“Hoh! Crane-lover!”

Hida Nakamuro, in the midst of cleaning his weapons, looked up, his face carefully bland. An older samurai with a heavily scarred face appeared around the curve of the tower, limping slightly. His hair was black and unruly, and he was sweating as he climbed the stairs. “Zakennayo! Why are you always up here?” he growled, heaving himself up the last few steps. “Just my luck to get sent to find you.”

Hida Nakamuro carefully set aside his katana and oiling cloth, then stood and bowed to the senior samurai. “Your pardon, Hida Takeuchi. I admire the view.”

Hida Takeuchi no Kakeguchi roared with laughter, making a great show of striding over to a narrow window and peering out on the peaceful landscape below. “The view! And what makes it so compelling? The complete lack of enemies?” He snorted, his face turning sour. "Kuso. The commander wants to see you.” He turned away and began to stomp his way down the stairs again.

There is also the quiet, Nakamuro thought as he quickly gathered his daisho and dai tsuchi and followed the warrior, still cursing, to the lower floors of the tower. The Watchtower of the East was not a happy place. Built before the Kaiu Wall itself, it had once been an important outpost — now, protected behind the Wall, it served no military purpose. Here was where the Crab, who never wasted anything, stationed the Forty-Seventh and Forty-Eighth Legions of the Army of the East — the cowards, the drunks, the criminals, the dishonored, and the not-quite sane. It was a prison in all but name.

Nakamuro had been assigned to the Forty-Seventh almost two years ago for the crime of deserting his post in Kaiu Shiro. The Crane courtier who had lured him away had accidentally been killed, but the Crab did not care about that. She had flouted the orders of her superiors, and though the Crane had made an obligatory protest to the Crab Clan Champion, Hida Kuon, it had been a mere formality, not taken seriously by either side. But the idea that a Crab would leave his post, no matter what the temptation — that was taken very seriously indeed. In another clan he might have been allowed to commit seppuku. Instead, he had been transferred to the Watchtower of the East, with no chance to communicate with his wife or family before leaving.

His first few weeks had been an utter misery. Within hours of his arrival, the circumstances surrounding his transfer had been known to everyone, and “Crane-lover” was the least of the epithets directed at him. The brutal death of the young Crane woman had haunted his dreams, and his nightly screams had not earned him any friends. He was younger than most, and although his months on the Wall had taught him how to survive in terrible conditions, it had not taught him how to survive without the comradeship of brothers and sisters in arms. After several brawls, he had learned to keep his head down and his mouth shut. It was a little easier that way. Nevertheless, his first two years of punishment duty had gone by very slowly indeed, and he still had one more to go.

He passed several of his fellow inmates on the way to the commander’s office. For the most part, the samurai stationed here were surly, unkempt, and prone to violence. They were kept in line by officers from the Yasuki bushi school, headed by the garrison commander Yasuki Kon. Although daily drills were mandatory and discipline was harsh, if the Wall were to fall, it would not take long for the tower to be overrun, in Nakamuro’s opinion. At least I would get to die in battle. He forced the thought from his head.

When he reached the commander’s office, he placed his weapons carefully on the rack positioned there for that purpose. Then he knelt and moved into the room, stopping to make a low bow before sitting seiza on the worn and faded tatami.

Already in the office were four men and one woman, only two of whom Nakamuro knew. One was Commander Yasuki Kon, taisa of the Forty-Seventh Legion. He was in his late 30’s, senior by at least five years to the woman, Yasuki Kaneru, taisa of the Forty-Eighth, and it was this seniority that made him the de facto leader of the two legions. But the two worked closely together, and it was rare that there was any serious disagreement between them.

Of the other three, two were obviously bodyguards of some sort. The third — Nakamuro did not get more than a cursory glance at the man before Commander Kon was speaking. “Took you long enough. Where were you? Up in the tower room again?”

“Hai, Commander.” Nakamuro bowed quickly, willing his face not to turn red. He hadn’t realized his preference for the high room had come to the commander’s attention, though it was foolish to think otherwise. The man had a reputation for knowing everything that went on.

Taisa Kaneru picked up several scrolls near her right hand and began to move towards the door. “I will see that your men are taken care of,” she said to the unknown man. She looked hard at Nakamuro. “I am leaving now.”

The formal goodbye caught Nakamuro off-guard. He bowed to her silently, watching as she and the two bodyguards shuffled out of the room. Puzzled and a little apprehensive, he turned back to the commander and his mysterious visitor. Yasuki Kon did not leave him in suspense.

“This is Hida Tamotsu. He is an ambassador, traveling to Kyuden Doji.”

Nakamuro had never met a Crab diplomat who was not a Yasuki. There were probably only a handful, dispatched almost exclusively to Crane lands. Too much bad blood existed between the Crane and the Yasuki, who had been part of the Crane until their defection to the Crab, to allow for amicable dealings between them. But he found it strange to meet one, a Hida no less, as he could confirm by his mon. Although still fit, the man was well past the age of service on the Wall. The faded scars on his face and his missing left arm spoke of long years of fighting, and he still had a military bearing. His graying black hair was pulled up in the traditional topknot, and he wore formal traveling clothes. Even his two bodyguards, now kneeling outside the office, were dressed better than the average warrior.

