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A Hero's Death, Chapter 2
By Rich Wulf

All eyes in the room focused upon the man known as the Anvil. They all took their seats silently, as he demanded, with the exception of Agasha Chieh.

"Lord Naseru, as etiquette demands, I have brought you a gift on behalf of this group," Chieh said. Of all of them, only she seemed utterly unfazed by the sudden appearance of the Imperial heir. She reached into her robes and withdrew a small scroll. "It is a book of poetry, penned by the hand of Hantei XVI himself. It has long been a treasure of the Izaku Libraries. In thanks for turning your attention to so lowly a servant, I give it to you now."

Naseru eyed the Phoenix thoughtfully for a moment. "Though I admit some surprise that you were able to discern my identity in advance, I cannot accept such a gift. Surely it would be better off in your famed libraries, where all could treasure it."

All eyes turned toward Chieh once more. Tradition demanded that the recipient of a gift refuse twice, and that the giver find increasingly more clever reasons for him to accept it. It was one of the most fundamental games of the court, and Chieh had shown great daring by choosing to play it with the Anvil. "Not at all," Chieh replied. "For whatever reason, not many seem interested in the poetry of the Iron Chrysanthemum. However, I felt that perhaps the scroll might have some sentimental value to you, as the returned spirit was your sensei."

"The sentiment I bear the Iron Chrysanthemum cannot be spoken in polite company," Naseru said. "Though I recognize the great value of your gift, I think that perhaps it would only awaken memories better left forgotten."

"Than take it," Chieh said, offering the scroll once more. "Destroy it if that is your whim, and rid the Empire of one more bitter reminder of the War of Spirits."

Naseru rose an eyebrow. The Agasha was skating deliberately close to insulting him, but avoided doing so directly. He reached forth and took the scroll with a polite nod. "Do I pass your test, Agasha-san?"

"Test?" Chieh remarked mildly. "I sought only to give you a gift, my lord, the same way that you, in your masquerade as Otomo Kakasu, sought not to test us, but only to gather a diverse group of servants discreetly."

"How astute of you to notice," Naseru said, raising an impressed eyebrow. He did not even pause to look at the scroll, but handed it to his yojimbo, who received it reverently. "However, enough of pleasantries. Let us move directly to the point." Naseru seated himself at the head of the small table. A servant appeared and filled a cup of tea at his right. He accepted it wordlessly and sipped. "A matter has arisen which must be treated with utmost discretion, and thus I have summoned the six of you here. Each of you has proven yourselves to be honorable, dependable samurai. Your unique blend of skills and experiences should serve well in this venture. I could not have asked for a more capable group had I commissioned your creation directly from Lord Sun and Lady Moon." His eyes passed over them all, lingering for a moment over Utaku Yu-Pan, who shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

"Begging your pardon, Lord Naseru," Kijuro replied. "While I don't exactly find it difficult to argue with your kind words, I wonder what sort of problem you might have that the Legions can't handle. Why send all the way to the Ox mountains for someone like Kijuro?"

"This is a matter that requires more subtlety than the Imperial Legions are capable of practicing," Naseru replied. "The honor and dignity of all the Great Clans is at stake. Moshi Kakau, tell the others of what you saw in the House of the Plum Blossom two months ago."

Kakau nodded, folding his hands before him and staring at his knuckles for a moment as he gathered his thoughts. "I had never been to Ryoko Owari before. I had never really been to the mainland much, for that matter. I'd never seen a city so large in my life... though of course the Eternal City is much larger. I felt like a goblin in Kyuden Hida with all those Scorpion around. As some of you may know, my clan and theirs aren't on the best of terms lately. Even yet, they signed my traveling papers and showed me into the city, polite as you please."

"Kijuro would have run for his life," Kijuro remarked dryly.

"Kijuro-san, please," Naseru said sharply. "Allow the esteemed Mantis to complete his story without interruption."

"My apologies, Naseru-sama," Kijuro said, bowing his head and gesturing for Akemi to pour him another cup of sake.

