant, to anyone who is a known troublemaker.”
Kazan smirked. “There is something to be said for one who yells at the festival,” he quoted, his smile tinting his words. “This is only a minor case. Let us see what manner of trouble she can make.”
* * * * *
Ichigiku stood alone in the study of the late Kakita Hiro. It was spotless; any trace of the suicide long gone. The desk, where his body was found, sat unassuming at the center of the room. Scrolls, paintings, and other personal treasures hung from the walls undisturbed. The shoji door of the far wall was open, leading to a wide balcony offering a view of the palace gardens and an unhindered breeze to gently stir the room. In the corner, a personal shrine to Hiro’s ancestor, the famous playwright Kakita Morushijin. Beyond, his bedroom was partially obscured by a ricepaper wall separating it from the study.
One would never guess what had transpired in this room only nights ago. Only two things were amiss, and Ichigiku only noticed them because she knew what had happened. The wakizashi stand stood empty, and the wooden floor around the desk was faintly stained the color of blood.
She had not been here long. In fact, she’d never really intended to come here. The body had been removed, and order restored, so what use was left here? But the thought had occurred to her as she was reading the play Hiro was writing at the time of his death.
Reading the play around the repeating pattern of dried blood had proven to be a challenge. The play itself, which was little more than a rough story with few parts fleshed out, seemed to be rather self-indulgent and fanciful; the first act depicted a young man who fell in love with woman above his status and his unsuccessful attempts to romance her. Disheartened, he took a walk in the woods, where his lamenting was overheard by a tree spirit, who gave him a play that the spirit assured the young man would win the lady’s heart. In exchange for this, the spirit asked only for a favor. By the end of the act, he’d won not only the heart of the woman he loved, but also the fame and admiration of the entire Empire.
Ichigiku had hoped that the script would grant some insight into the man’s final moments, but the frustration of reading through the obscuring blood was hindering her. She set it down after completing the first act, vowing to return to it when she’d had a chance to clear her mind. It was then that she thought she might visit Hiro’s study. She wanted to be in the room where it happened. There was something about this seppuku that peaked her interest, something buzzing in the back of her mind. Of course, there was more testimony to be gathered, but that could wait for now.
Ichigiku sat down, laying her hands on the desk. It was cold and smooth, the surface glossy from varnish. This is where he died, she thought, and closed her eyes. The servants of the castle believed it was bad luck to sit where a man had died. She overheard them talking about it; they believed that his final thoughts would linger there. Perhaps, if she waited long enough, they would whisper in her ear, and she would know the fading thoughts of one on the cusp of oblivion.
A sound came from the bedroom. Ichigiku’s eyes opened, darting to the doorway. There was nothing there. She held her breath, thinking that perhaps it was her imagination.
But then it came again. A dragging sound of wood against wood, as if a drawer was being opened. It was definitely coming from the bedroom. Her eyes narrowed. She was not alone.
Noiselessly she stood, her hand resting on the hilt of her katana. Cautiously, and with the silence of dropped silk, she crossed the room. She stopped just within the doorway, eyes flicking to the floor. A shadow was there, and she calculated that whoever it was, it was roughly her height, and rummaging in the corner farthest from the door. From this angle, she could not see the intruder. But she knew this was a restricted area. Whoever it was, it didn’t belong here.
Her fingers gripped the handle of her sword. The noise stopped. She stood there for long moments, drawing silent breaths into her chest, her belly, her legs…
She leapt across the threshold, facing the corner with the intruder. “Hold it!” she shouted. Her body was a coiled spring, her left hand extended, palm-first in the style of the Kakita, her right ready to draw the blade into a charging enemy.
In the corner of the room, a young man rummaged through a small drawer flanking the thin mattress laying on the floor. He had sharp features, with long black hair pulled into a samurai’s topknot, and large ears, like a monkey. He wore the colors of the Dragon, a yellow and green kimono printed with vibrant bamboo shoots, and a haori of rich emerald green. Ichigiku noted that he was unarmed. The young man looked up when she burst in, and the second thing that she noticed were his rich brown eyes.
He looked at her pointedly, blinked a few times, then went back to what he was doing.
At first, she was too surprised to be angry. Her wits came rushing back only moments afterward, and she felt the Tiger begin to stir. “Hey!” she shouted.
Without rising, he extended a finger, as if to say, “just a moment.”
Kill him, the Tiger said. Her arm tensed, prepared to draw. But she held herself when she spotted the mon on his back, depicting a Violet, the flower of watchfulness. This was a Kitsuki Magistrate.
And then she noticed that he was watching her from the corner of his eye, staring at her sword hand. Ichigiku felt the rush of anger fading, but the Tiger still paced. She remembered what its impulses had gotten her last time, and so she exhaled gently and met his eyes.
“You are obstructing an investigation of the Doji Magistrates,” she said icily, “I am giving you ten seconds to explain-”
“An odd seppuku, don’t you think?”
