Carl Rigney - GM
Kevan Forbes - Genosuke
Shaun Hayworth - Masagoro
Thomas Fraser - Kansuke
Liralen Li - Winter's Blessing
A few game mechanic notes: All of the dreams of memory were actually each character's Zero Act, all played as part of the character setup. I've interspersed them where they impact the story, but you can see how the Zero Act really does a lot to develop each character in individual play.
Carl has gone over this once with his memories of the game and some telling points as to Goichi's motivations. Shuan gave me some very specific knowledge as to Masagoro's feelings at the very end, which I needed to clarify. Thank you both for your help!! And other than that it's written as I remember it, so all mistakes are my own. It was a wonderful game and I hope I've captured the flavor of it.
The fall hues of fire blaze through the foothills where the old inn crouches under the shadow of the wild mountains. The inn's sign is that of a bird leaning to one side, sake bottle clutched in one clawed food. The air bites chill with the promise of winter. The sun sits low on the horizon, slowly swallowed by the dark hulk of mountains, and everything is painted gold by the dying day.
The red thread of fate connects life to life, story to story, and lives that have briefly danced on the edge of each other stories are about to become irrevocably tangled.
In the front of the tavern a slender girl sits curled about a thin-necked shamisen. She plays it with a bachi of pure white. The innkeeper opened the front paper panels of the tavern so that she is visible to the world. She is dressed in the fall kimono with maple leaves falling down her left side, with underlayers of gold and white, and an obi of solid orange tied in the the knots of an actress. Her long hair veils her face. The melancholy notes linger and fall like the leaves from the swaying trees.
On a table within sight of her sits a Kijin, a man whose arms have been replaced with weaponry. Before him are two wooden boxes of sake, and he holds one in his hand and places the other as if before a friend. He salutes the empty space and drinks.
A samurai, the soul gems of his trade and power obvious on face, arms, and the hilts of his daisho, sits seiza at the central table of the tavern, closest to the fire, drinking alone. His kimono is bright, brash. The innkeeper is very attentive of this noble guest.
In the shadowed back corner of the great room sits a hunter, dressed in worn green. He nurses a single drink in the corner of the tavern, and the innkeeper hasn't even looked at him since the drink was served. He, too, has a clear line of sight to the girl in the window.
So they sit, posed for the threads that bind.
I sat by the window and played the shamisen in the manner of an accompanist of Kabuki, for that was what I sometimes was, when I was not pacing the theater's floor boards as an actress for their plays. The slender-necked instrument was easy to pack and unpack for travel and allowed for the quick fingering and melodies that the plays required. Still, out here, as country entertainment, I stuck to familiar folk melodies that anyone might sing.
I was on display, a lure by the tavern keeper to bring in potential custom, and I played my part cheerfully enough. It was an easy way to pay for food and a spot to sleep that night for both myself and my bodyguard, Kansuke. My Kansuke is a Kijin. He'd modified his body in his youth in order to gain the strength he'd needed. He takes these small jobs from me, indulging me whenever I can pay him. Kansuke's mechanical arm flashed in the dim light of the tavern, and, as always, the motion drew my eye. A man trying to become machine has always fascinated me.
When I looked out to the road, there was movement headed my way. Like ants on a trail, I thought. Let's makes sure that there is honey for them to follow. So, lifting my voice, I sang a rollicking ballad welcoming home heroes.
They came. They swaggered when they heard the words. Eight raggedy-ass soldiers, mercenaries from their gear. No lord, no honor but for what they made for themselves. At the tail end of their group was a woman, a village woman, obviously, by the wear on her kimono and the way she walked among them. The men were boisterous, and on catching sight and sound of me, they veered toward the tavern.
When they stumbled in without even announcing themselves, I realized that they might have come in even without my performance. Still, I was flattered when two of the men planted themselves at my table, while the others went further within. They both gestured for more sake, and moved closer to me than was polite, yet it was a familiar distance for me. I did not move away, but smiled and continued my playing and singing. They would not, in all good conscience interrupt me in my performance.
Two were happy to sit with my Kansuke, nodding to him and yelling at the tavern keeper for sake.
The other four were bold enough to sit at the table with the samurai, and the woman went with them, but sat as far away from Masagoro-sama as possible. I had seen that particular samurai about the city, but while his reputation was honorable, I did not know what had brought him out here. He did not make a fuss at their self-elevation of station.
When their sake arrived, one lifted his wooden box and toasted, "To desperate clients!"
Kansuke, at his table, raised an eyebrow, and while he brought the box to his lips, he did not swallow.
When the mercenaries poured their second drink, he raised his and said, "To our home villages!" And he drained that draught. The mercenaries looked a little befuddled, but they were here to drink, so they all drank with him.
The woman with them burst into tears.
I set my instrument down, got up, and started in her direction. One of the mercenaries tried to grab my arm to keep me with them. I saw the motion begin, so I moved just fast enough that his hand missed the trailing edge of my sleeve.
The hunter's head came up, and his eyes tracked my motion with more attention than I wanted. On seeing his face, I recognized the man in drab green. Genosuke was a very able stage hand in the Kabuki theater that had hired me even without references. He'd always disappeared from the backstage whenever the Lord of the city was in attendance at the plays, but then he seemed to have a talent for going unseen, which is why he was one of the finest stage hands in the city.
Exactly what he was doing here, I did not know, but my first concern was the woman, who was sobbing into her sleeves.
"What is the matter, dear?" I asked gently and hugged the woman.
"It's it's just... my village... there are bandits..." She visibly tried to control her sobbing, her grip tightening on my arm. "These... these fine gentleman have agreed... agreed to come fight them for us."
She was obviously proud of her no mean feat of getting fighting men to help protect her village.
"Oh, dear, I've forgotten my manners. I am Hana." She bowed low to the samurai first and then to I.
"I am called Winter's Blessing," I said quietly.
"I am Masagoro." The samurai inclined his head, and she and I bowed deeply.
