As Amaterasu sets over the tumultuous churning waters of Firebird Falls, the sinuous shadows emerge from the holes, the secret cracks and crevices that they hide in during the day. One in particular dominates the lesser shades with its presence. The darkness embraces this form, the caress of an affectionate lover. The shadow cups something small within in its hand, bends low and whispers. What secrets would be revealed if we could only hear those words, and what pains could be avoided in the days to come. But shadows hold their secrets close, for the secrets are the shadows weapons, the wounds they cause are grievous and deep. But look now, look as the the shadow raises its hands, releasing the small creature that was tucked within. Look as it takes flight, not unlike a bird on the wing. Let us follow this bird-thing, first diving in a reckless dance with the falling waters of the falls, then sharply turning up to a balcony, perching on a carved wood railing, cocking its ear to hear the conversation between two men, very similar in features but unalike in temperament.
Daidoji Jiro walks quickly down the halls of Gisu Castle, though it is apparent his step is not sped by anticipation, but rather determination to put an unpleasant task behind him. Does he hesitate the briefest instant before he knocks upon the shoji door ? Does the Crane of steel actually show the briefest hint of fear ? The pause is too short to judge, as his knuckles rap with a staccato sound, disturbing the quiet whispering rustles of the late evening. The voice within commands him to enter, and he does so immediately. He could no more refuse his father’s orders than stop his heart in his chest. He moves with stiff formality to his father, his Daimyo’s feet, and prostrates himself in the forms that Bushido demands. He feels his father’s scorn before the words even come, its oily touch on his neck so familiar, still painful despite the years he has had to become accustomed to it. His father, the Rock, the unshakable central figure upon whose anvil he has been hammered into the man he is today. Jiro may be unbeatable in combat, he may be unshakable by the barbed arrows launched by courtiers that cannot understand his simple yet direct ways, but he still cannot help but tremble slightly at his father’s all-but solid presence. And now his father is asking him to lie, to create a rumor like some scuttling scorpion thing. Jiro understands how important the hand of Otomo Yoroshiku would be to his family and his Clan, but is it worth this price ? He grits his teeth and forces each breath as his father insults both his honorable but gentle mother and himself. Can his father not see how much he tries to be like him, despite his hate of the old man ? But no, such thoughts are unworthy of a Samurai, and his father is not just that, he is his Daimyo. Jiro forces himself into relaxation as he rises, accepting the task his father has set before him, a task he is not allowed to question. He will be strong …. he will be strong ….
The bird-thing, pops up onto its feet, shaking inky black limbs that seem passably winglike, and hurls itself once more into the air. It circles until the light of the rising sun creeps close, waiting for its chance to further the task set to it, flirting with the little death that will be its reward should the warm glow of the Mother fall upon it unprotected. There ! Just as the light almost touches it, a screen is pushed back, opening the chambers beyond a certain balcony, the chambers that hold those it must watch below. With an unnatural burst of speed, the little gloom slips through before it can be noted. It hurriedly hides behind a small vase that decorates the apartments, carefully, ever so carefully. It has been warned that it must not be seen by the Crab, or even the sharp-eyed archer. But it was swift, and its nature was to be unseen. It was not noticed, and it fastened its attention to those before it, absorbing every word, every gesture. After certain morning rituals and tasks were taken care of, those it had been set to observe began to break up, some heading in one direction, some in others. This posed no small difficulty to the bird-thing, but it was not without resources to draw upon. It shuddered, then began to twist and churn in upon itself, resembling less a bird than a nest of small, intertwined snakes. The snakes doubled back upon themselves in a riot of confusions until the combined ball burst apart, three distinct shapes emerging and slithering after their new focuses. We follow all three, not without our resources ourselves. See now the first shadowling as it hugs the bases of the walls in its pursuit of the Void Master. See it blur into the many small small spaces where no sun shines among the small stones and tamed plants int the garden where the Pheonix meets with the girl whose hair shines like the moon. Now be still as the little snake and listen …
