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The Wave Man
by Rich Wulf

Nikesake, Phoenix Lands&

Taisa Seppun Sugita was not a small man. He was both tall and wide, thickly built, obviously a man who was not accustomed to missing meals. His drooping cheeks and fat chin gave him the somewhat mournful, hangdog expression. His brilliant emerald armor, specially fashioned for his large frame, made him an even more imposing figure. He bore the seal of the Righteous Emperor on his chest. Suits of armor, weapons, and maps lined the tent trophies of past battles. When Tawagoto saw the dead, calculating look in Sugita's eyes he knew this was no man to be trifled. This was a man accustomed to power and authority. Despite his girth, this man was a warrior. Seppun Sugita was, in more ways than one, not a small man.

The two Imperial Legionnaires who had escorted Tawagoto to Sugita's tent bowed deeply to the taisa, who gestured curtly for them to leave. Two other guards remained, standing at either side of the Seppun, watching Tawagoto cautiously. Tawagoto bowed as deeply as he could. Something flickered behind the officer's eyes as he weighed the sincerity of the gesture.

"I wonder if you bow so deeply out of fear or out of true respect for my station, ronin," Sugita said. His voice was high-pitched and disconcertingly shrill. "But it does not matter, in the end. What is your name?"

"Tawagoto, Taisa-sama," the ronin replied.

"You recognize my rank," Sugita said, clearly impressed as he glanced down at the insignia on his shoulder. "Excellent. You have experience as a mercenary, then, I assume?"

"Not a mercenary, sama, but I am no stranger to war," Tawagoto replied.

"Intriguing," Sugita said, studying the ronin more carefully. Tawagoto's clothing and armor were worn, travel-stained, but in good condition. The swords that hung at his hip were spotless.

"In the name of the Righteous Emperor, I call you to service, Tawagoto," Sugita said. "I have need of wave-men such as yourself in resolving the war that consumes these lands. You were the first to answer my decree, and you will be rewarded for your expedience."

Tawagoto reached into his kimono and withdrew a sealed scroll, offering it to the guards without a word. The soldier glanced at it briefly, eyes widening when he saw the seal it bore. He quickly handed it to his master. Sugita opened the document and read it for several moments, then returned it to his guard, who returned it to the ronin.

"May I leave now?" Tawagoto asked softly.

"I think not," Sugita said. "Your message changes nothing. It only makes you more valuable to me."

The ronin's face darkened. "I was promised&" he began.

"Times change," Sugita said. "You are needed now. Did you truly serve under Toturi Tsudao?"

Tawagoto did not answer for several moments. "Hai," he finally acknowledged, his voice strained.

"A member of the First Legion?" Sugita mused, clearly impressed. "I am amazed that a lowly ronin would be allowed to serve in such a distinguished unit, but then the Sword was known for her unconventional tactics."

"My father, Inabe, uncovered a plot against the Emperor during the War of Spirits," Tawagoto replied. "He died fighting the assassins, but Tsudao honored his sacrifice by offering me a place in her legions."

"With the rank of nikutai," Sugita said. "A lowly rank, for a low-born fellow, but even that is quite extraordinary. I cannot imagine what battles you must have fought under her command. I confess I am a bit envious, Tawagoto-san."

"You would not wish to hear my stories," the ronin said. "They contain nothing but blood and death."

"The best kind of stories," Sugita said with a wicked smile.

"You may find entertainment in the death of the Glorious Emperor, Taisa," Tawagoto said stiffly. "I do not."

The mirth faded from Sugita's smile. His gaze remained locked on the ronin.

"When Toturi Tsudao died, the First Legion was officially disbanded for seven days to honor her sacrifice," Tawagoto said. "This letter confirms my dismissal from the Legion."

"I know of this," Sugita snapped. "After a week's time, Toturi Miyako invited all of the Sword's former soldiers to the Imperial Capital to join the new First Legion and renew their oaths to the Emperor. Why did you choose not to return?"

Tawagoto tucked the scroll back into his kimono. "I was not required to," he said. "I joined Tsudao's service to honor my father's memory, out of gratitude to Toturi I. My duties have been fulfilled. I came so swiftly so that I could respectfully deny your request for aid, Taisa."

"Wrong," Sugita replied. "That was never an option. Duty never ends. All that dwells within the Empire owes the Righteous Emperor fealty. You will serve, Tawagoto."

"I was discharged by Rikugunshokan Miyako herself," Tawagoto countered.

"My mistake," the taisa replied. "Incidentally, are you aware why I am here, Tawagoto-san?"

The ronin said nothing. He waited for the answer.