"Kakau, if Ryoko Owari was such a dangerous place for Mantis, why were you there in the first place?" Miya Shoin asked. The courtier had not touched the cup of sake Kijuro had poured for him.

"I will not pretend that I was not afraid," Kakau said, eyes still downcast, "but I was eager to once again meet with the man whose sacrifice gained our clan its first formal recognition by the Emperor."

Toritaka Akemi frowned. "Gusai?" she asked in her strangely haunted voice. "I was not aware that he had been one of those to return."

"Gusai?" Utaku Yu-Pan repeated, glancing from Kakau to Akemi. "Who is Gusai?"

"Charming story, the tale of Gusai," Hantei Naseru answered. "Gusai was the member of that aberrant bloodline of Crab that traveled to the Islands of Spice and Silk and fancied themselves the Mantis Clan ten years before there were any true Minor Clans. During a visit to the Imperial Capitol, he wagered with the Emperor that he could prove the strength of steel greater than the strength of words. When the Emperor demanded proof, Gusai drew a concealed blade and held it to the Emperor's throat before the entire court. The Emperor agreed that the proof was sufficient, and promised to legitimize Gusai's claim and grant him a family name and clan of his own. After Gusai sheathed his blade, the Emperor signed the writ of Gusai's execution as well. Thus the Mantis claim was validated and a new Minor Clan was born."

"I find the tale a bit apocryphal," Chieh said with a sigh. "Why would the Emperor honor such a foolish wager after Gusai had been executed?"

"Because the word of a Hantei is his bond," Naseru said flatly. "We do not wager. We do not vacillate. Our loyalties are true, Agasha." The Anvil emphasized Chieh's family name, his eyes lingering over the Phoenix mon on the hilt of her katana.

Chieh said nothing, but simply peered uncomfortably at her reflection in her sake cup.

"I do not recall a Gusai family of the Mantis," Yu-Pan said, either missing the subtle conflict between the Anvil and the magistrate or not caring. "Though I admit to not being an expert on matters regarding the Minor Clans."

"We are not a Minor Clan, Otaku," Kakau said, deliberately mispronouncing the name.

Yu-Pan opened her mouth to spit an angry reply. "There is no Gusai family," Shoin quickly interrupted. "Not anymore. When Mantis Champion Gusai Yurimanu attempted to assassinate the Emperor, their family name was shamed forever. Only because the Mantis surrendered their own daimyo to the Emperor's justice were they allowed to retain their status as a Minor Clan at all."

"Sounds like nasty business," Kijuro replied.

"My clan has a... colorful history," Kakau replied.

"I would conjecture that your ancestor was not pleased to hear what befell his name when he returned from Yomi," Chieh said, studying Kakau carefully.

"He was not," Kakau shook his head. "When Gusai returned from Oblivion's Gate, he attempted to resume his role as Mantis Champion. He found the idea of a Bayushi ruling our clan preposterous. To his surprise, he found little support among the Mantis. His name carries great stigma, even now. So he left the islands and wandered Rokugan in self-imposed exile for three decades. Hantei XVI offered Gusai a place among his armies, a chance to regain what he had lost, but Gusai refused. He would not serve a Hantei. No offense, my lord."

"None taken," Naseru replied. "You are not to blame for your ancestor's defects."

Kakau nodded gratefully. "In any case, Toturi appreciated Gusai's loyalty, whatever the reasons. He allowed him to join the Heroes of Rokugan."

"Ah," Chieh said with a nod. "I think I begin to realize where this is leading."

"Do you?" Kijuro blinked. "I feel like I walked into a kabuki halfway through. Kijuro doesn't have a clue."

"And this is a surprise?" Yu-Pan replied, sneering at the Ox.

"The Heroes of Rokugan were a select group of spirits who served Toturi with honor during the Spirit Wars," Chieh replied. "In reward for their bravery, the Phoenix used their magic to sever their connection to the Spirit Realms, making them fully mortal once more."

