It is quiet as the Ise Zumi and the Dragon Mountaineers swarm into the square. They surround the Mirumoto, the Shosuro, Hikozaemon, and himself as they stand near the dead gaijin. He has just finished cutting the head off of the tiger sorcerer. Is it the same one he met in the Temple of Air, he wonders? This one seems different — if it were the same he would be surprised he could kill it that easily. But it is difficult to be sure.
The crowd surrounding them is in an ugly mood, their mouths shouting silent curses and their hands on their weapons. He looks to the Mirumoto, who is holding out his scabbard, his sword sheathed, to show his peaceful intentions.
A Hoshi samurai pushes through the angry mob. The mob recognizes his authority and backs off, their movements becoming less frenzied. The samurai addresses the Mirumoto — he must be starting to get his hearing back, because he hears it as a faint buzzing. He glances around the square, his gaze falling on Shinsai Mai, close to where the explosion went off. The monk is badly injured, and seems to be having trouble standing. Nakamuro taps the Mirumoto on the shoulder, and points toward Shinsai — the Mirumoto conveys his request to the samurai, who nods curtly.
When he reaches Shinsai Mai, he is appalled at the extent of his injuries. There is hardly one untouched place on his body, and he suspects that the monk is drawing on the energies of the universe just to stay alive. His healing efforts are not very satisfactory, and in the end he simply lifts Shinsai and carries him back to the group, which has been joined by Shugaru, the Thousand Fortunes monk, and — he peers closely at the mon — a Tamori! A cold chill runs down his spine, but he ignores it and focuses on what is going on.
The Mirumoto seems to be explaining the situation to the Tamori (Tamori Arishima, as he learns later). At one point he indicates the tiger-headed gaijin, and receives a puzzled look in return. Again he points to the tiger, and then suddenly he asks a question. The Tamori looks at him in a calculating manner, and then has an assistant bring him his bag. He drinks off a potion, and looks carefully at the head. When he is done, he speaks, his face bland. The Mirumoto frowns.
Nakamuro decides to chance an interruption, and asks the Tamori if he has any healing available. Several in the crowd wince and cover their ears, so he repeats himself, much softer this time. The Tamori says something, looks at the monk, drinks another potion, and puts his hands on the monk’s shoulders. In seconds Shinsai Mai is standing, although he still leans on the Hida for balance. Tamori-sama then goes over to the samurai who attacked Shugaru, and assists him as well. Afterwards several ashigaru bind the samurai and carry him away.
He is hearing bits and pieces of what is being said now, and he hears the Tamori tell them to go to the castle. With Hikozaemon carrying the heads of the tiger man as well as the panther man they slew in the prison, they start off, seeing chaos no matter where they look. Buildings destroyed by the earthquake, or fire, or both; dead samurai and heimin partially covered by debris; patrols searching for pockets of resistance. By the time they reach the palace, his hearing has returned, although there is still a ringing in his left ear.
The palace itself looks lopsided, as the roof is at an odd angle. Something seems to have gone through it. Because of this, the normal functions of the court have been moved outside into two gardens around the castle. It is still chaos, but unlike the city streets, it seems more purposeful.
The Mirumoto stops a runner and asks to be taken to someone in charge. They are led to a group of samurai. Two men sit on stools, one dictating, the other transcribing. Several samurai stand and watch their approach. One of them, a very good swordsman if Nakamuro is any judge (and after seeing the Mirumoto’s expression he thinks he is right), asks what their business is. The Mirumoto politely begins to explain the situation, but the samurai cuts him off and tells him not to worry about the courtesies. At that point, Nakamuro tells the samurai that they have been ordered to see Lord Togashi Hoshi.
The young man who had been sitting and dictating turns and looks at them. His eyes are jade green, and it is clear to Nakamuro that this is Togashi Hoshi, son of the Kami Togashi. Nakamuro bows, as does everyone else, even Shinsai Mai, but like the samurai, Togashi says that there is no need for such courtesies. He asks their names and their business, and Nakamuro waits quietly as Yonaka introduces everyone. Togashi has a good look at them all.