The winter has begun to take the Gardens from the dying Autumn, and its icy fingers hung numerous from the limbs of cold-dead cherry trees. The cold did not touch the Artists heart though, and she shared the lightness of her soul in the delicate paper butterflys she set to hang among the icicles. She knew that as the other guests saw the wonders she created that it eased their burdens ever so slightly, and she was once again grateful for her own karma to be gifted as an artist. By her skills, she could go beyond the ability to tell truth; her art was more forceful than mere words could ever be. She could show truth in ways that could not be denied, and sometimes even she was taken prisoner to the power of that truth. But coming towards he was someone who clearly needed her skills, and so she let loose the last of her paper-kin. the approaching Isawa followed it with his eyes, and she saw his tension evaporate for a moment, and was pleased. Isawa Takimoto was a man who did not wear tension well, he seemed unpracticed in it, as much as he was unpracticed in the ways of wooing, though he had shown some imagination in that art recently. And he was a kindred soul, clearly. Though his energies had apparently been focused on the invisible worlds, he still had considerable aptitude in the crafting of both Song and Serenity, as his amazing tea ceremony had shown. Before the first words escaped his lips, she had made her decision to help him. He would be more than an acceptable patron, he would give her that gift that was prized more highly than any other to the true Artist. the gold that would be passed to her school and clan was as nothing compared to the value of the other offering he brought her, a Challenge !
Our attention is divided, as we see the careful dance of Artist and Patron unfolding in the garden, so too do we see what the second little snake has seen, we see the Wasp and the Crane come to the stables. We nestle with the shadow-puppet as it slithers through the straw, carefully avoiding the warmth exuded by the horses.
Shiba Tenkuro is not known for his patience, at least, not with people. He can show infinite ability to repeat the same small tasks for interminable amounts of time when training a Hawk, and never employs pain when breaking a horse, but this self-control vanishes when confronted with other human beings. At first, he is infuriated that these two, these layabouts from the castle with no set duties would presume that their frivolities could possibly be more important than his incredibly busy post. The list of tasks he must perform in the space of the sun’s passage from one horizon to the other would be enough to set a lesser man to tears ! But he IS samurai, and these ARE “honored” guests. He schools himself to be as still and attentive as the hunting birds he prizes, waiting to seize upon the opportunity to be rid of these men and their interruptions. But they surprise him ! The Crane shows both an actual interest in learning how to bring a Falcon to hand, and an unprecedented willingness to actually produce a payment of like value to what he asks from the Phoenix Beastmaster ! Though the Crane clearly doesn’t know enough to know how valuable the horse he offers in trade is (especially after the tales that unsettling, but highly skilled, Crab storyteller has been weaving about the battle in Nightengale Pass !), he does seem willing to learn, and who is Tenkuro to deny him the boon of his wisdom. Now the Wasp, he clearly knows the value of things. Firstly, he is attempting to win the affections of that Scorpion woman, the one who lights mens’ loins afire just by breathing ( let alone when she moves ! ). And secondly, he is gifting her with something MUCH more valuable than some flower, or pretty rock, or even one of those ridiculous poems. He is gifting her with a useful skill ! All in all, when the two young men have been satisfied and sent on their way, Tenkuro finds himself pleased. It trows him off of his balance only briefly, as something the stable-boy is doing is obviously spooking the horses, and he shakes his head with the sure knowledge that someone will have to be shouted at.
Now we are pulled along behind the third snake as it winds its way along the bases of the walls, sliding quickly past the open doorways, avoiding notice. So busy is it with avoiding the Kuni’s gaze that it is almost undone as the Unicorn maiden accompanying him stops suddenly and sweeps her gaze over the hallway behind her. If the gloom could feel fear, it would have lost itself in that moment, frozen by the fire in her gaze. But it is a clever little thing, and it swiftly melts out of its current shape and into the minute cracks between the highly polished boards that make the well-worn floors of the castle. The Samurai-ko’s eyes a drawn to this sudden movement, and her eyes narrow for a moment as she scrutinizes the ground before her, but then shakes her head, once more fixing her thoughts upon her charge, her most puzzling and disturbing charge. As the gaze of the Unicorn leaves the vicinity of the little shadow, it oozes back out, this time reforming as a multilegged centipede, the better to scramble up the wall, slipping in through the shoji as it is slid aside, alighting to the ceiling of the cluttered library. There it hangs, absorbing all before it.