She paused. He stood, smiling, arms hanging limply from his sides. “Only two cuts,” he continued, and deliberately traced them on his belly. “Not the third. Like the ancient practice, before modern convention.”
“How do you know that?” she asked. The Tiger was still growling, but louder still was her curiosity.
“I saw the body,” he said with a shrug. As almost an afterthought, he bowed. “I am Kitsuki Kinaro.”
“Kakita Ichigiku.” The reply was automatic, a cold courtesy. She did not return the bow.
Nonplussed, he continued. “Why do you think he would kill himself in that way?” he asked. “I understand his last play was universally panned, but surely ‘The Folly of Chagatai’ was not that bad. Ill-timed, perhaps…”
“Start making sense,” Ichigiku commanded. “The Dragon can make sense when they want to, right?”
Kinaro grinned. It was a wide grin, reminding her again of a monkey. “Alright,” he said, “I’ll explain my theory.”
At once, he began a steady walk towards Ichigiku, hands behind his back. She tensed as he approached, but allowed him to walk through her strike zone and into the next room. In her mind, she told herself that she should not entertain this intruder for a moment more. This was her investigation, and by all rights she should command him to leave. Yet a man of his station could cause another incident, and she was curious. Her hand loosened from the blade’s handle, but she kept it there all the same as she followed him into the study.
“Did he finish the play?” he asked, walking to the desk and examining it, as if for the first time.
She didn’t realize he’d asked the question until several moments later. It was an uneasy realization that he was apparently just as informed of what had happened here as she was. “The play?”
He nodded. “Yes. The one discovered beneath him. The one he was writing.” He cupped his chin. “That is the only thing I haven’t examined yet.” A pause. “Well, not the only thing. There is one other thing, but I think that thing is here and I’m trying to find it.”
Ichigiku stared plainly. “You said you were going to make sense.”
“Ah, right.” He cleared his throat. “So, I’m guessing you’ve seen the play. Was it finished?”
Reluctantly, she answered, “no. It was supposed to be a four act play, but he only wrote three, and he didn’t finish the third.” She watched his smile grow wider. “Why does it matter?”
“Why would a playwright kill himself in the middle of his own work?” He raised an eyebrow. “Is writer’s block so torturous?”
A snarky reply came instantly to her tongue, a demand, in few words, to either peacefully leave the premise or else leave it in pieces. But then his words penetrated the wall of her mind. Why would he kill himself before the final act was finished?
He could see, in her eyes, that she was considering the question. Delighted, he pointed to the desk. “Look at the blood pattern on the desk. Do you see it?”
Her blue eyes tilted. It was faint, but she could barely make it out.
“He was about my size.” Immediately he dropped, almost playfully, into a seated seiza. Laying his hand on the desk, he traced an even line from the surface to just below his ribcage. He looked up. “He would have cut himself here. Does this seem odd?”
The blood would not have reached the desk’s surface! She realized this instantly, the revelation lighting her from within. He saw this realization had come, and his look intensified.
“You see? Seppuku would have been impossible.” His smile suddenly faded. “I think it wasn’t a suicide.”
His words sank slowly. “What are you suggesting, Kitsuki-san?”
Abruptly, he abandoned the desk and made for the bedroom. Ichigiku watched him as she would watch a house-cat inexplicably dart between rooms. She followed, finding him rummaging through drawers once more.
“Did you see the servant’s testimony?” he asked over his shoulder, closing one drawer and forcing open another. “The one given to the overseeing magistrate? Genshin, I think his name was?”
“How did you see it?!” Ichigiku demanded.
He cast her a sly look. “According to the servant, every night, Kakita Hiro took a cup of ‘Kiss of Yume-do’ tea. To help him sleep, you see. But on the night prior to the body’s discovery, the servant delivered two cups to this room.” He closed the drawer, rubbed his forehead, then stood and began to pace the room, his eyes searching the floor. “But the eta that removed the body said there was only one teacup by the desk, and only one teacup was recovered by the servants that cleaned the room. That means the second one was left behind.”
Her mind raced. “How long have you been intruding on this investigation!?”
He suddenly stopped. He took a step back. Tapped the floor with his foot. Smiled. Falling into a crouch, he began feeling the floor with his fingers, finding the edges of a trapdoor. He lifted it up, eyes twinkling. Setting the lid aside, he reached into the hidden compartment drew two objects, setting them on the floor beside him.
The first was a small clay lily, fired but unfinished, clearly the work of a beginner. Ichigiku’s eyes lingered on it for only a moment before looking on to the second object. It was a porcelain teacup.
“Interesting,” Kinaro said, “that it should find its way beneath the floor.” Reaching into his obi, he procured a small drawstring bag, which he worked open with his fingers. He drew a pinch of a powder inside, then sprinkled it over the teacup. As they watched, the powder fizzled as it touched the inside of the teacup, foaming instantly.
Kinaro gave a satisfied nod. “Poison.” He looked up, triumphant. “Your playwright was murdered.”