"I thought there wasn't any difference between a spirit and a mortal," Kijuro replied. "Other than the glowing, of course."

"A common misconception," Naseru replied. "The spirits who returned from Yomi and Toshigoku during the Battle of Oblivion's Gate were rendered flesh and bone once more, but they are not like normal mortals. They require less rest, less food, can exert themselves for longer periods of time, and live longer. Unfortunately, they also have an innate connection to the Spirit Realms that occasionally fills their minds with a strange euphoria, sometimes leading to madness. It was this madness that led many of the spirits to attempt to dominate the Empire during the War of Spirits, though some were strong enough to resist. Hantei XVI, who was already quite mad even before his death, was the worst of the lot."

"My people believe that the euphoria is somehow connected to whatever forces created Oblivion's Gate itself," Chieh added. "The Isawa devised a ritual that severs a spirit from its otherworldly heritage and thus removes this curse. Only one known spirit who survived the war did not undergo this ritual; the magic seemed never to affect him."

"Who was that?" Kijuro asked.

"My father, Toturi the First," Naseru replied. "Now let us return to the matter at hand. Kakau, tell us of your meeting with Gusai."

Kakau nodded. "I met with him at the House of the Plum Blossom, in Ryoko Owari. He wanted to discuss the death of Bayushi Aramasu, and the ascension of a new Mantis Champion."

"Why did he send for you, specifically?" Shoin asked.

"I knew him," Kakau replied. "I met him six years ago, when my ship put into port at Yasuki Yashiki. He was eager to hear news of his clan, despite his exile, so I kept in contact with him. I suppose you could say that he was my friend, if Gusai had any friends."

"Had?" Yu-Pan asked.

Kakau nodded, pausing for a long moment. "Shortly after I arrived, Gusai was murdered. His assassin seemed to melt out of the shadows, disguised in clothing as black as midnight. I had no time to act, nor did Gusai. In moments, the killer had taken Gusai's life, and faded away once more."

"I thought perhaps that was why we were called here," Chieh said softly. "Mirumoto Tokeru and Isawa Ijime, two other legendary former spirits, also died under mysterious circumstances recently. In both instances, there were no witnesses to the act. The Kitsuki who investigated Tokeru's death were able to ascertain little."

"No offense meant, but you seem to know much about the Kitsuki for a Phoenix, Chieh," Kijuro remarked. "I thought your clans weren't typically on good terms."

"I am hardly typical," the Phoenix said coldly.

"Indeed, hardly typical," Naseru agreed. "You have struck to the heart of the matter, Agasha-san. These deaths are indeed why I have gathered you all here today. It seems that there is someone abroad in the Empire with a penchant for killing our returned ancestors."

"So the dead return where they belong," Yu-Pan replied. "And there's a problem with this?"

"My father was a spirit, Utaku," Naseru said, fixing his eye upon her. "Did you celebrate his death as well?"

"I would never... of course not!" Yu-Pan stuttered. "Toturi was different. He was an Emperor!"

"Indeed," Naseru said. "Your personal experiences should sharpen your judgment, not cloud it. To allow otherwise is a sign of weak character, Battle Maiden."

"Yes, my lord," Yu-Pan said contritely.

"So we're off to hunt a killer, then?" Kijuro said, suddenly eager. "Just so you know, you've got the right man, Naseru-sama. Riding with Lord Morito, we hunted down the bandit lord Heizo and all sixty of his men, in the dead of winter no less. And Ox winters aren't exactly like a normal winter. Take a normal winter, add a bit more ice, snow, and general misery and that's an Ox winter. Of course the sake helps."

"I am well aware of your history and capabilities," Naseru replied. "All of you have been carefully chosen for this mission. I will empower all of you as magistrates, though of course some of you already retain that position. You will be placed under the command of Miya Shoin."

Shoin blinked. "Me?"

Chieh scowled. "Him? He's not an experienced magistrate. He's a shisha - a glorified errand boy. I have served for years as an Emerald Magistrate!"