The mercenaries ducked their heads with embarrassment, and named themselves hastily. The one nearest Masagoro-sama was called Tadakichi, and his older brother, Otokichi was next to him. The others mumbled more, and I couldn't catch all their names.
"Why have you not gotten real soldiers?" Masagoro asked.
"We are real soldiers!" Tadakichi cried.
Masagoro-sama laughed. "A real soldier would have already taken care of this."
Tadakichi's hand went to the hilt of his sword.
Masagoro-san's bright eyes followed the motion, but he made no equal movement of his own. The rest of the inn fell dead silent. Even Otokichi's hands stayed on the table around his drink.
"No! No! This man is not a bandit." Hana tried to placate Tadakichi. "Please, don't waste your energy on him! Use it to fight the bandits!"
The mercenary drew back his hand to hit her. I stepped between them, my forearm going up in a quick, elementary block that stopped his blow. I saw Masagoro's eyes widen, and in my peripheral vision the shadow in the backroom stood.
My Kansuke also rose from his table, but he's paid to keep attackers off me, not to save me from my own folly.
To my surprise, Masagoro deliberately picked up Tadakichi's sake and drank it down with obvious enjoyment.
Tadakichi moved to draw his sword. In a motion too quick for human eyes to follow, Masagoro grasped the hilt of his own katana and brought the butt of it up into Tadakichi's chin before the mercenary's sword had even cleared its sheathe. The mercenary tumbled back like a rag doll and fell on the floor. His friends and elder brother helped him by laughing at him while he lay there.
They were far more wary of Masagoro after that. I'm not sure they could see what it was that he had done, but they were more respectful of his strength and speed. They all moved away from his table. He, however, invited Hana and I to sit with him.
So we did.
"Now, why are you hiring these men?" he asked, seriously.
"They're... well they're the best we could afford," she said nervously. "We could only offer them food and a place to stay for the winter, and they were kind enough to come when the soldiers at the castle would not."
Kansuke had come forward during her stammering statement, and he stared at her and said, "I will come with you."
[Gaming note: One of the interesting mechanics is throwing dice for emotional reactions when meeting another character for the first time. In this case Kansuke's player had thrown 'like a sister' and his player agreed to play it that way.]
I blinked at him. He shrugged at me, and I figured we'd talk about this later.
Tadakichi growled, "Hey, wait.... we don't need some half-machine bastard...."
Kansuke looked at him, and he shut up.
That's my Kansuke.
"And I shall join you as well," Masagoro said.
"That would be most... thank you, sir, thank you." Hana stammered out. "But... but these men were supposed to protect me."
"Who will protect you from them?" I asked softly.
She looked me straight in the eye and said, "You will."
Hana and I had the loft to ourselves. There was a small guest area, and the maids and servant girls were on the other side of a paper screen. The whole was under the rafters, and so short we had to crawl from the trapdoor in the floor to where our beds were, but it was warm up there with all the heat from the common room below. Hana was curled up on a straw mat with a worn quilt over her, snoring.
She looked so tired. Bruises on her arms and her face stood out even in the darkness and shifting moonlight, filtered through the paper walls and the swaying branches of the trees outside. She must have been taking whatever those bastards had been giving all along the road. The one had so casually tried to strike her.
Anger, fear, and pain for her all burned in my chest until I thought I couldn't breathe around it all. I wasn't used to feeling so much at once. I also knew that I was afraid to walk in her dreams. Caught between things I could do nothing about, I realized that I needed air.
I needed to go outside.
I crawled to the far end of the loft and found a latched screen there. I undid the latch, opened the screen, grasped the upper edge of the opening, and pulled myself up and back over onto the thickly thatched roof above where I'd crouched. I reached down to close the paper screen. It closed smoothly and silently.
I picked my way across the stones that held the thatching down, settling on one in the midst of the warmth from the fire in the great room below, and studied the night.
A ghost wind rattled the remaining leaves in the emptying trees, rubbing branches together so that they creaked under the bright harvest moon, as round and golden as a pumpkin. The edge of the wind had sharpened with the dying of the sun. The stones beneath me were human warm, smoothed river rock pleasing to the touch. I took two deep, slow breaths, thinking of the regrets of autumns past.
There was a deliberate footfall on the stones behind me, unexpected because none preceded it. It was loud enough to announce, but not as loud as if it were meant to startle.
I turned around.
It was Genosuke. Still in his hunter's garb, but his stance, his ease on that rooftop showed me more of who he really was than I'd ever seen in the floodlights of the theater.
"Sir," I said, bowing my upper body to one who was likely a high order shinobi of his clan. One who served our Lord and eased his way in the world.
"Lady," he said, bowing an equal angle, which astonished me. Then I remembered his eyes watching me twitch my sleeve out of the reach of the mercenary. I was also giving him more information as to who and what I really was by my ease on this very same roof.
"If I may ask," he said so politely. "What do you wish to do with these people?"
I studied his face in the moonlight, and his slight smile on relaxed features told me nearly nothing. He was good.
"I want to protect Hana. Save her village. I'm not sure how I shall do those things, but that is what I wish," I said, honestly.
"There are those who would help you, if you ask," he said. The tone hadn't changed, neither had his expression, but I suddenly suspected this man could hide worlds.
I looked up at him with widened eyes, and he smiled just a little more.
"Then I mostly humbly ask thee for thy help," I said, looking him directly in the eye.
He nodded, smiled, and disappeared right before my eyes. Shinobi indeed.
I sat a while longer, watching the branches, listening to the wind, and thinking. When I had caught my breath again, I climbed down and went to sleep by the gently snoring Hana.
I walk in dreams.
Not my dreams, but the memory dreams of another. I wend through the paths of his past and stay well hidden so as to not influence his future.
There is a shinobi, hidden, as is his wont, in the shifting shadows of graceful trees. By his posture and gait, I know it is Genosuke. His mind feels at ease, this is a familiar, comforting place for him. He has done this often.
The Daimyo of the city we both live in walks without his entourage directly around him. The court nobles and their ladies are scattered about the beautifully maintained gardens that surround the palace grounds. Guards stand at watch in all the visible posts. It is Kouyou, the fall viewing. Everyone else is taking sake, tea, and snacks while they watch the graceful flight of blood red maple leaves. Dried husks of curled leaves skitter and clattered around their feet in a gust of wind.
I see Genosuke's eyes seek the wind, as if trying to discern if there is a foe in its folds. I press deeper into the drifts of dream.
His Daimyo wanders about the garden, unconcerned. He speaks as if to the wind and leaves. "There is a village in the mountains having problems with the forest. They should not be so troubled."
Genosuke smiles, and now I know why he is here. His master's wishes align with my own. That will be good for us both.
In the morning we began the trek to Hana's village.
Masagoro, of course, took charge of the entire expedition, looking for who was there, what was needed, and generally managing the hung-over mercenaries, and getting everyone going when it was time to go.
I had taken apart and carefully packed my shamisen into its protective pouch. Its slender neck provided protection and hiding for my most precious thing, and it rode across my shoulders. I had my walking stick and my bamboo bottle of water on my belt. The morning was bright and beautiful. Amazing walking weather, and we walked, sometimes in a line, sometimes bunched up, but as the miles wound on, we spread further and further apart.
Kansuke and I had traveled together for so long, we naturally matched our speeds and there was a point in the day where both of us had no one within earshot of our conversation.
"What are you thinking, Winter's Blessing?" Kansuke said. "Why are you, an actress, coming with a bunch of brigades and soldiers? It's a quick trip back to the city, and I'm sure one of these guys could get you there with no trouble."
He didn't say that he thought that I might be able to make it back on my own with even less trouble than I might incur with one of these idiots, but I knew the look. He was too close to guessing some of my secrets.
I looked down at the ground. "I am thinking that I like Hana. I'd like to see her safe. With such a large troop of military men, I should be safe, no? If you wish for me to let go of your contract so that you may pursue this job, than I would be happy to do so."
He shook his head at me. "This still makes no sense. But, yes, I want to protect that woman and her hapless village."
"And I wish to help her, she is like..." My voice dropped. "... like someone I once knew."
I could feel his gaze on me, trying to bore right through me. I had just said more about my untold past than I had in all the miles he had walked with me as my bodyguard.
"We'll travel together, but you're releasing me from my contract?" he asked gruffly.
"Correct." I bowed gently to him, and he bowed abruptly back. "We are agreed."
"Aye." Kansuke gave me one more curious look before he slowed his pace deliberately, to end up by Hana's side.
Very early on Masagoro counted nine mercenaries instead of the expected eight. The actress, her ex-bodyguard, and Hana were easy to distinguish from the motley military crew. For the entire morning, they were all exactly the same. The mercenaries grouped up and separated seemingly aimlessly, and they all moved like practiced campaigners with the ground eating pace that was second nature to their calling.
After a quick, cold lunch of packed onigiri and pickles, when it was too far to just order someone back alone, one man in drab green began to stick out like a sore thumb. Masagoro couldn't believe he hadn't noticed it before, but the man moved differently. He was also picking up trail sign in the way of a practiced trail finder rather than like one of the shiftless mercenaries that could barely make a living.
Masagoro finally caught up with the man while they were in the midst of the line of other mercenaries.
"I am Masagoro."
The drab man bowed low. "And I am Genosuke, a hunter of these woods."
"I have not gotten your measure, yet." Masagoro saw the faintest smile on the face of the man before him, before the man bowed at the bald request.
Before he had even straightened from the bow, there was the flick of a wrist, and a bird fell through the bare branches of the trees.
Kunai. Masagoro drew one of his own and threw it at a fox in a nearby bush. The kunai missed it completely, rustling the undergrowth and startling the fox into a bolt for another den.
Masagoro detected no hint of a smile on the impassive face of the hunter. Masagoro made an iaido draw, strike, clean, and sheathe. This man followed the entire motion of it, and Masagoro's estimation of his skills went up further.
They'd walked well by before the tree fell in half with a crash, startling the mercenaries around them. It also earned a stop and study by Kansuke. Masagoro usually didn't think much of kijin, but this one seemed strong enough.
He nodded to Genosuke, and Genosuke nodded back before moving ahead to scout the trail.
That night, sleeping on the forest floor, I walk in another's dream and memory.
There is always war between the Lords of the Land. Peasants make up the rank and file, and these two young boys fight for the handful of coins they want to bring home to their families. It's not much, but for some it's a way out of the relentless poverty.
On this fiery night, however, the enemy is legion. The lights of their camp fires go to the horizon in the night, and the boys know that there are giant meikyo armor walking the land. They'd seen, first hand, how useless the guns they'd been taught to use were against the mechanized war machines.
They are boys set on a wall to watch an enemy that is asleep, but which might kill them in the morning. I see one boy's face clearly, and I gasp, for he is a young, unscarred Kansuke. His friend elbows him in the ribs.
"Come on, Kansuke, it's time. The way is clear."
Kansuke blinks awake. "Clear? Goichi, you're thinking of running off?"
"Yes. Come on. This is perfect." Goichi sounds eager, happy. "We'll be clear of all this fighting, and we can go home."
Kansuke sees all those foes filling the land. He nods. "All right. Let's go."
The two boys flee.
Later that night, a scouting squad from the enemy finds their position empty. The army pours through the gap. They lay waste to the defending hosts and keep going. They go right through Goichi and Kansuke's village and burn it to the ground, putting everyone they can find to the sword.
The two boys come back to nothing but smoke and ash and burnt bone.
Their guilt splits them apart. Starving, Kansuke is swept up in his Lord's army recruiting nets again. This time, however, he knows he needs to get stronger. When he is too badly hurt to fight anymore, his Lord asks for crippled volunteers to become partially mechanical kijin, Kansuke raises the stump of his arm.
"Make me stronger," he says, and he is sent to the Lord's onmyoji.
The onmyoji takes his arms and more agony than Kansuke has ever thought he would be capable of giving. The onmyoji gives him claws, a blade, and his guns. From the pain, Kansuke fashions a diamond hard hatred, forever, of those who desert their post as he once did. He serves his Lord well, and in time and with an ebb flow of the tides of war, he is released from that ones service to go as he will.