The scarlet clad scorpion woman was NOT accustomed to anything getting in the way of what she wished. Her undeniably attractive features and form had opened many doors for her, and for a lesser woman would have been enough. She, however, was a scorpion, and had never been content to simply let her beauty work on its own. She had honed that beauty into a razor-edged weapon, and practiced its use until she was at least the equal to any prancing crane duelist. No, she was FAR more deadly. After all, an iajutsu master could simply sever the connection between the soul and the body. The worst that the Katana could offer was death. Her blade could sever a bushi from all he held dear. His reason. His family. His station. His HONOR. She had done all these things and more. She knew how they talked about her behind her back. She knew many suspected her power to do all these things (suspected, but could never be sure – she WAS a scorpion after all, and she had ways of enforcing discretion). Her glory was that they knew her power, but could do nothing against it. Her victims were powerless to resist her, and her detractors were unable to act against her. Why then should this uncouth, hardly-groomed, uncultured barely girl be giving her such turmoil. For a brief moment, she toyed with the idea of throwing the fawning little playsword at Kokuri. She could see the potential there, and saw also the conflict within Iuchi. But she stopped herself short. It was apparent that Kokuri was completely unaware of the Unicorn’s puppy love, and it was further apparent that he had already placed her as a sister in his mind. Oh, she could thing of at least 5 ways to change that, some of them not even compromising to either of their honors, but Kokuri had become too valuable to her to waste in this way. He was no scorpion, she had no illusions that she could afford any real loyalty there, but she enjoyed the game of friendship with the jovial yet deadly witch hunter. She sighed inwardly. He could almost BE a scorpion with his wit and skill at manipulating others’ preconceptions of him, but he was too rooted in his views of honesty. And he had the excruciatingly bad fortune to be born a crab of all things ! She would protect him, if she could, as he and the Crane had protected her beneath Kyuden Ikoma, and for the friendship she could not allow herself to indulge in.
All this passed through her as the pike passes beneath the dark surface of the lake, never disturbing her outer face. She gave no sign of this disturbance as she discussed Kokuri’s upcoming nuptuals. Such was her skill that she was fully able to turn these thoughts around and around within her mind as she might a small but fascinating stone as she devoted her outward attention to the tricky matter of making Kokuri aware of the situation that he brought before his new bride as a dowry. She felt no pity for the young Kuni as she saw his sudden internalization of the deeper currents of his betrothal. Pity was only for those she held in no respect, for those who had no CHANCE of earning her respect. Kokuri was too formidable to let his lack of anything tangible to bring to the Unicorn girl he meant to make his bride stand in his way for long. Indeed, she could already see his mind working on the problem. She smiled inside, even letting some of her pride in her well crafted ally seep out to her face, for it was useful to let him see it now. She would now have not one ally but two. A Witch hunter and a Unicorn fetishist would be VERY useful, and they would owe her so much.
But then the thrice-damned homely little horse-kissing girl smiled as well, and her pleasure turned to dust in her mouth. But oh, how she smiled ! And oh, how she pitied the girl before her. It wasn’t so much that she wanted the Pretty Wasp. He was fine to look at, and pleasant to touch, and she did appreciate the other fine qualities that Kokuri had drawn her attention to. She always got what she wanted, and the archer would be no exception, but this honor-weak little THING had the temerity to get into her way !
But wait ! Was Kokuri actually studying HER face ? She quickly schooled herself back into a pleasing facade. She wished she could be sure if the Kuni had actually managed to peel aside her mask, but then, perhaps she did not. She would hate to have to have to close those eyes.
