“Duty and Death” by Matt Dalen (aka Tamori Shosei)

Dedication: Thanks to Kakita Kaori for the use of her haiku, and the rest of the Ricepaper group for their assistance in polishing this piece.

 

***

 

Winters claw hastens

Descent of shining spirit

Into cold darkness.

 

Ikoma Anzai looked at the haiku with distaste.  He had been working on it for hours now, and it still didnt quite capture the sense of being there.  How could it?  Was he expected to encapsulate in a mere three lines the height and depth of one mans life and sacrifice?

 

The young poet sighed.  It was too much.  He couldnt do it.  But if he didnt, who would?  There was only him.  No one else cared that a good man had died.  And this was exactly what he had been looking for…

 

***

 

The Kaiu Wall was immense.  Anzai had heard stories, but none did it justice.  That humans had built this edifice was astonishing – that they had done so in a mere two months, almost impossible to believe.  Yes, the wall had been added to since Kuni Osakus time, but still…

 

There was a strange silence around the wall the only sounds came from the humans living in and around the wall.  There were no birds, no animal life.  It was as if the land still remembered the grip of the Dark Lord, though it had been wrenched back from him almost five years ago.

 

Anzai shook his head.  He had come here to collect tales of heroes, not to stand gawking at the wall like a child.  Setting his shoulders, he spurred his horse towards the collection of buildings at the base of the wall.

 

***

 

The slight woman looked at his traveling papers with disdain, then up at him.  Youre here to collect stories? she asked incredulously.  Were in the middle of a war here, boy.  We dont have the time or the resources to be catering to some Lion pup who thinks it would be romantic, and she spat in disgust, to see the heroes on the wall.  She look at him scornfully.  If you want to be here, fine.  I cant refuse.  But youll either do your share of work, or youll go find somewhere else to play, understand?

 

Anzai did his best to look her straight in the eye, trying to quell the frenzied beating of his heart.  His skin felt hot, as if he were burning up, despite the relative coolness of the air.  Swallowing, he said, I can handle a sword as well as any samurai.  If the only way to get what I want is to fight, then Ill fight.

 

A glimmer of something that might have been respect appeared in her eyes, and she nodded sharply.  Its your funeral.  You can join Munotos squad.  He lost a couple of men to an oni attack last week, so theyve been short handed.  It almost seemed as if she grinned.  Im sure Munoto wont thank me for this.

 

***

 

Kaiu Munoto was a hulking brute of a man, the very epitome of how Anzai had imagined a Crab to look.  When the young Ikoma had first laid eyes on him, he had almost retched.  The entire left side of the Crabs face had a melted, scarred look, as if he had been burned.  His left ear was reduced to a mere hole in the side of his head, and his eye was a milky white.  His lip was disfigured enough that he appeared to have a permanent sneer.  And to Anzais court-accustomed nose, he had a distinct smell.

 

On meeting Anzai, Munotos one good eye looked the young poet up and down, and a great rumbling laugh emerged from his twisted lips.

 

I ask for more men, and this is what they send me?  A boy to young even to shave, who looks like he was raised in a crane garden?  He looked straight in Anzais eye.  Go home boy, before your ineptness kills you and me both.  He half turned away, to look out the small arrow slit set into the wall.

 

I can fight, Anzai said defensively.  I was the third-best in my dojo at kendo.

 

Munoto snorted another laugh.  This is the wall, not some dojo.  Oni dont fight with katana, they fight with claws, fire, and whatever else comes to hand.  You would do well to go home where youll be safe.

 

No, Anzai said quietly, his fists clenching.  I will not run.

 

Munoto looked at him, amused.  You say that now, but what about when you meet your first oni?  His voice grew slightly less mocking.  Why did you come here, boy?

 

Anzai looked up at him defiantly.  I had heard that there were heroes to be found among the Crab, and I came to see for myself their exploits, that I might tell their tales.  Obviously I was misinformed.

 

Heroes?  There are no heroes here.  Munoto looked down at him, his expression growing serious.  Only men, and duty, and death.  If you want heroes, go find the Jade Hand, or the White Lion, or the Imperial Legions.  Those are where youll find noble hearts and high minded ideals.  Here… he looked out the arrow-hole a moment, here, there is only death.

 

***

 

Silent companion

Tired horse, snowbound, at my side,

Death a step behind.

 

Anzai stared at the haiku impatiently.  This one was better it almost captured the feel of living on the wall.  But it still could not encapsulate the life of that one…

 

***

 

Is it always like this? Anzai asked as he looked out over the parapets.  The waiting, I mean.

 

Munoto grunted.  We do what we need to do.

 

Anzais palms were sweating.  Can they really reach us all the way up here?  Carefully, he leaned out into open space, staring down the smooth side of the wall.

 

Dont underestimate them, boy.  Munoto looked at him, his milky eye gazing fixedly through Anzai.  There are more things in this world than you can dream of.

 

How… Anzai paused, trying to keep the fear out of his voice.  How often do they attack?