We spent three days on the trail, and our nights camped on hillocks of leaves under the moonlit sky. I got to talk with Hana a great deal as we walked, the men sometimes having to circle back like sheep dogs to make us move a little faster and keep up with the rest of the group.
I, of course, wasn't particularly tired by the pace, and Hana, being of peasant stock, was used to traveling by foot everywhere, so we kept up easily when we remembered to do so.
I did notice that I got a lot of looks by Kansuke and Genosuke. I suspect neither of them were used to seeing me out of my theater element, away from the highly decorated and perfumed apartments that were all most of the actors and actresses could afford in the center of the city. Camping out under the night sky wasn't something they probably had expected that I'd take in good grace.
I didn't tell them that this was luxury compared to the last time I'd traveled through a forest. Instead, I enjoyed myself.
However, the mercenaries were deserting. When they left, they took their things with them. Two left the first night, and I stayed awake to see two men sneaking off together on the second. Ten minutes later, I saw Kansuke silently rise from his bed to follow them.
At first, I wildly hoped that he was going to bring them back, but then he returned, far more slowly, alone. He spent time by the dying remains of the fire, cleaning his equipment of blood and honing edges. I'd seen what his past had been in my dreams, and my hopes died as the men must have died out in the forest. Kansuke's hate made real.
That night, curled up in my blankets by the fire, I walked in someone else's dream.
Another night of fire and blood, and an entire village's men and boys marching to the drums of another army. I see a slender version of Masagoro, eyes young, growing body unmarred by gems, walking with another boy who looks so much like him they must be brothers. The villagers march in a mob, taking courage from each other.
An enormous gem-powered Samurai rises in their path, clad in the colors of their Enemy. Any sane man would have run, but the villagers, yelling encouragement to each other, gather up their rakes and hoes, their scythes and ground-breaking kunai and charge the sword-welding Samurai.
The Samurai cuts them down in sweeping falls of bodies, blood, and steel. They get their hits in, a snarling pack of dogs taking their bites from a bear, even as it wrecks havoc on individual members of the pack. They hack and die, and miraculously, Masagoro organizes some the men, getting four of them to tie up the sword with a chain, and the other three to attack from different angles. The Samurai releases his long blade and uses his short sword to kill two of the attackers, but Masagoro gets in a killing thrust with a machete.
One of the attackers was Masagoro's brother, and he breathes his very last in Masagoro's arms.
Amid his tears, Masagoro vows, "I shall become the strongest."
The next day we climbed up the foothills, into the mountain woods, up far enough that it was land that few of the Lords contended. The village was a cluster of stick huts with mud holding them together. All the buildings were relatively new. We only had four of the original mercenaries with us, the rest had deserted, and they walked a little ways behind the rest of us, trusting us to find the way.
"This is piss poor land," Masagoro grumbled. "Rocks, trees, and more rocks."
"Yes," Genosuke said, bending to scrape up a scant fistful of soil. "Bad for crops. They must be close to starving."
"When are peasants anything but close to starving?" Kansuke said, but while there was a note of bitterness, there was no derision in his words. "Still... here..." He looked around. "You moved here, didn't you?"
Hana nodded quickly. "Yes, we'd hoped... hoped to have no more lords fighting over us out here, but... instead we're terrorized by someone a lord would take care of for us... I'm so sorry. Please, Masagoro-sama and Kansuke-san, would you please wait up here in the woods until I call for you? My... they may not react that well to you at first. Just... just give me a chance to explain?"
Both men raised an eyebrow at that, but stayed back amid the trees while the rest of us headed for the village.
In the last hundred feet, Hana ran forward yelling. "Hey! Hey! I've brought our saviors home! Come out everyone! Greet them! Thank them!"
The group that hesitatingly came out of the shacks made the mercenaries look grand in comparison. They were all old men, children, or women.
"We thought you were raiders!" One woman cried and ran over to hug Hana.
"I thought you were going to bring an army!" One old man said in a quavering voice, looking at us disapprovingly. Several others made sounds of agreement.
"We couldn't feed a whole army," Hana said tartly. "How could we pay for them?"
"But we need an army!" The old man insisted. "There's no way they're going to be able to win against..."
One woman grabbed the old man's arm. "Come on, Gramps. Hana-chan did the best she could with what we could give her. Don't be so mean."
"Mean?" The old man wavered and let the woman guide him away.
"But he's right," am older woman stated matter-of-fact. "We really expected more."
"Ma'am," I said softly. "Your Hana did well with what you could offer."
"Hmph," she said, but she was affected.
"Uhm... everyone... I... well... I also managed to get two very powerful fighters. Please, please don't be afraid of them! They're coming to help us!" Hana backed up as they all looked around in apprehension. "Masagoro-sama! Kansuke-san!!" Hana called out.
Kansuke and Masagoro came down the hill.
"Run away! It's the monster man!" one of the little girls yelled, and they all surged away, some tripping over the others.
"No! Stop!" Hana cried out at her villagers, but the force of her cry also halted both Masagoro and Kansuke in their tracks. "They're safe! They can help us! They're here to help us!"
Slowly, the villagers turned around, looking at Kansuke and Masagoro as if they expected them to eat them alive. Watching them, I walked delicately to stand by our two heroes, and I swayed to lean against Kansuke's shoulder. He was used to my actress' antics by now, and simply stood impassive, watching them.
Seeing an obviously helpless woman standing trustingly close to these two seemed to break the ice. The villagers tentatively crept towards us. There was both fascination and fear for Kansuke's mechanized fighting arms, but they all kept a very wide circle clear of Masagoro.
"He's got gems in him like... like..." The woman put her own hands
over her mouth as if she couldn't finish the sentence.
Soft murmurs of wonder and disbelief, and then they came forward with wide eyes. "Maybe they can..." "Looks awful powerful..." "Wouldn't that hurt?"