"The Emperor is greatly concerned that rebellious forces are seeking to escalate the war between Phoenix and Mantis," Sugita replied. "He sent me to seek out seditious individuals, any who might undermine the unity of the Empire. I have been instructed to deal with them harshly." Sugita's smile deepened. "Knowing this, you may wish to reconsider your refusal to aid me."

Tawagoto looked up now, meeting the taisa's gaze squarely. "Is that a threat?" he asked.

"No," Sugita replied. "If you do not comply with my commands, you are the threat. The Righteous Emperor does not endure threats."

The guards on either side of Sugita rested their hands upon their blades and watched the ronin expectantly. Sugita lounged back on his overstuffed cushion, confident in his power.

Tawagoto's jaw clenched. "What would you have me do?" he asked.

"How like a ronin," Sugita chuckled. "So noble, so independent, until the blade is at his throat. Then how like a dog you are."

"What would you have me do?" Tawagoto repeated stiffly.

"Investigate on my behalf," Sugita said. "A ronin can go where I cannot. Seek out threats to the Empire."

"What do you seek?" Tawagoto asked. "Bloodspeakers? Yobanjin?"

"Nothing quite so dramatic," Sugita replied. "There is a village only two days' travel from here. It has no name, or at least no name of significance. Since the war began the farmers there have sent no taxes to the city. I wish you to investigate, find out why they have denied the Emperor his due."

"Why not send your own troops?" Tawagoto asked. "Do you fear farmers so much?"

Sugita sneered. "You are an ignorant man," he said. "Do not question me. The political climate in this area is very delicate. If there is no true threat, the presence of Imperial soldiers in so remote a village may spark unnecessary fear. I wish to prevent bloodshed, if possible."

"So you want me to find out if the village is a threat?" Tawagoto asked.

"No," Sugita said. "I want you to return and report that there is no threat. That means that if these farmers are indeed planning some rebellion, you are to find the leaders and dispose of them or do not return at all."

Tawagoto smirked. "Imperial soldiers cannot kill rebellious peasants without sparking greater outrage, but what is one more murderous ronin bandit on the roads?"

"Such terrible dangers only encourage the lower ranks to seek protection from the Legions," Sugita said. "You begin to understand." He took a small bag from the floor nearby and weighed it in one hand. "This task requires discretion, courage and patience. For that, you will be compensated." He tipped the pouch into his palm, spilling out several of the coins on the table beside him. "Though not as well compensated as you might have been, had you not denied your duty." Sugita tossed the now much lighter bag to the ronin.

Tawagoto's eyes widened. The payment was much more than he had seen in some time, even when he served in the First Legion. The bag also contained a tightly rolled map, indicating the location of the village.

"Another bag twice that size awaits you when you return to report your success," the taisa said. "Now go."

Tawagoto hesitated, holding the bag of coins in one hand. Sugita watched him warily. The guards never removed their hands from their blades. Finally, the ronin tucked the bag into his obi, bowed deeply, and departed.

"You have seven days," Sugita called out as Tawagoto left.

The ronin scowled into the bitter night winds. He felt sickened, used. Not for the first time, he regretted his arrogance in leaving the First Legion. He had been a much younger man then, with higher hopes. He had been inducted shortly after his gempukku, and had never known the life that other ronin led. To serve the Glorious Emperor had been the greatest honor of his life, but he had a higher duty now.

Tawagoto marched briskly through the streets of the sleeping city, toward a small inn near the outer walls. He entered quickly, sliding the door shut so as not to admit the evening chill. The common room was empty tonight, as it had been so frequently of late. Few travelers stopped in Nikesake while war consumed the northern provinces.

"Tawagoto," called out an elderly woman from the back room. "Is that you?"

"Hai," came his weary reply.

"Father!" said an excited voice.

A little girl ran out to embrace the weary ronin. Tawagoto smiled as he embraced her, pushing his swords to one side and kissing her on the forehead as he smoothed her long black hair aside. An older woman emerged as well, looking blearily in his direction. "What news?" she asked, her voice worried. "What did the samurai want?"

"I have but a small task to perform for them, mother," Tawagoto replied. "Can you care for Rie for seven days?"

"Seven days?" his mother replied, fear in her voice. She looked past him, her milky eyes unseeing. "So long?"

"It's all right, mother," Tawagoto replied. He took several coins from the pouch and pressed them into her hands. "They gave me money. This should feed us all until this war is done, even with no customers. And when I return, there will be more."

The old woman's mouth dropped open. "Rie," she said, "see to the kitchen."

The little girl pouted at her grandmother briefly then disappeared into the back room.

"Tawagoto, powerful men do not give such money lightly," the old woman whispered. "What have they hired you to do?"

Tawagoto frowned. "I think they want me to kill someone," he replied.

His mother only nodded sadly.