Ichigiku stared at the cup, stunned. Her mind worked over everything the Kitsuki had said. If this was all true…
Kinaro replaced the bag and dusted off his hands, his expression smug. He left the evidence on the floor and began confident stride whose path would lead him past Ichigiku and back into the study. “My work is done,” he said. “You will want to ask Hiro’s apprentice why she wanted him dead. She was, after all, the one who sent the poisoned tea to his room. It follows reason that she arranged his body to look like a suicide, and hid the teacup in the trapdoor.”
“It couldn’t have been his apprentice,” Ichigiku said.
Kinaro stopped, casting her a patronizing look. “You think so?”
Calmly, she drew a small document from within her obi. “I spoke with her hours ago. I have her testimony right here,” she explained. “She was not within the castle on the night of Hiro’s death, so she couldn’t have ordered the servant to deliver a second teacup.”
The Kitsuki’s smile faded, and he looked puzzled, rubbing his neck with his brow furrowed in thought. Ichigiku felt a wave of satisfaction. Maybe she could regain control of the situation, now.
Finally, he shook his head. “No… no, the evidence is clear. If it wasn’t her, then it was someone else.” He cast her a stoic look. “Kakita Hiro was murdered! I know this as a fact!”
“I believe you,” she said.
He stopped, eyes blinking. “You do?” He looked guarded, unsure.
She looked to the empty desk, to the faint outline of blood on the surface. “Hiro wrote stories based on historic events,” she explained, “but accuracy was not his strong suit. In fact, he would often cast it aside. He was once quoted as saying, ‘accuracy should not get in the way of a good story.’”
Kinaro listened, stroking his chin.
“He depicted no less than seven seppukus during his career,” she continued, “all of them taking place during the same period in the Empire’s history. In at least two of them, these seppukus were performed by characters who did not have their lord’s permission. He depicted them both after modern convention.” She paused to emphasize the point. “Inaccurate, because at the time he was depicting, they would have been performed with only two cuts. Not the three that he had written.”
She turned towards him, meeting his eyes. “If what you say is true, then Hiro’s ‘oibara style’ seppuku would have been faked, inflicted after his death. A seppuku performed with only two cuts, fashioned after the same time period that he set his plays, a seppuku he never actually depicted accurately.” The hint of a smile came to her face. “This was a criticism. A final insult from someone familiar with his plays, someone who criticized him for his historical inaccuracies.”
“Which means it was personal,” Kinaro said. Gone was his smug exterior. Now he was appraising her with a new light and a faint smile. “I had not considered the possibility,” he admitted. “I wasn’t that familiar with his work. Still, it seems far-fetched.” He smiled. “Unless writing inaccurate plays is a trespass worthy of death.”
“It depends on whom you ask,” she said.
“It leaves many questions unanswered,” he insisted, “but it’s a good enough theory to begin with. We can assume that whoever did this was familiar with Hiro’s plays. The coincidence is too great. It’s an angle we can use as we continue the investigation.”
Ichigiku crossed her arms. “We?”
He paused at the doorway. “Of course! We just came to a conclusion in unison! We’re much stronger together, wouldn’t you say?”
The Crane took an authoritative step that brought her face to face with the Kitsuki. “This is my investigation,” she said. “It is in the jurisdiction of the Doji magistrates. I appreciate your help, but I have this under control.”
“My lord is the one who commissioned the play Hiro was writing at the time of his death.” Kinaro crossed his arms and met her with equal defiance. “I was supposed to pick it up yesterday morning. I’ve been conducting an investigation on his behalf since the body was discovered last night. The play is in your custody; I’m looking after my lord’s interests.”
“I can have you banished from this place,” she threatened.
“I know,” he replied. “Just hear me out. Please.”
“Let’s work together,” he urged. “Our goals are similar. You wish to uncover the cause of your clanmate’s death. I want to bring the killer to justice.”
She saw the intensity of his look, and she could hear the sincerity in his voice. She knew his word was as good as his deed. Yet she was still resistant. This was her first investigation, and she was not about to be undermined by a Kitsuki.
But he did seem to have analytical skills that she was lacking, and so much was carried on the success or failure of this assignment. Her mind drifted to the Mantis’ scroll on Kazan’s desk…
“If I agree,” she said carefully, “then I am in charge. I recognize that you are acting on behalf of your lord’s interests, but this is still a Crane-run investigation. I will tolerate you only so long as you are useful to me. Understood?”
“Then I accept your offer,” she said. The matter settled, she brushed past him and into the hallway. “Come with me. We must interview the servants next, discover if Hiro had any enemies, and then we will weigh our options.”
Kinaro fell into step behind her. They passed a group of courtiers who whispered, casting double-takes as the two walked by. He made his monkey-grin as they turned the corner together. “I think I will learn much from you, Ichigiku-san.”
“Yes,” she returned, with the confidence of a tiger, “I think you will.”