"Shhhh... shhhh... where are our manners! We need to feed our guests their dinner, so please... everyone, go make our welcome dinner for them!" Hana clapped her hands together, as if she were chasing chickens into a henhouse, and they scattered. The chatter now seemed far more hopeful.
We stood looking at each other.
Otokichi, who had stayed with us along with his brother, walked up to Hana-chan and tapped her on the shoulder. "Is there a place can we go drink?"
"Oh! Certainly... this way."
We followed her, and she took the mercenaries to one of the better-kept houses in the middle of the village. The paper screens were mostly white, the wood straight and clean, and the front porch was in good repair. A woman dressed in whole robes of gray bowed to the men, and ushered them into an open front room with table, under-table heater, and open jars of sake already on the table.
"Here you go!" Hana said with relief in her voice. "Just as planned. This can be your house while you stay, there are beds, the hearth, and the villages' bathes are just two houses down. Do feel free to make use of this place as you wish."
"We shall be staying here too," Masagoro said, and there could be no disputing him. Kansuke nodded in confirmation, and if it were possible, Hana looked even more relieved.
"Thank you so much," she said. Then she turned to me. "But you, ma'am, we need a place for you and there was no plan..."
"I am easy to please, Hana, don't mind me too much. Even sleeping with the donkeys would be all right with me."
"Waste of a good woman," one of the mercenaries grumbled. "Why don't you sleep with me, girlie?"
Genosuke eyed the man, and the mercenary suddenly looked very uneasy.
"They probably snore less," I said sweetly, and all his buddies helped me by laughing heartily.
"Why would you want that stick of a girl anyway?" I froze at that word, but Tadakichi ignored me and said, "There's lots of hearty peasant women in this village. That should make for a comfy winter!"
Genosuke's eyes were on me, and I tried to relax. It was just an expression.
"I shall go scout the village," Genosuke said, bringing everyone's attention to him. "I wish to get the lay of the land before we have to go to battle on it."
"I'll go with you," Masagoro said. "I've fought in bandit skirmishes before, it will be good to see how they fight and where they're coming from."
Hana and the woman who owned the house looked at each other, but then busied themselves with serving the remaining men their wine.
"I think I'd like to help in the kitchen, if you'll let me," I said to Hana.
"Oh no, you're the guest!"
"I insist, please let me help," I wheedled. "And I'd love a little girl gossip after all this time with the boys."
"If you put it that way..." Hana chuckled.
"I'd like to scope out the village," Kansuke said suddenly. "I want to have a look around, that's all."
"Oh, certainly, sir. You may go where you will," Hana said to him.
"Well, that's more sake for us," said Tadakichi and his mercenary buddies cheered.
Once out the door, I saw Genosuke and Masagoro head south, the shinobi already in the trees, while the samurai stumped steadily through the underbrush like a bear. Kansuke headed down the street, and I saw, hiding behind one of the houses, a small band of kids watching him, whispering behind dirty hands.
I followed Hana to a house two doors down, where smoke rose from the thatching, and even from out in the road I could hear the chatter of women.
"It's the common cook house," she said. "We have all the fires in here, to heat the water, cook food, and make coals for the heaters in all the houses. It's easier if we do all that in one place, and we all pitch in to keep it going."
And a huge group of women, their babies and toddlers, were all in the cook house together. Chopping, mixing, washing, skinning, and cooking over and by the big fires. It was a warm, cheerful, busy place that put me instantly at ease.
I worked on skinning daikon while I listened to the wash of conversation and warmth that moved over me.
"Oh, I'm so relieved that they're here!"
"No, no not like that, you're cutting such small slivers of skin off of that. Have you never used a knife, girl?" Hana's mother scolded me gently. "Do it like this..." Her single stroke took of a slice so thin the fire danced through the translucence of it.
"Oh. That's beautiful," I said and tried to emulate her slice with a motion that took the edge cleanly through the white vegetable.
"That's it, girl, keep doing it like that."
"I really haven't cooked much, oba-san," I admitted. "It's fun like this..."
"You should do it more, it's easier to catch a husband if you can cook, too!" She cackled. "What am I sayin'? A girl with your looks could have any man she crooked her little finger at."
An image of Genosuke standing on the rooftop came into my head, though really it should have been Kansuke, whom I'd mooned over for so many months. I bobbed my head in acknowledgment of the compliment. I had some control over how I looked, no actress would doubt that skill and intent could change any woman's looks; however, I had not quite come by this beauty honestly.
"Thank you," I said and started slicing in earnest. The woman's eyes widened, so I slowed down.
"Can you... can you tell me about the attacks? How many there have been? How many men are coming at you?" I asked, trying to look like I was concentrating a great deal on the cutting.
There was a very long moment of silence.
"Now why would a pretty girl like you want to know something like that?" One of the women asked, and there was a note of nervousness to it.
"I'm just curious that way," I said carelessly. "I'm sure our samurai-sama would love to know that kind of thing when he sets up your defenses."
"He's creepy, with all those gems stuck in him like that." One of the younger women giggled when she said that, and the titter was more of nervousness than true humor. "Brr... that would not be fun to be with at night."
Every time I tried to turn the conversation to something more concrete about the bandits, they deflected it with the ease of women hiding something. So eventually, I patiently went back to just helping with the preparation of food stuffs, and quietly listened. Without my prodding, they relaxed and started talking about life, the kids, the crops, the way things looked like they might be brighter for them. Their life was as hard as any village's. Grow what they needed to survive, only to have either lord's taxes or someone come and take it away from them.
The simple flow of village life. I turned my head and saw Kansuke standing in the doorway, just listening, his eyes closed, his body relaxed. He seemed at home, comforted by the wash of the everyday around him.
That evening, at the dinner table, Masagoro faced the village elders who were also at the table with us, and said without any preamble, "What is going on?"
I saw Kansuke and Genosuke relax, as if they'd wanted to ask the question as desperately as I. Good.
"What... what do you..."
"This isn't the job you said it was," Genosuke said to Hana. "What is it really? We should not go into this battle blind."
"Huh? What do you mean?" Otokichi asked, his arm around one village woman, his other hand around a full cup of sake. "It's nice here, they're fine. If the bandits come we'll cut their hearts out!"
The other mercenaries cheered. The villagers looked ashamed.
Genosuke sighed and sat up. "We looked around the village. There are no signs of bandits. Not even a small band of them."
"What?" Now all the mercenaries sat up.
"Well that makes it really easy!" One of them said.
Monosuke growled at them, and they shut up. "Old mother. Tell us who it is that we really face."
"Yes. You're right. There aren't any bandits." Hana's mother finally answered. "There's just one man."
"One man?" Tadakichi started laughing. "You mice! How can you be so afraid of one man? We'll just go get him in the morning, right!"
The other mercenaries roared in approval, but the rest of us watched Hana's mother shaking her head.
"No no no no... you'll die if you do that!" She said. "He's... he's unstoppable, huge. We couldn't get anyone to help us that didn't die when they met him!"
Masagoro took a deep breath. "Is he samurai?"
The woman's eyes widened.
"Does he have gems embedded in his skin the way I do?" Masagoro asked.
"Yes. Exactly like that."
"That's why some of you screamed when they saw me, wasn't it?" Masagoro asked.
The mercenaries grumbled among themselves about not being paid nearly enough to face a samurai, and the villagers all started to babble about all the terrible things this man had done. Killing them at will, stealing their food, and destroying their homes and their livestock in roaring rampages.
The room turned into bedlam.
Beside me, Genosuke leaned to Masagoro's ear.
"I think I know a way to prove that you're stronger than I am," Genosuke said.
Masagoro frowned. "There are only people here. There is no glory in this."
"A rogue samurai can do a lot of damage," Genosuke said.
"It is a coward that attacks women and children," Masagoro growled.
"So... you will fight him?" Hana's mother looked incredulous, but hopeful.
Masagoro looked around the table. We all nodded. He nodded to her. "Yes. We will fight. In the morning we shall hunt him down."
That night I walked in dreams.
In my own dreams of my own past.
We fight in a garden full of chrysanthemum, evergreen bamboo, and flame red maples, whose leaves are still touched with gold and green. The koi in the pond kiss the surface looking for their food, and a oil lamp burns eternal in the stone lantern. Our steel glows in the light.
Older sister and I spar with live blades on the lawn. She is prettier than I and more experienced, but not quite as fast as I. She taught me all the tricks I know. We did well at our workout, and Father asks me to perform the tea ceremony for us all.
I accept the honor.
My sister and I bathe together as we always have, giggling as we scrub off the sweat and dirt of the day, lingering limp in the heat of the water in the house's bath. I dress in my usual garb of pale blue and greens, and she, strangely, asks my help in tying her hair up on top of her head. Then she dresses in a kimono of pure white with a spray of snowflakes embroidered with a border of frost along the bottom edge. All white on white, it gleams gorgeous in the low light. She looks pleased by the effect, and I revere my older sister's beauty.
The ritual of the tea ceremony calms me. I heft the tea bowl with its thick and thin clay in both my hands and feel how it fits against the mounds and joints of my fingers. I admire the bloom of colors of its glaze. I love handing it with both hands to my Father and then my Elder Sister, so that we all drink from the same cup. The thick, rich frothed matcha is both bitter and sweet on the tongue. One family sharing the moment that is the tea.
At the end of the ceremony Father says to me, "I have a gift for you."
Elder Sister comes to me, holding a soul gem sword sheathed in white. She unsheathes it and lays the bare steel across both her hands. It has the straight masame grain, a Buddha's hand jizo boshi, and a billowing toran hamon: exquisite craftsmanship on a sword that might cut the sky itself. The sheathing for the soul-gems is seamless, and the gems loaded into it glow with power.
I look at it. I look at Elder Sister. She kneels and holds the sword up to me on both palms.
"I have taught you all that I can teach you," says my Father, my Maker, my Master. "Save one thing."
My sister, Autumn's Regret, bows her head before me.
My breath catches. I look from one to the other, and my Maker nods. So. I am to kill the one person who has always been with me. The sword has been the whole of my life, and my Maker has directed me each step of the Way which now yawns before me. This is his will.
I take the gem sword with both hands, and with her hair bound back, I can see that she is smiling. We are both obedient daughters.
The gems embedded within the hilt glint in the dying light. I will not need their power for this. It is merely my strength that must be enough. I grip the silk-bound hilt properly with both hands. I bow my respect to my sister, and then I take her head off with a single perfect stroke.
At dawn, the world was frosted in white, and we were all out on the main street of the village. I had my walking stick and a wrapped and tied sheath on my back. I'd borrowed a straw hat and jacket to go over my layers of kimono.
"Thank you, Hana. These are very warm. I am grateful," I said.
"You're welcome to so much. Thank you for all your help!"
She was there to see us off, and she and I hugged like sisters.
Kansuke came up to me, frowning. "Why are you here?"
"I wish to see this through and see the village saved." I saw the protest forming on his face. "And I'll have you and a very big samurai with me. I shall be perfectly safe. It's just one man."
He stared at me and couldn't seem to come up with an argument that could even convince himself. He looked at Masagoro, who was talking over something with Genosuke. The samurai waved a greeting to me, and he didn't look as if he were going to bar my way. Kansuke looked back at my smiling face and visibly gave up the fight.
We left, following Genosuke.
There had been various trails from the incidents, and Genosuke was doing what he could to follow the freshest of them. Gradually, we left the village, went through their meager fields, and out into the forest nearby.
I ran with them, keeping up with them without any pretense of it being an effort for me. I trusted these men, as I had never trusted anyone else in my short life. Their actions in the inn and on the road were good. I'd seen what had gone on in the village before we'd come, and how the losses had devastated those that were left. Compared to that, my secret seemed such a small thing.
Hana had also befriended me, without looking to gain anything other than a friend. She wasn't looking to capture me or sell me. If anything, she wanted my protection. I had never even thought I could protect Autumn's Regret, she had always been my Elder Sister, the one I was to emulate, to surpass. With Hana looking to me as she had, I could only do my best to protect all she held dear.
The trail crossed a field, tracked through water, and then doubled back on itself. Genosuke considered the signs and then continued in a new direction.
"He's good," Masagoro said quietly. "This rogue is good in the woods, but Genosuke is better..."
The four mercenaries came with us, determined to earn the keep they'd been offered for the winter. I'd seen Otokichi walking and talking with one of the gentler women in the village. Kansuke stayed with them, encouraging and guiding.
Then Genosuke appeared before us, with one hand held up, the other before his lips in indicate silence. We walked where he indicated and saw clearing by a running stream, and in the middle of the clearing waited a man. We waited for the mercenaries, who came up panting. They fell silent when they saw who was there.
He was big, bigger than Masagoro, and studded with gems. He rested, seiza on the browning grass, and looked up as we came over the lip of the rise before the clearing.
He stood when Kansuke stepped in front of the rest of the mercenaries.
"It's been a long time, Kansuke," the samurai said.
I blinked at my Kansuke in surprise.
"Goichi," Kansuke said flatly.
"You've come with friends. That's good," Goichi said with a lilt that sounded just enough off that I had to close my eyes. "I'm a lot stronger than I used to be. If you have any honor, come at me with all you have."
Goichi stood up and roared his challenge. His body bulged: muscles popped bigger, spikes and spars of protective bone grew in an instant. The gems glowed and suddenly they all turned into eyes of different colors. Each moved with a will of its own, looking in every direction. I saw everyone take a step back, other than Kansuke and Masagoro, both of whom only stood straighter.
Goichi unsheathed his giant of a gem sword, whirling it once, and the wind of its passage moaned behind it. His strength and speed left no doubt in my mind that he was dangerous. Leaves were ripped from the trees, whipping around like ragged ghosts, and the eyes all over his body opened wide.
Genosuke passed one hand over his mouth, his other brought two paper dolls out of his pocket and threw them into the rising air. They spiraled, blackened into smoke, and solidified. Genosuke jumped into the air, there was a whirl of bodies and three ninja landed on the ground with Genosuke's smile.
They attacked at the same time in a blur of speed that even I found difficult to follow. Leaping into the air, they rained shrunken down on Goichi. While those were still in the air, Masagoro stood tall, rolled his neck and shoulders, and grew. His chest expanded, spikes growing from shoulders, elbows, and in a collar about his throat and neck. His hands and forearms broadened, thickened, and he drew his katana as lightly as if it were a knife. The gems in its hilt gleamed.
Great Vajara Claws sprang from Kansuke's hands, the soul gems glinting. He was on Goichi, slashing down with a great yell. Goichi met him as fiercely as he came, great sword swinging. Kansuke fired the gems, and they burned as they loosed their power, but the speed and power of Goichi's swing negated the worst of it. Kansuke's edges bit in, slashing into Goichi's chest, but some of his eyes bubbled and sank away and the wound closed.
Behind them all, I untied my hat and cloak, shedding my straw covers and uncovering my sister's white kimono with white snowflakes and hoarfrost on its hem.
Genosuke's shrunken finished their trajectories toward Goichi, but he swung his blade in a lightening quick block, deflecting many of them away. A few got through, hitting various eyes throughout his frame.
I undid the shoulder strap and belted my white sheathed gem sword to my hip. Carefully, I untied the cord that bound her into her sheath.
"Only you and I count!" Masagoro shouted at our opponent.
"But I will take you all on," Goichi growled.
The two giants lifted their swords, ran at each other, and swung. Neither of them were defending themselves, leaving themselves open in order to get their best cut on the other. The air thundered, the ground shook, and the trees shuddered in their wake. More of the eyes bubbled, hissed, sank as Goichi burned them to add power to his strike. At the very last instant, one of Genosuke's three shinobi leaped in the way of Goichi's blade, dying upon it in order to keep it from harming Masagoro. Masagoro's great gem blade flashed bright and sliced into Goichi's shoulder. Blood ran.
Goichi threw back his head and laughed in defiance at us all.
I stepped forward. They all looked at me, and none of my companions on the road looked surprised.
"A samurai worthy of his soul would never abuse helpless women," I said.
I raised my sword high, ran forward, and attacked. His counterattack was swift, but not as swift as that of my sister's. My blade bit, leaving a much smaller wound than Masagoro's, but still another step toward bringing him down.
Emboldened, perhaps, by my small display, two of the mercenaries, Otokichi and Tadakichi ran at Goichi with a yell, their swords raised. Before they were even able to bring their blades down, he cut them both in half.
The last two mercenaries staggered back and ran away. Kansuke took a half a step back. He'd burned his gems, and it was clear he didn't have the power to match Goichi without them.
Two eyes, one brown, the other green, the same colors as the eye of the mercenaries that had just been cut down, suddenly grew and popped open on Goichi's shoulders. Widened in terror they cast about wildly.
Goichi chuckled at my gasp of horror, and readied himself, squaring off to face Masagoro.
The two Genosukes looked at Masagoro with a tilt to their head. Masagoro shook his. There would be no shadow sacrifice for the samurai this time. Masagaro readied himself. On a beat even I could not see, they both charged toward each other.
They came together in a flash of light and parted in a double spray of blood. Genosuke and his double went in as well, shirken flying at all the eyes that were on Goichi's left side. Masagoro and Goichi hit each other hard, both should have been dead with a yard of steel going through them, bleeding and hurt as they were. But both staggered back, raising their swords for another go. Goichi even deflect the first few of Genosuke's shirken with his back swing.
I danced between the flying stars and the edges of both Masagoro and Goichi's swords. Everything whirled, dipped, and flowed to the rhythms of war I'd danced to for my entire short life. Goichi's eyes on his right side followed my motions, mesmerized, and my reflection in those eyes was beautiful.
So I danced into my enemy's dreams and mind.
It is a ravaged village in the light of a cold dawn. Flame flickers, smoke rises from splintered houses, cloaking the still and stinking dead. A well-muscled man, a soul with none of the enhancements of the world, stands in the midst of it all, as handsome and of the same age as my Kansuke.
"Goichi-san," I call.
He looks up, and I dance for him and him alone in my white robes of mourning. I hold no sword here, for I am sword enough.
"You are beautiful," he says and smiles. "Are you here to kill me?" he asks.
"Do you wish to die?" I ask and circle in closer.
He spreads his hands and death blooms in all directions, until there is carrion as far as the eye can see. Hundreds of bodies rise from the wreckage of building and chariot, bedroom and burned field. Every man, woman, and child looks at him with only one eye. They moan and stumble toward us, hungry ghosts.
"I am a friend of death's, but I am not here to die," he answers.
His memories play through in a vision all at once. There was the first desertion in the face of death at the wall with Kansuke, and the shattering consequences. The first desertion makes another easier when a different Lord sweeps him up and forces the gems upon him and orders him, with two other conscripts, to hold a choke point in a valley. The three of them run away, and the army and that Lord fall. The three deserters try to make a bandit gang together, but unable to trust either of the other two, he eventually has to test his strength against them.
Another lord who finds Goichi in a dead camp of bandits and swears him in as one of his samurai. And for the first time, Goichi is entirely trusted. He takes the challenges seriously, gaining all his strength to be used for that Lord's intent. Another war and another hill, and one of the strongest enemies wins through to attack the Lord's retinue. In rage and revenge for their audacity, Goichi beats them and pursues them too far back to their lines. While he was gone on his hunt, others kill the one Lord who had believed in him. The rest of the clan blames Goichi, and in disgrace and shame, he goes into this exile looking for a way to expiate his sins.
This village has deserted his dead Lord's lands, they've run away from their duties as the vassals, and he is here to see them punished. So he kills them, terrifies them, steals back from them the very lives they owe their Lord.
"So," I say, thoughtfully. "You see yourself as vengeance?"
"Even against helpless women, old men, and children?" My tone is just as even, just as light.
He blinks. "Are you not a woman? I would not call you helpless."
I nod, conceding that point. "But the ones you've killed, they are villagers, not soldiers."
He shrugs. "Do they not deserve death?"
"I don't believe that they do," I say.
"I believe differently," Goichi says with a flash of white teeth.
"And these others?" I sweep my hand at the horde of the one-eyed dead coming to crowd about us. "What of them?"
Goichi shrugs and looks at all of them, smiling. "They have died by my hand. Are you asking me if I also believe that I deserve to die?"
He gives me the opening. I take it. "Yes," I say, "I am asking you if you deserve to die, by the same measure you've laid out for those you have killed."
He meets my eyes with his gaze, and I know his answer.
I drop out of our dream.
He moved ferociously to meet my strike. He was fast, but I was faster. His killing intent was heavy and as sharp as the bloody fangs of a tiger, but he was slowed now by knowing what he deserved. When my edge kissed his throat, his lips curved up in his tiger's snarl of a smile.
I struck true, triggering my last soul gem to cleanly sever his spine. His strike faltered. My momentum brought me past him, and I heard the thud of his head hitting the loam and the slow fall of the rest of his body.
I looked up to find my companions watching me.
Genosuke slapped Masagoro on the shoulder, and the great, wounded samurai went down on one knee. "You are strong enough," Genosuke said, triumphant.
"Maybe," Masagoro growled, "but I will never be that."
He was looking at me.
Kansuke took Goichi's body and head back to the village they'd both abandoned when they were children. I still haven't seen him come back to the city. I wonder if he's on patrol there, holding the wall now for himself and Goichi.
The mercenaries who ran had the decency to not stop at the village they had an agreement with. I haven't seen them since, either. We buried there the two who died in their defense and the villagers offered food and incense to their ghosts.
Genosuke and I tended Masagoro's terrible wounds until he was able to accompany us back to the city. I learned some of Genosuke's shinobi healing craft. We traveled back while the world lay under a thin blanket of snow. We were not menaced by anyone on that trip home.
They did not ask me to report what I'd seen to anyone, nor was I included in any public account of what happened. Admittedly there was no mention of Genosuke, either. The official news reported that Masagoro-sama heroically cleaned out a nest of bandits in the northern mountains. Everyone in town admired his courage and he got better jobs with those who hired samurai.
After we got back, Masagoro attended the theater rather more often. Genosuke worked the floorboards as quietly as he ever had, but I felt his eye on me when I performed, and it was not unwelcome.
Both, I think, know my secret. It is a relief to be known for what I truly am. Few kugutsu are allowed to live with the freedom that I have been granted, and I knew that I could not maintain it entirely alone.
My Maker let me loose into the world with nothing but my sister's kimono and the gem sword he had given to me to kill her. He could have gained another fortune selling me as a bodyguard and pillow talk companion. I am nothing but an illusion clothing a doll of sacred wood, trained to kill the one whom she most loved to fulfill her known duty. Most believe I am nothing but a possession, simply to be bought or sold. Instead, my Maker gave me the choice to do as I would, once I passed his final test.
I still have trouble using that gift, of choosing for myself what I would do, rather than what someone else desires of me. It is hard to not know where duty always lies. But now I live and learn, and strive to prove to myself that I am worthy of being when my sister is not. That what pleases me may be, in and of itself, something worthy of pursuit.
And it pleases me, some nights, to sit on the roof under the river of stars and have a quiet shadow come to visit me as he once did on a tavern in the mountains. We settle and watch the heavens drift by, and he tells me, with his quiet smile, of how he believes that I am no toy, but a woman worth all his world.
Someday, I may come to believe him, but in the meantime, I am pleased to pretend that he speaks nothing but truth.
Another game note: For the beheading of Goichi, I used every single die I had, plus every point of Kiai, and the players gave me Aiki chits for the admonishment of Goichi before I'd hit him the first time and my dance through the shirken and both samurai blades. Those two chits of Aiki managed to elevate my attack to where it succeeded against Goichi, and the amount of damage was finally enough to bring him down.
I'll admit the simple fact that the mechanics of this game allowed THAT to happen has made me a fan of this system for life. *laughs*