Then the Mirumoto shows Togashi the two shapeshifter heads, and explains where they were found. He also shows Togashi the field marshal’s baton, telling Togashi that he does not know who it belongs to. Togashi answers, mildly, “But you are carrying it.”1 After a moment of stunned silence, Nakamuro laughs and claps Yonaka on the shoulder. Commander of a legion! he thinks. Granted, the number of warriors in a Dragon legion is much smaller than the number of warriors in a legion in Lion or Crab lands, but still! Grinning, he imagines Yonaka in his command post on the battlefield, surrounded by bodyguards and assistants. The Shosuro would be his intelligence agent, of course — his smile falters, and he realizes that Togashi is still speaking.
Togashi is saying that it will take some time for the Mirumoto’s legion to be assembled, as things are currently so unsettled. After being told of the statue of the goddess of chaos found in the gaijin fort, he remarks that she only seeks to cause pain, in winning or losing.
Togashi then gazes for a long moment at Shinsai Mai, but addresses Nakamuro. “You will have to take care of him.” The Taint, he thinks in dismay. Where am I going to get jade petal tea? Aloud he says only “Hoh! I feared that was the case.” The monk accepts the news with relative grace, his only comment being that it must have been the mushroom he brought back with him from the Earth gate. Nakamuro rolls his eyes. Obviously.
Togashi addresses the Mirumoto again, asking why they alone are able to see the true forms of the shapeshifters. Startled, Nakamuro suddenly realizes why the Tamori was so stiff and formal earlier. To him, it must have looked as if they were deranged, or lying. A quick glance shows puzzlement on Hikozaemon’s and Shugaru’s faces as well. Why only us? he wonders. He understands as soon as the Mirumoto asks the Shosuro for the teapot. Yokode Kyusu no Getsu — the teapot of Lady Moon. All of us have drunk from it, he realizes.
Togashi Hoshi says a strange thing then. “So the Lady Hitomi seeks to redeem herself before her time.” He motions to the Mirumoto, who takes the teapot from the Shosuro and places it on the low table. The son of Togashi sniffs it, and looks up curiously, his green eyes blazing. “You have been amongst the Dragons.” Nakamuro thinks back as the Mirumoto tells of their encounters. Air, Void, Water, Fire, and Earth — not to mention Lady Moon herself. We have been amongst the Dragons — and lived.
“I believe it is time for the teapot to return to the Temple,” Togashi says. “But I will exchange one gift for another.” He brings out a war fan, emblazoned with the kanji 兵法 — strategy, the art of war. Spoken aloud, however, they have another meaning as well — the art of peace. This tessa he gives to the Mirumoto. It is of incomparable value — the gift of Togashi Hoshi himself. And then he says, “And I will give you my blessing, if you wish it.”
Nakamuro looks about him, seeing that everyone is as puzzled as himself. The Mirumoto attempts a polite response, and then Togashi says the words that will forever divide Hida Nakamuro’s life in two. “I will give you my blessing to marry the Shosuro.”
For a moment, Nakamuro thinks there must have been another explosion. He can’t hear anything but buzzing. There is a distant pain in his hands, which he has clenched into fists. The Mirumoto is speaking, and he can hear the words, but at first they have no meaning.
“I would be grateful for your blessing if my love for the Shosuro was all that mattered. But we each have our Duty to the Empire, and that must come first.” And suddenly Nakamuro is angry, because he knows that Yonaka is being kind to him, and he will be damned before he accepts it. For Togashi is offering a gift beyond all price — Kaito’s safety. His voice is a growl as he cuts across Yonaka’s pretty words about love and Duty. “Yonaka — don’t be a fool.” Yonaka looks at him, and he doesn’t know if he understands, but thank the Fortunes, he accepts.
Now all eyes are on the Shosuro. She is still in Mantis clothing, with a cloth tied across the lower half of her face. Her fine clothes are in shreds, she is covered in dirt and debris, and she is more beautiful than he has ever seen her. This is how he will remember her. He holds his breath, concentrating on the pain in his hands to keep himself from shaking.
She speaks slowly, her eyes cast down. “What a magnificent gift. I do not know if I am allowed to accept it. Duty is a sometimes sticky road, as you well know. I would be happy to stay here. Perhaps if someone could pass a letter along…”
Togashi interrupts her. “You may find you are more welcome here.”
Kaito nods sadly as if she expected this. “Then I will look to the Mirumoto. I accept.”
His breath comes out in a great rush, as if he has been punched. It goes unnoticed in the general uproar, which only lasts a few seconds. Then Togashi is speaking to him. His outline is blurry through the haze of tears, but the green eyes are more brilliant than ever. “When this is over, there are some who will need to expunge their dishonor. The Crab do not waste those who can still serve. Will you take charge of these Mitinaka and lead them to the Wall?”
The Wall. There is no question in his mind. “If you ask, Lord, I will do this.”
Togashi nods. “You will know when it is time.”
The rest of the interview goes by in a sort of dream. Shinsai Mai asks about the fate of the Mitinaka Magistrate who tried them in the horse barn, whom the monk considers an honorable man doing his best in an impossible situation. It is not Togashi but the master swordsman Hoshi Tsunata who answers. “He is trying the Mitanaka, his kinsmen. When he has finished, he will be allowed to commit seppuku.” Shinsai Mai expresses a wish to see and thank him, but Nakamuro suspects he secretly wants to find the Magistrate’s guard, the one who insulted him, and settle the score between them.
Finally, Togashi requests their help with the current problems. “Rest. Then see my quartermaster. Tell him what you need. Go west, and stop when you run out of enemies.” Direct and to the point. Perhaps the son of the Dragon has no need to speak in riddles. He is grateful to have something to occupy him until he can leave for the Wall.
The two gaijin children, who have been clinging to Shugaru, are left with Togashi. Shugaru pries them from his robe gently and sends them off with reassuring words. Then he looks at Nakamuro, sadly shaking his head. Nakamuro goes hot and then cold, and turns away.
Hoshi Tsunata leads them to the quartermaster. All Nakamuro can think to ask for is another teapot and jade petal tea. Shosuro Naoki, sounding almost like her old self, asks for clothing in Dragon colors. Some light armor is found for her. She asks the Mirumoto what her job will be here. “The same as before,” he says. “You will be my eyes and ears.” She seems satisfied with that.
They decide to equip themselves more completely once they have had a chance to eat and sleep. Hikozaemon asks if he can be excused for the evening. With a start Nakamuro realizes that of course, this is his city — it must be a shock for him to see it this way. He is responsible for taking him from it, but at least Hikozaemon is still alive, unlike many of his friends. In Nakamuro’s opinion, he has improved his lot as well. But perhaps Hikozaemon does not see it that way. He tells Hikozaemon that if he comes to the Crab lands with him, he will settle him in one of the villages there. It would be a whole new life. But he also offers to transfer him to another’s service, if that would not suit him. He is surprised when the Shosuro says she will take him. “You… wish him in your service, Lady?” he asks. It is the first time he has been able to look at her, and he is only able to now because of his shock. She had been terrified of Hikozaemon for some reason back at the fort, and had avoided him ever since. “If you don’t want him…” she trails off. “I do need someone to carry my armor.” Ah. She too is being kind, he thinks. Hikozaemon settles the argument, saying with seemingly real conviction that he will go with the yojimbo of Lady Moon. Unexpected, but he appreciates it all the same. He dismisses Hikozaemon for the night so he can say goodbye to old friends. “Can he still carry my armor?” the Shosuro asks, and it almost makes him laugh. Some things never change.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Much later, alone in a room in the fine house they were using as a residence for the next few days before leaving to hunt down the Empire’s enemies, he wonders how Togashi knew. Certainly no one could have told him of the romance between Yonaka and Kaito. It had been well hidden. Too well hidden. He had not questioned Togashi’s ability to see the Taint in Shinsai Mai, though that was well hidden too. Was love like Taint? Could it be seen by those with the blood of the Kami? If so, then Togashi must have seen his own love for Kaito. In the dark, he curls into as tight a ball as he can manage, holding on to his pain. Togashi had known, and had chosen Yonaka. And in his kindness, he had given Nakamuro a purpose, something to fill the vast emptiness of his life as it stretches out before him. Of all the kindnesses that had been shown to him that day, he both hates and needs Togashi’s the most.
After a long time, he gets up and lights a lamp. He finds his calligraphy set, miraculously still intact after the disasters of the last few weeks. The puzzle box is missing, but he is no longer sorry about that. He sorts through the wrinkled and water-stained pages, finally finding the one he is looking for — his death poem. Never good at extemporizing, he had composed it weeks earlier, just before they had left with the dwarves. He reads it once more.
honor the Wall is lost
There can never be safety
The Mountain must fall.
He crumples it up and sits for long minutes, the lamp making a steady light. Finally, he takes his brush, and begins to write.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
1 Chickenhat’s response: “You fucker.”
One experience point