Dedicated to Kakita Koshin, who nudged me into writing this, and to Joseph Betzwieser, the original Hungry Hiruma, with thanks to the RicePaper Society
Hiruma Hayaku was bothered by the village.
As Unicorn villages went, it was unremarkable. Except for its agricultural productivity (the sight of all those rice seedlings was making his mouth water). And the fact that his comrade Hiruma Hwang had vanished there while traveling north to make contact with the Unicorn raiders who continued their struggle from the Burning Sands.
It was a well-managed village, where even the eta looked a man in the eye without fearing a sharp blow or a sharper blade. Typical Unicorn sentimentality, Hayaku would have said. But the retired magistrate who had made this place her home served the emperor who ruled from his throne of emerald and darkness.
He couldn’t figure her out either. He had heard the stories as he traveled through lands ravaged by fire and salt, hellriders and famine, in his effort to discover what had happened to Hwang. Shinjo Kara had struck down her Moto husband when he raised a banner of white and violet to rally his kinsmen. Now, in her zeal, she carried her husband’s gaijin blade and had it fitted with obsidian and onyx once a year, at considerable expense. She wore silk in the colors of black and violet, or was it black and tarnished silver
Yet she chose to live in this village–lately called “Kara’s Rest”–and it prospered. Hayaku had spent the last several days in the village’s periphery trying to find some fault with it other than its submission to the Emperor, and failing. After Hwang’s disappearance, he distrusted its hospitality, but there was no help for it.
I have faced worse odds, Hiruma Hayaku reminded himself, and began the descent from the hills to Kara’s Rest.
Besides, if his stomach rumbled any louder, they’d find him before he had a chance to discover anything useful.
It was a good thing, Hayaku reflected, that his slight build made him unremarkable. The disguise of a wandering peddler and tinker was less of a disguise than he would have liked, in kinder times. He had learned smithing alongside his Kaiu cousins. At this rate, in another few years he would be able to claim he had fixed every leaking pot, creaking wheel, and bent plow in Rokugan.
He found no fault with the peasants’ hospitality, either. On his first night, after several small repairs, he shared their millet, pickled vegetables, and tea, and passed a skin of sake around. The fact that it was possibly the worst sake he had ever tasted didn’t matter; they appreciated the gesture. Even the dark-haired, smiling farmers’ daughters showed no signs of being ill at ease around a strange man.
Clear skin beneath the dirt that always worked itself into a farmer’s hands, clean teeth, ready laughter. You’d think nothing had changed for them, Hayaku thought resentfully as he cleaned his bowl of all but a few grains of millet. As always, rice was saved for their betters, but his stomach made no complaint.
He slept well that night, all things considered. His mother had always said that there was no sense in letting a little danger deprive you of a lot of sleep. Sometimes he wondered if she would have approved of his piecemeal survival in a world darker than anything she could have dreamed.
Morning was another matter. He roused an hour before the sun, in courtesy to the farmers who did so every day, and was gently urged back to sleep by the brothers whose room he had shared. “The grandmothers will feed you when the sun rises,” one of them assured him, “and besides, Shinjo-sama wants to talk to you, and she always breakfasts late.”
Hayaku murmured a sleepy acquiescence, though he didn’t feel sleepy at all after those last words. She always breakfasts late. Samurai indolence Or something more sinister Perhaps she found the Lady Sun’s opening eyes unbearable, he thought snidely.
Yet the ashigaru had mentioned the summons casually, as though it were nothing more than a local samurai’s harmless idiosyncrasy. Had the fallen Shinjo ensorceled them all Did she fete them to keep them fat and content while she skinned unfortunate Hiruma scouts The possibilities were starting to make his stomach cramp.
When the house’s gap-toothed grandmothers came to “wake” Hayaku and offer him a light breakfast, he had to force himself to eat enough of the millet and broth to be polite. As he ate, they gossiped about things that all village grandmothers concerned themselves with: granddaughters’ marriage prospects, patchwork patterns, the markings on newborn calves, and signs of poor weather to come. They said nothing about the Shinjo, and he was afraid to ask.
When he had eaten as much of the millet as he could stomach, though, they told him to take the path west of the village to Shinjo-sama’s house. No, it wasn’t far. And there was nothing to worry about. She was expecting him, after all, and she liked hearing news of other villages.
