L5R : Jade Winds
In the caves of Kagemusha, the hidden fortress of the Dragon, Hida Nakamuro lies in the grip of a fever.
* * *
A wet cloth on his forehead, water trickling down his face, the sound of a sigh…
* * *
A beautifully appointed room. Fresh flowers arranged perfectly in a porcelain vase, with petals scattered around the base. A highly polished box made of cherry, inlaid with a darker pattern of vines, on a low table. Two scrolls on facing walls depicting herons rising from a marsh. The clean scent of fresh tatami mats.
Kneeling on the floor, holding a lap desk decorated with a mountain towering over a lake filled with small sailboats. Fude, ink, washi laid out before him. Breathing deeply to calm himself. Picking up the fude, and dipping it in the ink. Hesitation. A tentative stroke.
“No.” A figure moves into view, a young man with dark hair, dressed in a plain blue kimono that is nevertheless elegant. “You cannot begin so. You must commit yourself to the stroke, allowing yourself the possibility of failure. Only in this way can the true form of the characters emerge.” He kneels facing the desk, taking another of the brushes and dipping it in the ink. A moment of stillness, and then a series of quick, sure strokes, forming the kanji for beauty. It seems to hover over the page. The man stands and walks out of sight.
A feeling of disorientation, of falling, as the room fades from view…
* * *
Darkness, the slightest breeze a torment on his skin, the distant sound of shouting…
* * *
“Hold!” His gunso can barely be heard over the roaring of the Oni. There is a smell of blood and burnt flesh and the foulness he can never get used to. His squad has been reduced to eight, Hida Minato clawed to pieces in front of him just moments before. Hida Negumi moves into the gap, her left arm bloodied and torn, but showing no signs of weakness as she brandishes her tetsubo. He is vaguely surprised to find the Daidoji still fighting next to him, wielding his blade with deadly accuracy, a fixed snarl on his face.
They brace for the next assault, hearing the chanting of the shugenja behind them, and the whistling of the jade-tipped arrows of the Hiruma flying overhead. The Oni is huge, easily ten feet tall, with claws two feet long and a powerful tail that hisses as it whips towards them. The Daidoji is hit at knee-level, and he staggers, but Nakamuro uses his shoulder to steady him. Negumi is not as lucky. Another slash of the deadly claws and her left arm is gone below the elbow. Nakamuro bellows a distraction and swings his hammer, catching the thing on one of its horns as it lowers its head to gore her, and hearing a satisfying CRACK as the last third breaks and hangs at an odd angle. It turns to look at him, and he feels a sudden chill. The fear chokes him, threatening to overwhelm him. Behind him, the shugenja’s voice rises in a shriek, and the earth trembles. Instinctively he drops to his knees as a boulder passes overhead, smashing into the Oni’s face and provoking a guttural cry. He jumps to his feet again to strike with his dai tsuchi. The Daidoji surges past him, plunging his sword into the thing’s chest as Hida Kentaro hits it from behind. It topples forward, falling onto the Daidoji’s sword as well as the Daidoji, who braces the katana as it pierces the tough hide. The Oni twitches once, twice, emits a strange bleating note, and falls still. The stench grows worse as its tainted blood oozes onto the stones of the Wall.
It takes four of them to extricate the Daidoji, somewhat the worse for wear. As he braces himself to push once more against the massive bulk of the Oni, he glances over at Negumi as she is carried from the field by two ashigaru. She is smiling, but her face is white and still. Her staring eyes pull him back down into the darkness…
* * *
A woman’s whisper, the clink of metal on stone, the scent of cooked rice…
* * *
He did not know his wife would be there that evening, working with some of the senior students. She was almost never at home these days, and when she was, their empty house was filled with a smothering silence that he was reluctant to disturb. When he did speak, he had to feel his way carefully, as if in darkness. The wound was a deep one, and he did not want to hurt her again, but he could not find a way to heal her, either.
It was a relief to speak freely to someone, to not have to examine every word for its potential for pain. As he showed the Crane diplomat around the Academy, his steps not quite steady, he told her of his father before the sickness had gripped him, how he would work all night and fall asleep at the breakfast table. She told him of her mother, and her never-ending quest to tie the perfect obi. He told her of the Wall, and the time they dressed a Nezumi as a geisha. She told him of court, and the intrigues that never seemed to end, and her impersonation of an particularly effete courtier made him laugh as he had not in months.
He was still laughing when he pulled back the screen. She was there, her face frozen, eyes wide, shaking hands gripping a long bar of metal as she stood next to a table where one of her students tinkered with a complicated mechanism. All the students turned and stared, first at him and the lovely Crane woman holding his arm, and then back at his wife, as she turned from white to red and began to speak. Quietly at first, and then she was shouting, almost spitting, her words tumbling over each other so quickly that he could hardly make sense of one in three. She took two steps towards him, raising the metal bar, and he instinctively stepped back. She stopped shouting then, her eyes darting to the bar, and the anger in her face became something much uglier, much more painful than a blow from the bar would ever be. She sneered and turned her back on him, walking deliberately to the table where she had been standing. He half-reached for her, but the Crane tugged on his arm, and he turned away, suddenly angry, his gesture becoming one of dismissal. Cursing, he left the room, shutting the screen with such force that it rattled in its frame.
When he last saw her, as he was carried back to the infirmary, her face was like stone, like ice, and his heart pounded painfully in his chest as he watched her turn her back on him for the last time…
* * *
A hand on his chest, gently stroking him. Natsumi, he thinks, and tries to speak, coughing instead. He opens his eyes, and instantly closes them again, dazzled by the lamplight. But he has seen enough — it is not she. A wave of despair breaks over him as the hand claps him on the shoulder roughly, and a familiar voice says, “Welcome back, Hida-sama.” The Shosuro, he remembers, and groans. As he falls back into unconsciousness, he hopes he can forget all over again.