"If I had refused, I think they would have killed me instead," he said. "This way, at least, there is a chance I can return to you and Rie."

"I know," she said. The old woman reached out blindly. Tawagoto extended his hand so she could find it. She clasped it in both of her own and kissed his fingers. "You are like your father," she said. "Strong and brave. You do what must be done, like he did. I will pray to every Fortune that you will come back to us, Tawagoto."

Tawagoto squeezed his mother's hand and smiled bitterly.

"Arigato, mother."

----------------

Two days later&

The Phoenix lands possessed a natural beauty and serenity that brought calm to Tawagoto's troubled soul. Though mortals dwelled here, the elements ruled. Not far outside of Nikesake, the landscape became rough mountains and thick wilderness, with only a rough road leaving any sign of civilization. Tawagoto enjoyed the silence while he could. Though the nights were bitterly cold and dark clouds clustered above, he did not mind. He had learned to endure weather during his time in the Legions.

If nothing else, the threats posed to him by nature were more certain and predictable than guessing Seppun Sugito's true intent. That, at least, offered a measure of peace.

The first sign of the village was the song. The soft, gentle voice of a woman carried on the wind. Her voice would garner little acclaim in the Kakita courts, but it brought a smile to Tawagoto's face nonetheless. He climbed over the ridge to find a bubbling stream. A young woman knelt beside it, washing linens at the water's edge. Her song ended quickly when she heard his approach. Her eyes moved to his face, then to the swords at his hip. She quickly cast the clothes aside and fell into a deep bow, nearly pressing her face to the ground. Tawagoto noticed that she was very thin, almost emaciated.

"Konnichiwa," Tawagoto said in a friendly voice. "Is there a village near here?"

She looked up at him and nodded rapidly. There was fear in her eyes, but that was not unusual. Peasants feared ronin. To a peasant, a ronin offered all the brutal violence of a samurai with none of the laws that restricted their actions. Tawagoto was well used to being regarded as a wild beast, though he did not enjoy it.

"Arigato," he said, touching the tip of his wide hat and nodding to her. He moved on, leaving her in peace.

He listened carefully as he walked away. He was not surprised to hear rapid footfalls moving through the wilderness, circling around him as she ran ahead to the village.

Tawagoto arrived to find a cluster of small wooden huts gathered about the rough road. He wondered how the peasants could farm in wild lands such as these. Their skill and determination must be extraordinary. He saw not a single soul outside, though he caught a glimpse of movement behind several shuttered windows. He moved to the center of the village, arms folded in his loose kimono, letting them see him. The girl had run ahead and warned the village of his arrival. Rather than risk him being a bandit, they had fled to their homes. A dark realization came over him, settling like a sickness in his stomach. It would be better, he thought, if he had arrived to find hasty fortifications and armored peasants, ready for rebellion.

This would not end well.

In any case, it was probably best to be direct.

"Food!" he finally shouted, his voice echoing in the crisp air. "I need food. I need drink!" He drew the heavy pouch from his robes and jingled the coins in one hand. "I can pay!"

There was no reply, only the echo of his own voice.

"I will not demand your hospitality, but I am a stranger in these lands!" he shouted. "Could someone at least direct me to another village where I can find shelter? There is a storm coming."

A nearby door opened. A tall man stepped out. His hair was thin and his skin was weathered from a life of labor. Though he bowed in deference to Tawagoto, the ronin noticed an air of authority about the peasant. Like the girl, he was very thin and gaunt.

"Are you the headman here?" Tawagoto asked.

"Hai," the man said. "I am Kaigi, and I speak for Tanaki Mura. You are welcome in my home, but only until the storm passes." He took a deep breath. "And only if you leave your swords just within my door."

Tawagoto stared at the man for a long moment. With dread, his suspicions were confirmed. This man was no warrior, no rebel. There was no defiance here, only desperation.

"I suspect your deal is a better one than divine Osano-Wo would offer me," Tawagoto said, peering up at the thunderclouds.

Kaigi laughed, the tension broken. He quickly stepped aside, gesturing for Tawagoto to enter. The ronin sighed as he drew the swords from his belt and realized what he must do.

----------------

Nikesake, four days later&

"Disgusting," Seppun Sugita said, peering into the canvas bag. Dead eyes stared back from the bloody trophy within. Sugita looked at Tawagoto intently. "What was this rebel's name?"

"Kaigi, sama," Tawagoto said, closing the bundori and setting it to one side. "He was the mastermind. He convinced the other farmers to withhold their taxes, to gather weapons. They were planning a revolt. He had gathered the funds intended for the annual tax. I suspect he intended to purchase weapons from the Ox Clan, or perhaps hire Yobanjin mercenaries"

"To what end?" Sugita asked. "Did he believe he could defeat the Imperial Legions?"

"Who can understand what fools believe, sama?" Tawagoto asked. "The threat is gone now. Without him, the other farmers will be more reasonable."

Sugito looked at Tawagoto, measuring his words. His gaze moved to the bloody bandage on Tawagoto's left arm. "Your victory was not without cost," he said. "You have earned your payment."

The taisa nodded to a guard, who offered Tawagoto a large sack of coins. Tawagoto paused, opening the bag and counting the money within, drawing an irritated look from the Seppun. With a final bow, he closed the bag and departed.

"We leave at once," he heard Sugito say as the doors closed. "We must be swift if we are to restore the appearance of order after the death of their leader."

Tawagoto closed his eyes and cursed himself. He wished, just once, that he could have been wrong but he was not.

Now things would be more difficult.

He hurried home as quickly as he dared.

----------------

Two days later&

Seppun Sugito sat high in his saddle, riding at the head of a half dozen Imperial Legionnaires. He did not enjoy riding, as he did not enjoy so much of the trappings the life of an officer required. Even so, he excelled at it. Though he preferred the comfortable life of the courts, his duty often required more of him. He did not enjoy the life of a soldier which was why he preferred to end his battles as swiftly and brutally as possible.

And so it was that when he arrived at the tiny village that his sharp eye was quick to note the inconsistencies. The farmers gathered to greet the approaching samurai but there were no women, no children among them. They carried farmers' tools, shovels, rakes, and picks even though their fields were far from here.

The village headman pushed back his hood, but Sugita already knew what he would see.

"Retreat!" he shouted to his men.

"Attack!" Tawagoto cried. "Let no man escape!"

Sugita whirled about in his saddle. He was not surprised to see the rough mesh of twisted wire and wooden spikes that had been drawn across the road behind them. One fleeing soldier had not stopped in time, and had been hurled from his saddle into the deadly barricade. Sugita drew his katana and whirled about in his saddle, slashing at the peasants as they mobbed him with rough tools and improvised spears. His blade cut deeply and he heard men cry out, both peasant rebels and his own samurai. Searing pain slashed his thigh. He fell from his saddle, hewing about with his sword. A heavy boot kicked his wrist, sending his sword flying. He looked up in alarm, into the eyes of the ronin.

"Idiot," Sugita said. "You dare murder the Emperor's servant?"

"The Emperor I knew would not endure such a man as a servant," Tawagoto replied, and buried his sword in the Seppun's chest.

----------------

The battle was over, and an eerie silence had fallen over the village. The peasants slowly went about the grim work of gathering the bodies and carting them into the forest to be hidden. Kaigi stepped away from directing the villagers, to where Tawagoto cleaned his katana at the edge of the village. He sat beside the ronin silently. Tawagoto glanced at the man. He was afraid as well he should be.

"Did it have to be this way, sama?" he whispered hoarsely.

"Sugito was a wicked man," Tawagoto said. "He would never have accepted that your village was starving, that you did not have the rice to pay. He saw a rebellion from the beginning. The only way to stop him was to give him one."

"We have killed an Imperial officer," Kaigi said. "There will be repercussions."

"You have saved your village," Tawagoto said. "I have known men like Sugito. He would have slaughtered this entire village to set an example. You are nothing to him." The ronin scowled. "Only peasants."

"And without your help we would never have defeated them," Kaigi said. "But I fear what may come next."

"If you keep your secrets, I will be the only one to face what comes next," the ronin answered. "The only men who knew my mission were Sugito's guards, who died here as well. So long as your village remains silent, no one will ever know that Sugito died here."

"And you?" Kaigi asked.

Tawagoto laughed. "That's different," he replied. "The guards that brought me to him& they were not here. They will suspect my involvement when they realize he has disappeared. They will come for me." He looked at Kaigi intently. "So I must be far from here, when they find me."

"Your mother and daughter will be safe here, sama," Kaigi said. "I will treat them as my own family."

"Use the money carefully," Tawagoto said. "Buy only what you need, or it will draw attention."

"Hai, sama," Kaigi said. "And& and thank you."

Tawagoto said nothing. He rose silently and adjusted the swords at his belt, preparing to leave. He could not say good bye, not even to his family especially to his family or he might not find the strength to leave.

Why had he done it? Why take such a risk to save a village of strangers? Surely not all the Legionnaires who had marched with Sugito were evil men& but he had killed them to save this village. Did that make him any better, any more honorable, than the taisa had been?

Tawagoto looked over his shoulder at Tanaki Mura. The villagers moved like ghosts, changed by what they had done here today.

Had he really saved this place or had he truly destroyed it?

Tawagoto had no answers. The ronin started off down the rough mountain road, alone.


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!