 

Who can say?  Munoto shrugged.  Sometimes, months, sometimes, hours.  He grinned slightly.  Its normal to be afraid, boy.  Fear keeps you on your toes.  If you werent afraid, I wouldnt even have let you onto the wall someone fool enough not to be scared is fool enough to get us all killed.  Just dont let the fear rule you.  He walked to the edge.  You just do your duty and Ill do mine.  Your job is to protect the wall.  Mine is to make sure you dont get yourself killed uselessly.

 

Silently, Anzai nodded, staring out at the barren waste spread out before him.

 

***

 

The gong pealed through the barracks, jolting Anzai out of a fine dream.  All of Kyuden Ikoma had been praising him, the entire courts talking about his depiction of life on the Kaiu Wall.

 

The gong sounded again, its echoes reverberating throughout the halls.  Reluctantly, Anzai pushed himself up from his mat and joined his compatriots in rushing to their station.  Another drill.  They were coming more frequently in the past few days, a sign of the growing worry about Iuchiban.

 

An acrid smell reached Anzai as he approached the top of the tower.  Burning flesh.  He took the last three steps two at a time, and burst out of the tower onto the battlements.

 

The blood drained from the young Lions face as his eyes beheld the scene before him.  In the moonless night, dark warriors on silent wings swooped and dove out of the blackness at the defenders of the wall.  The burning remains of several samurai lay half-falling off the wall, their armor soot-blackened and crumbling.

 

As he watched, stunned, one of the strange, silent warriors fell, its wings aflame, at a group of samurai.  With a sound that nearly deafened Anzai and an explosion of black light, the warrior was gone along with the samurai.

 

Jolted out of his shock by the explosion, Anzai drew his blade and rushed the nearest warrior.  One of the dark warriors had alighted on the wall, and its left wing had been hacked nearly off.  Two other samurai were already circling it, careful to stay out of reach of its blade.

 

Nearly blinded by fear, Anzai swung his katana in an arc at the warriors neck, letting instinct completely take over.  The warrior parried his blow easily, and countered, catching Anzai with a glancing blow.  Anzai staggered back, staring dumbly down at the blood gushing from his arm, then looked back up, just in time to see one of the other samurai, taking advantage of the distraction caused by Anzais charge, sink his tetsubo deep into the creatures helm.

 

Things seemed to move in slow motion.  Anzai could taste blood when had he bitten his tongue?  Its salty taste mingled with the scent of singed flesh to make him faintly nauseous.  The sound of his own heart seemed to overpower the sounds of battle, filling his skull with a pounding, rushing sensation.  He stared at the warrior, faintly aware that someone was shouting at him.  His katana clattered to the ground as a heavy weight slammed into him.  He was barely able to make out the face of the man charging him before his skull slammed into stone and he blacked out.

 

***

 

Anzai came to back on his barracks mat.  Fuzzily, he could hear sounds of people moving around, and the scent of food cooking filled his nose.  Gingerly, he attempted to sit up, and all at once the pains of combat came rushing back.  He winced, giving an audible gasp as he clutched the bandages on his side.

 

Youre awake.  Good.  The voice was low and grim, as if the speaker didnt really care one way or the other, and was just stating a fact.

 

Anzai painfully looked around, finally locating the source of the voice walking towards him.

 

That was a nasty fall you took.  The old shugenja, for thats what he appeared to be through the blackness obscuring Anzais vision, placed his hand on Anzais back.  You almost broke your spine.  As it is, almost all of your ribs are broken, as well as one arm and a nasty jaw fracture.  He shook his head.  Youre lucky.  If there hadnt been someone blocking the ashuras blast, youd be dead now.  As it is, youll be laid up for several months, at least.

 

The last moments before he fell unconscious flashed before Anzais eyes, and he shuddered painfully.  Mu…  He attempted to speak, wincing with the pain of talking.  Carefully, he tried again, shaping each word carefully to avoid using his jaw.  Munoto… He saved me.

 

The old man nodded, his face downcast.  He did his duty to the last.

 

Then… Anzai looked for some hope, but the shugenjas expression made it obvious that there was none.  Slowly, carefully, he lowered himself back onto his mat, closing his eyes to block out the outside.

 

***

 

Steadfast cherry tree

Spills petals on the heros grave

Where the children play.

 

Anzai put down the pen, raising his head from the paper.  It was not perfect, but then, what was?  It would serve, however, as a testament to the scarred, misshapen brute of a man who had saved his life.

 

The young poet was unsure of what to do next.  He no longer desired to spend his life on poetry; of that much, he was sure.  A worthy man had sacrificed himself to save him.  Could he do any less?  He was not strong enough for the wall, but Munoto had mentioned other groups that fought the darkness.  The Jade Hand, the White Lion… perhaps he would assist one of them.  Perhaps they would enable him to serve.

 

Carefully, he rolled the rice paper containing the collected haiku, stood up, and walked out from his writing desk.

Share this: