Dedication: As always, thanks go to the Ricepaper Society, especially to Rob for pointing out the many flaws in the first version of this.
The sun beat heavily upon the bare back of the peasant boy, as he cut down the stalks of rice and stacked them neatly in a pile. He was working the far end of the paddy, and the nearest other worker was a ways away. The harsh winter had been difficult for the village – fully a quarter of the workers had died to the elements. The lack of able-bodied workers meant that the surviving workers had to take on a much larger workload. This was not so much of a burden on the boy, just verging on the edge of manhood, as it was for the many younger and older workers.
The boy looked around at the sound of his name. His gaze focused on the bushes at the edge of the paddy, where a small, white face emerged from the green leaves.
“Rina” Koin said in surprise. “You shouldn’t be down here. You know your father doesn’t like you leaving your work in the middle of the day.”
The girl made a face. “I’m not scared of my father. Now quick, come here – I brought something for you to eat. You must be starving.”
“You may not be scared of your father, but I am. The headman has a harsh temper, and I know he doesn’t like me.” Despite his protestations, Koin quickly glanced around to see that no one was looking, then hurried over and took the proffered balls of rice. They were slightly misshapen – Rina had never enjoyed working in the kitchen, and thus did not try very hard. Koin ate them voraciously, anyway. “You should get back home. Your mother will be missing you, and if your father catches you out here, I’ll be the one punished.”
Rina made a face, but disappeared back into the brush, making her way back towards the large house of the headman. Koin turned around, and his face fell as he saw the headman making his way towards him, followed by the paddy foreman. Quickly, he picked up his rusty kama and pretended to have been working the whole time.
“That was my daughter, wasn’t it” the headman asked quietly.
Koin looked up, attempting to look innocent. “Oh, good afternoon, Ogai. Was Rina here I didn’t notice.”
Ogai glared at him. “Don’t mouth off at me, boy. I saw you talking to her. Didn’t I tell you to stay away from her”
“But…” Koin stammered.
“Stay away from her! I won’t have my daughter hanging around with the son of a drunkard. If I catch you with her one more time, you’re going to be in trouble.” His face was red with rage. “You’re just as useless as your father.” He turned and strode away.
The foreman looked at Koin apologetically. “I’ll try and calm him down, Koin, but you know how he is,” he said. “He doesn’t like your father, and therefore he doesn’t like you.”
Koin looked at the ground. “I know, Basho. But I like Rina, and she likes me. And it’s not like I’ve been encouraging her to skip out on her duties… she does it on her own!”
“I know,” Basho said. “But try to stay out of Ogai’s sight for the moment.” With a last sorrowful look at the boy, he turned and followed Ogai.
For the second time in two days, Koin looked up from his work to see Rina’s face emerging from the underbrush on the edge of the rice paddy.
“What are you doing here” he hissed. “Your father has forbidden you to see me! If he sees you here, he’ll kill me!”
Rina laughed. “I can handle Father. He’ll do whatever I ask of him.” She gave him an impish smile. “Now, come on, I have something to show you.”
Koin looked at her incredulously. “Are you crazy Ogai’s mad enough at me already, without me abandoning my work.”
She pouted. “Aww…” Her expression changed to one of surprise as she looked over his shoulder. With a hasty goodbye, she disappeared back into the underbrush.
Koin turned to see the headman stalking towards him, rage in his eyes. “Look, Ogai, it wasn’t my fault,” Koin protested, raising his hands and backing away from his supervisor. “Rina came to visit me on her own. I told her to leave.”
Ogai didn’t reply. With a grunt, he grabbed one of Koin’s arms and backhanded him in the jaw. Koin tasted the saltiness of blood.
“I’m sorry!” Koin pleaded as Ogai struck him again. He tried to fend off the blow, but Ogai was stronger than him. A crowd had gathered around the two, watching silently. They made no move to intervene.
A third blow knocked Koin to the ground and had him seeing stars. His hands grasped for something, anything that would allow him to ward off the blows. His fingers closed around a wooden object lying on the ground. Frantically, he swung the makeshift club in a wide arc, hoping to knock Ogai away long enough to get his feet beneath him.