Watch now as the three little glooms follow their prey. See the snake that had followed the Phoenix turn aside as the Crab joins with him and they turn down yet another hallway, letting the centipede-thing follow. It turns to another hallway just as the Wasp and Crane trade their outside sandles for the clean tabi socks waiting for them inside the castle’s doors. It twines with its self-brother for a moment, then as the Wasp moves off deeper into the castle and the Crane strides purposefully towards a nearby door, one splits off, its surface bubbling into a swifter form. The small coal black cricket flies before the Yojimbo, circling once before alighting on a nearby flower arrangement and burying itself amongst the crowded buds.
She can’t stay still, so she paces. She walks back and forth from one corner of the small apartment to the other, never staying in one space for more than a few seconds. With her wild mane of golden brown hair, she would resemble the Lion whose image is blazoned upon her Mon, except that she her eyes are wild with fear. Her hands go up to her head and latch to her scalp without her realization, and she begins to slowly pull out a fistful of straw-colored hair. How could it have come to this ? She made certain, CERTAIN that the scrolls were verified genuine. They were verified by an unimpeachable source, her father’s honor secured despite his failing facilities. And now, now it was all falling apart ! The hair falls limply from her hand as it opens numbly at her side, while the other hand creeps steadily up to take up it’s place at her scalp once again. She has struggled her entire life only to bring honor and glory to her family.
She has pushed herself to achieve her rank as a full shugenja so much faster than anyone had thought possible.
Another handful of hair falls.
She had become foremost of those who spoke with the ancestors in her family, becoming the very voice of their will.
Another handful of hair.
She had gained the attention of the Imperial city itself, and when the time came to choose companions for the Imperial niece, it had been impossible NOT to choose the attractive and astute young Kitsu.
A trickle of blood crawl down her hand as she drops another handful to the floor.
But there he is ! Her savior has come ! The wonderful Crane, the honorable Samurai who had overturned all of the lessons she had ever been taught about his clan ! She nearly cries with joy, but she has no time. As she urgently pleads with him to help her understand the rumors that have circulated, the whispers that not only her father, but the great Ikoma Ujiaki himself are going senile, she asks him to once again champion that which is right and true. But what is this ? He turns from her, his jaw set like granite. He denies the existence of the lies that are spreading throughout the court. She pleads with him once again to help her stand against those who would spread such slanders, but he once again hardens his eyes and states in a firm, unwavering voice that no such slanders exist.
She is dumbstruck. Is this not the man who rode forth to protect her honor and that of her father before ? Is this not the man she has heard stands as a mountain against all who oppose him, unwavering and unassailable. Is this not the man who she hears defeated an army of fifty brigands alongside his amazing companions ?
But no, he denies her once again. She turns now from him, her last hope. and bids him leave her presence. She does not notice the Crane’s obvious pain as he moves towards the door, hesitating briefly before he leaves.
Her hand begins to rise once more to her scalp, but pauses as she realizes, perhaps the Crane is not the ONLY hero in the castle tonight.
As the cricket flies from the room, caring little for heroes or their opposites, the snake hurriedly follows along after the Archer as he makes his way out to the graveled courtyard of the castle, where waits an aging but formidable Bushi, moving through the swift arcs and snaps of a Kata.
The forms sooth his muscles, warming them and working out the aches that seem to settle in his bones more evenings than not of late. He keeps himself as fit as possible, but he knows that his movements are slower than they were five years ago, and slower yet than the fighting prowess he possessed even seven years before. He knows that he has run his course. He is a crab after all, and he knows that the value of his knowledge and experience have finally been overcome by the infirmities of his body. He almost wishes that he had been left to a life on the wall, where he would have easily been allowed an honorable death in combat instead of being forced to see his arms wither long before his wits left him. But then so many lives would have been lost, and the empire would have been let rot from within by those he had excised with fire and steel. He was indomitable, and always ferreted out those who would harm those whose safety was his charge. Well, be honest old man, all but once. That was why he was here after all, wasn’t it ? And that was why he was considering handing his shame over to one who he had been assured was the one to finish what he could not. Though he trusted those who had recommended the Wasp hunter to him without reservation, he could not let his burden pass without taking the man’s mettle himself. And lo, there he was. Was this the man who would finally bring the witch girl to justice ? He would test him then, and see.
….. almost there ! should be done by tomorrow …..