He realized he was staring, and covered his rudeness with a bow. “Welcome, sir. My name is Hida Nakamuro.” The other man gave a perfunctory nod in return. “I am Hida Tamotsu. I served with your father on the Wall, many years ago now.”

For a moment Nakamuro was confused. As far as he knew, his father had spent very little time on the Wall. His research on siege engines had kept him busy at home and in the workshop. Only occasionally did he venture out to the front lines to watch his creations perform under field conditions. With a start, he realized that the older samurai must be talking about his biological father, Hida Masaru, who had died shortly after he was born. He bowed again, deeper this time. “Sir! You knew my father?” He regretted his question instantly. His excitement at meeting someone who had fought alongside his father was drowned in a wave of shame. What would his father say if knew he was here?

Hida Tamotsu nodded gravely. “A good warrior. His death was a great loss to the Clan.” He looked Nakamuro over critically. “I did not expect to find his son here.”

Nakamuro’s face burned, but his voice was controlled when he replied. “Hai, Hida-sama.” He said no more — there was no more to say.

Tamotsu watched him a little while longer, and then turned back to the commander. “He knows when to keep his mouth shut, I’ll give you that. A rare talent in one so young.”

Commander Yasuki Kon wore his smile like a bared blade on his dark face. He knelt easily, knees wide apart, one calloused hand stroking the whip he always carried at his side. “Yes, and he has not given in to despair like so many. I had been thinking of promoting him to nikutai, under gunso Kaiu Ryuu.”

“Really? How long has he been here?” Tamotsu asked. Nakamuro, stunned, listened to the two discuss him as if he were not in the room. Promoted? To nikutai? In the penal legions, this was not much of an honor, as he would still be carefully watched by the Yasuki Taskmasters. But the idea that the commander had considered him — he had had no idea.

He kept his face composed while the two continued speaking. Hida Tamotsu asked a great many detailed questions about Nakamuro, and Nakamuro was a little uneasy to hear how much the Commander seemed to know about him, including his life before he had been sent here. He showed none of this, continuing to kneel quietly until Tamotsu turned to look at him again.

“Quiet and patient,” Tamotsu commented. “It’s a start. He’ll do.”

Yasuki Kon nodded. “As you say.” He looked at Nakamuro. “Pack your belongings. You are now under the orders of Hida Tamotsu. Be ready to leave in 20 minutes.”

Nakamuro stared blankly at Yasuki Kon until the man made an impatient gesture. “Go!” His throat felt constricted, but he managed a strangled “Hai!” and a quick bow before he turned and left the room.

He had no memory of how he got to the quarters he shared with the other members of his squad. He had little enough to pack — some basic gear, a few changes of clothes. Nothing that he had any particular attachment to. He remembered with a start that he had left his weapons outside the commander’s office. Of course those were not truly his weapons, they had been issued to him for the duration of his time here. The same was true of his armor. Should he bring them? He didn’t know, and he didn’t know who to ask.

He reached the commander’s office a few minutes ahead of time. The bodyguards and Hida Tamotsu had left, but Commander Kon was there, working at a low scarred desk. Nakamuro waited until he looked up. “Your pardon, Yasuki-sama,” he said, bowing. “I am ready.” The Commander looked him up and down thoughtfully. “Hida Tamotsu will have weapons for you, but it is unlikely he will have armor.” He took a small flat stone inscribed with the kanji for armor and helmet and passed it to Nakamuro. “Light armor and helmet. Meet him at the gate.” He went back to his scroll, not looking up again. Nakamuro bowed and headed for the armory.

When he reached the gate, the ambassador’s party was waiting for him. Along with the two bodyguards and the ambassador himself, there were five ashigaru and the largest horse Nakamuro had ever seen, a bay with white legs and nose. The ambassador sat at ease on the great beast, talking to one of the bodyguards. He watched Nakamuro approach with his arms full of armor and possessions. Before Nakamuro could perform more than the most perfunctory of bows, Hida Tamotsu reined the horse with his one arm and started down the road.

One of the ashigaru hurried over to him, bowing. Nakamuro handed over his gear, which was stowed in a cart pulled by two of the ashigaru, and fell into step with the bodyguard behind the horse. The man introduced himself as Moshibaru Ichida; the samurai walking in front and to one side of the ambassador was Hiruma Nikako. “Heard you killed a Crane courtier,” Ichida said. Nakamuro stiffened, but replied evenly enough. “Hai. I am responsible.” The man grinned suddenly. “There’ll be a lot at Kyuden Doji. Try to not to kill too many!”

Nakamuro remembered the conversation in the Commander’s office. He stared at the other samurai, his eyes wide with amazement. “We’re going to Kyuden Doji?” Ichida laughed at his expression. “Close your mouth before a Nezumi mistakes it for his lair!” Nakamuro closed his mouth with a snap and struggled to compose himself. Ichida continued his brisk walk, scanning the road to either side. “Yes, that’s where we’re headed. Eventually. If we don’t run into any more trouble, we should be there in, oh, six weeks.” He frowned, then shook his head with a sigh.

“You had trouble?” Nakamuro asked. Ichida nodded. “On our way from Shattered Peaks Castle. Bandits.” He spat. “Tadaoki took an arrow in the eye. Good man. You’ll be using his gear, I expect.” He looked briefly at Nakamuro, sizing him up. “Know how to use a dai tsuchi?” Nakamuro nodded. “Good,” Ichida said, and walked on.


L5R : Jade Winds ednoria