"Then I suggest you put your experience at the disposal of your commanding officer and cease showing him disrespect," Naseru replied. The Anvil drew a sealed scrap of parchment from behind his obi and passed it to Shoin, along with a dark green seal. "Here is the seal of your new office, as well as your initial orders. After you have seen to the commands within that scroll, you may continue to pursue the investigation in any manner you deem relevant. Know that you act with my full support, and let no one bar the path of justice."

"Hai, Naseru-sama," Shoin said, accepting the seal and the scroll with a deep bow.

"Very well, then," Naseru replied. "I will leave you to the task of familiarizing yourself with your troops, and return to my other duties. It has been a pleasure meeting with you all. Sayonara." Naseru rose and bowed to the assembled group. The six rose and returned his bow, and the Anvil departed as quickly as he had arrived, his grim yojimbo following in his wake.

The six stood and looked at one another.

"Though we may not wish it, we are bound by death," Akemi said, "and only death may break that bond once more."

The room was filled with tense silence again.

"So..." Kijuro cleared his throat. "Anyone for a game of kemari?"

Miya Shoin sat alone in his chambers, studying the Anvil's orders by candlelight. The green seal of the Emerald Magistrates gleamed where it rested upon the small writing table. A scrap of fresh parchment, ink, and brush lay ready before him, though he had not written a single character. He looked at the back of his hand, flickering with the pale light of Yomi.

A polite cough sounded from the hallway behind him.

"Yes?" Shoin called out, looking over his shoulder. "Who is there?"

The shoji screen slid to one side and Agasha Chieh stepped into the chamber. She was dressed in a casual kimono of fiery red, emblazoned with dragons and phoenix in flight. Her dark hair was tied into two long braids, giving her a slightly girlish appearance. The sudden change in character only made the strange magistrate all the more intimidating.

"Chieh-san," Shoin said, rising and bowing to her. "I did not expect you."

"I go where I please," she replied, stepping closer.

"Of course," Shoin nodded. "Chieh-san, I just wanted to say that it is my privilege to be serving with you on this mission. Your reputation as a magistrate precedes you, and I could not have asked for a more capable individual."

"Which is why I have come here," Chieh said, smiling at him faintly. "Akodo once said that the skill of a great leader lies in knowing how to delegate responsibility. If you find yourself over your head, Miya, know that you can pass the responsibilities of leadership to me with no loss of face. I can handle the burden."

"My... thanks, Chieh-san," Shoin said, "but I think that I can handle the responsibility."

"Of course you can," Chieh said, stepping past him further into the room. Her eyes lingered over the small table. "You are writing a letter," she said. "To whom?"

"Not that it is any of your business," Shoin said, stepping past her and tucking his seal and Naseru's orders into his obi, "but I am writing a letter to my aunt."

"Miya Yumi, the Imperial Herald," Chieh said with a nod.

"You seem to know much about me," Shoin said, looking back at the magistrate.

"I am a magistrate, it is my duty to know everything," she replied.

"Everything?" Shoin asked.

"Everything," Chieh replied boldly. "I can tell you the background and history of any one of those that travel with us."

"Any of them?" Shoin replied.

Chieh only nodded. "Utaku Yu-Pan is a talented warrior, but her vocal denouncement of spirits has crippled her progress among the Battle Maidens, a group whose number currently includes its own founder, Utaku Shiko, due to Oblivion's Gate. I can tell you that Kijuro's exploits are even more impressive as he claims, though he has faced resentment and discrimination among his clan because he is half Yobanjin. I can tell you that Moshi Kakau not only knew Gusai, but is in fact his descendant by way of his Yoritomo mother. I can tell you that Toritaka Akemi has only recently passed the test of the Phantom Hunters, and some among her clan fear for her sanity."

"And what about me?" Shoin asked. "What else do you know about me?"

Chieh smiled, as if eager for the challenge. "Your mother was Seppun Yemi, a young courtier in Toturi's entourage. Your father was Miya Dosonu, Imperial Herald to Hantei XXVII, returned through Oblivion's Gate. They fell in love at the height of the Spirit Wars, and were married shortly before Dosonu rode off to his death at Toturi's command. You were born shortly thereafter. Your mother lived only six years after your birth, pining away for her love of Dosonu. You were raised by your aunt, Miya Yumi, Toturi's own herald, and you were trained by her former love, Tsuruchi Ichiro."

Shoin frowned. "How do you know all of that?" he demanded. "Yumi-sama told no one..."

"But you know," Chieh replied. "And I can read your heart and mind as easily as if the words were written on the sky itself."

"Stay out of my mind, shugenja," Shoin snarled, seizing her by the collar of her kimono with a sudden swift movement.

"Is that an order?" she asked, stroking his cheek with one hand. "You need me, Shoin-sama. You cannot perform this duty alone."

Shoin pushed her away, face flushed with embarrassment. How could he allow himself to lose his temper like that? He turned away from Chieh, trying to calm his mind.

"Do not fear me, Shoin," Chieh said, stepping behind him and slowly tracing one hand across his shoulder. "I look upon your past and see a brilliant future. I think that you are destined for greatness. I think that is why the light of Yomi illuminates you still when it has abandoned even the Four Winds. I wish to be part of that destiny."

Shoin looked back at Chieh. Her catlike eyes stared at him relentlessly. "Do not intrude into my thoughts again, Chieh," Shoin said. "Please."

"Of course," she replied, folding her arms gracefully in her sleeves. "I did not mean to offend you, Shoin-sama. You merely asked me to tell you more about yourself. I answered. Can you fault me for such loyal service?" She smiled slightly, taking the edge off of her words.

"I suppose not," Shoin said wryly.

"Then will you accept my help, as I have offered it?" she asked. "You have already refused the gift twice."

"I suppose I have," Shoin replied. "In truth I would rather have you on my side than against me. So long as you limit your delving into the minds of others I would appreciate your aid."

"Done," she said. "So what are our orders? Where has the Anvil chosen to send us?"

"I thought you knew everything," he said.

"The Anvil is a difficult man to read," she replied, "and your own orders forbid me from finding the answer in a more expedient manner."

Shoin laughed despite himself. "In the morning, we are to leave for Kyuden Seppun. Naseru believes that one of this spirit-killer's future targets may reside there."

"Rezan, the ronin poet?" Chieh asked.

"The same," Shoin answered. "Now if I can only keep the six of us from one another's throats long enough to leave Otosan Uchi, all should be well."

Chieh laughed lightly. "The Anvil is a wicked man; I would not put it past him to chose a group knowing that they would despise one another. I think that was his intent. The friction should keep us all alert, and in the end, perhaps make us stronger."

"You think so?" Shoin asked.

"Or, as you said, launch us at one another's throats," she replied. "In either case, our problems will be solved."

"That seems a simple enough philosophy," Shoin said.

"I am an Agasha, my people are philosophical by nature," she said. "You are a Miya, your people are diplomatic by nature. If anyone can keep this group together, it shall be you, neh? I would not deny you your family's role, and thus shall leave it to you to bring peace among us."

"Thanks," Shoin said wryly.

"Think nothing of it. In any case, the hour is late, and I have said what I have come to say. I will leave you to write your letter, Shoin-sama. Give your aunt my regards." Chieh bowed deeply to Shoin, deeper than etiquette required. Shoin returned the gesture, and she turned to leave.

"Chieh," he said as she reached the door.

The shugenja peered back over her shoulder, green eye glinting in the candlelight. "Yes?" she asked.

"How did you know that Naseru was the one who summoned us?" he asked.

"Are you commanding me to tell you?" she asked. "Do you not relish the mystery?"

"No," Shoin said after a moment's thought. "I am not commanding you."

"Good," she replied, disappearing into the shadowed hallway. "The world is a boring place without mystery."



Kaze no Shiro Return

Togashi will return!