The blood drained from his face as the kama sunk itself into Ogai’s side with a sickening squelch. He could feel a crunch as bones snapped under the rusty blade. A stunned expression on his face, Ogai collapsed.
The other laborers stood motionless too shocked by this turn of events to react. Basho was the first to recover. He crouched over Ogai’s body, then looked up at Koin, a mournful expression on his face.
“Run,” was all he said. When Koin didn’t react, he shouted, “Run!”
Flustered and confused, Koin did the only thing he could. He turned and ran into the underbrush, not looking back.
Koin ran. He did not know how long he had been running, and he had long since lost all sense of direction. Branches scratched the bare skin of his cheek, and a saplings bent with his passage. Only one phrase ran through his mind, pacing the words with the pounding of his feet on the ground: “Must run. Must run.” He was running for his life. Surely, by now, one of the other workers had fetched a magistrate, hoping to curry favor with Ogai’s successor. He was both a killer and a runaway. If they caught him, his life would be forfeit. So he did the only thing that he could do. Koin ran.
His mouth was dry from exertion and sweat drenched his forehead and clothes when his legs finally collapsed beneath him. It was nearly night. Koin used the last of his energy to crawl over to the protective bulk of a fallen tree, and then darkness overcame him.
Images flashed through Koin’s mind. Rina was running towards him, her face contorting until she was Ogai, screaming in agony as a giant kama sliced through him, then transforming into Koin’s father, cowering in fear before being consumed by flames. The flames enveloped everything, filling Koin’s vision.
Koin awoke with a shout. He sat upright, blinking blearily to clear his eyes, then winced as he was blinded by the sun, shining through a window high in the wall of his small room. Slowly, events of the previous day returned to him.
“Ah, I see our wayward soul has joined the realm of the living,” a voice came from behind him. Koin jumped at the intrusion, and turned to see the newcomer.
A man stood in the doorway to the small room. His hair and clothes immediately identified him as a samurai. His face appeared young, but showed signs of age, the barest traces of wrinkles highlighting a skin hardened by years outside under a relentless sun. His eyes were startlingly clear, a brown so light it was almost gold. His hair was black, yet seemed to shimmer with an amber glow. He bore himself almost humbly, as if he considered Koin to be an equal, rather than his inferior. There was no sign of the arrogance Koin generally associated with samurai in his bearing.
“My lord,” Koin said, scrambling to touch his forehead to the rough wooden floor. His body was trembling as he began to force himself to speak. “My lord, forgive me. It was an accident. Ogai was mad because he didn’t want me seeing his daughter, because he was angry with my father, and so he started beating me and I should have accepted it but I tried to fend him off but it was actually a kama and there was so much blood…” he paused, tears streaming down his cheeks as he took a deep breath.
The samurai held up one hand to pause the boy’s torrent of words. “Relax, young Koin. I do not intend to hurt you. I am trying to help you.”
Koin gaped at his benefactor, stunned. Kindness was the last thing he had expected.
“For now, you should get dressed and come eat,” the strange samurai said. “You slept for many hours, and I’m sure you are starving.” He gestured to a pile of clothes lying folded next to Koin’s tatami mat. “These clothes should serve for now. Once you are ready, join me in the next room.” He bowed slightly and walked out of the room, sliding the door shut behind him.
Still in shock from his good fortune, Koin turned slowly to the pile of clothes. They were samurai’s clothes, finer than any he had ever owned or worn. The cloth was smooth against his skin, a welcome change to the rough, torn clothes he had worn up until now. It was with some difficulty that he finally managed to get them arranged properly, however, and he was fairly sure the obi was tied wrong. He sighed in relief to see that there was no haori included. That would have been too much.
Hesitantly, he slid open the door and walked into the next room. The room appeared to be a dining area and audience chamber combined. There were no windows, and the only light in the room came from candles arrayed around the room. In the wall to his right was a shadowy alcove, containing a simple wooden throne. The back of the throne looked to be rough-hewn, but as Koin stared, he could make out designs and pictures worked into the wood, blending flawlessly into the grain. Planting and harvest scenes dominated the carvings, an unusual motif for a samurai’s home.
In the center of the room was low-lying table, set with tea and bowls of rice. His benefactor was seated on a cushion at one end of the table. Noticing Koin entering the room, he gestured for the peasant boy to be seated opposite him.
“Ah, you are prepared. Excellent. You could use a little training in tying the obi, but other than that, you clean up well.” The strange samurai smiled as Koin slowly lowered himself onto the cushion, confused. “I expect that you are wondering why I have brought you here.”
Wordlessly, Koin nodded.
His host picked up the teapot and began pouring. “I brought you here to save your life. If you had stayed in the village, even if you had not fought Ogai, you would have died.” He looked up at the young man. “Tea” When Koin nodded dumbly, he continued speaking as he poured. “Your village was doomed, even if neither you nor the other villagers realized hit.” His eyes caught Koin’s in a fierce gaze. “I could only save one person. I chose you.”
“Doomed” Koin asked in shock, his tea sitting on the table untouched. “You saved me”
The samurai brought out a small mirror and held it out to Koin. “Look into this and tell me what you see.”
Koin reached out and took the mirror. As he gazed at it, his reflection disappeared and images took its place. His village, burning. The rice fields trampled and destroyed. Villagers lying dead. His father… Rina… Basho… all killed. Koin could make out the figures of samurai moving among the houses of the village, killing and destroying as they went. Finally, the images got too much for him, and he threw the mirror to the floor. Before it reached there, it vanished. He looked up at the other man.
His savior’s expression was sad. “I’m sorry.”
Tears streamed down Koin’s face. “What happened Why…who…” His words faded into sobs.
“Your village had the misfortune to be caught in a war not of your making. When samurai fight each other, all too often it is the innocents that get caught in the middle.”
“But… but… we never did anything to them! How could they…” His body was wracked with sobs again.
“You supplied their enemies with food. That was enough.” The samurai took a sip of his tea, his eyes on the peasant boy. “Life is hard in Rokugan, and not always fair. That is one lesson which you must learn.”
Koin looked up at him, his eyes red and puffy. “But why me Why couldn’t you have saved Rina She was so much better than me…” He sniffed, and the tears flowed again.
“You had the most potential,” the man said simply. “I could only save one, and I chose you.”
Koin curled up on the cushion, hiding his face. Very quietly, he said, “I wish she were alive and I were dead.”
“She has already traveled through Meido, and Emma-O has allowed her to reincarnate. Her spirit lives on, even if the body that you knew does not,” the samurai said kindly. “For now, you should hold the memory of that which she was in your heart, always.”
Slowly, Koin sat back up. This was a samurai in front of him – he had to be strong, like a samurai. Fighting back his tears, he looked at the man in front of him. “What is it you want of me” he asked, a tremor in his voice.
The samurai contemplated him for a moment, then spoke. “I want you to live up to your heritage. I want you to learn to be a samurai.”
Inari sat on his plain wooden throne, his fingers steepled, contemplating the darkness that enveloped the room, save for the circle of candlelight around him. Koin had retired to his room several hours before, crying himself to sleep.
An old man stepped out of the shadows behind him. “Are you sure he is acceptable, my lord The boy has no control. If he is to serve you discretely, he will need much training.”
Inari smiled. “Were you so different when I found you” He looked fondly over his shoulder at the man who had served him faithfully as his servant in Rokugan for the past 60 years. “He will grow out of it under your tutelage. Just as you did under your predecessor’s tutelage.” He turned back to his contemplation of the darkness. “Samurai or no, the boy has a good soul. He is destined to do great things.”
The old man’s eyebrow raised. “Then you lied about his samurai heritage”
Inari chuckled. “Not lied, so much as… expanded upon the truth. If you trace all humans back far enough, they come from the same stock. In that respect, he is of the line of samurai. The thought that he is of samurai blood, however, will make the changeover easier on him. I prefer to take my servants from peasant stock – it gives them a humility often lost among the samurai caste.”
The old man nodded thoughtfully and stepped back into the darkness, leaving the ageless Fortune of Rice alone with the darkness.
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