Hayaku didn’t find this reassuring in the least, but he thanked them for the food and left with his haversack of tools and rations. The most incriminating thing in the haversack was another skin of sake, though it pained him that he had had to leave his jade medallion behind when he undertook this journey. He had heard stories of what happened to those unlucky enough to be caught with jade by the Obsidian Magistrates.
The walk was indeed a short one, as promised. A profusion of wildflowers and weeds bloomed on either side of the path, which itself was well-tended. Some of the hoofprints were recent, and he was impressed by the size of the warhorse they implied in their width and spacing. She has no reason to ride down a traveling mender-of-pots, Hayaku told himself, but it didn’t help.
The door stood open when he arrived. Hayaku looked at the house with real longing, even though he felt paradoxically vulnerable in flimsy wooden houses, despite years of sleeping beneath Lord Moon’s smile. It was an ordinary house, framed by several pines–imported from the mountains, he guessed, at no small expense–and strangely graceful in its shabbiness. Two of the roof tiles were missing, and the unassuming black paint had begun to peel away in places.
There were times Hayaku thought he might kill for the opportunity to sleep more than two nights in a row in the same house.
“Shinjo-sama,” he called out, and hated himself for not having to fake the quaver in his voice, or the rough peasant accent. After the number of villages he had visited he was surprised he didn’t wake up in the morning with a hoe in his hands, too.
“Come in,” a female voice said cheerfully, “I’ve tea ready and pastries too, and I think I’ll spare you the koumiss.”
This was not at all the greeting he had expected from a woman who had murdered her husband. Pastries Just what he needed, a poisoned breakfast. At least he wouldn’t be going hungry afterward…stop it.
Yet the voice, the voice was ordinary.
Hayaku took off his sandals–he really needed new sandals, it was hardly good advertisement to be walking on a pair two straws from falling apart–and bowed, pressing his head to the floor. It delayed having to look at the woman for a precious few seconds.
“Please, get up,” she said, with unprecedented courtesy to someone who appeared to be no more than a wanderer.
“Shinjo-sama,” Hayaku stammered, and rose to a crouch.
She was not beautiful. The lean build and the thin face with its heavy-lidded eyes were striking, but never beautiful. Her kimono was black brocade woven with a repeating pattern of bamboo, tied with a purple-and-silver obi. Her long black hair was tied carelessly with ribbons in black and purple, black and silver, black and gold.
Night, he thought for a second, stunned, and then, Darkness. And bamboo for longevity, the strength that yields. Very peculiar.
“The tea is in the Bamboo Room,” Shinjo Kara added, and led the way.
He crept after her, wondering what to expect of the room. The wall-hangings were, not too surprisingly, of bamboo groves painted in black ink; the two silk cushions on either side of the black-lacquered table were a faded summer green. And the tea, steaming from two eggshell-porcelain cups, smelled tantalizingly of plum blossoms. Irrationally, Hayaku wished he were familiar with the tea ceremony, but of course no samurai would waste time attempting the ceremony with such as him.
“Drink,” she bade him, sitting in a rustle of silk, and he drank. His appetite, treacherously, had recovered from its earlier spasm of uncertainty, and he even found the pastries delicious: just sweet enough to complement the tea, not enough to cloy the tongue. Days on the road and drinking the dregs of Rokugan’s sake works had sharpened Hayaku’s appreciation for all things gustatory.
“I understand,” she said quietly, as he was drinking his last sip of tea, “that you are here to find Hiruma Hwang.”
It took all the training he had, born of hungry nights and thirsty days, to finish swallowing the tea as if nothing were wrong. Nevertheless, all he could think to say was, “How did you know, Shinjo-sama”
If she had figured it out that quickly, there was no sense in denying it.
Her eyes were amused; her mouth was not. “I had one of the ashigaru bring me a sample of your repair-work while you were eating dinner. That pattern of hammer-strokes, so finely-spaced–are you a Kaiu”
“Kaiu blood on my father’s side,” he said grudgingly, and dreaded asking her what had happened to Hwang. But if she were feeling magnanimous she might tell him before he died. And if the food had been poisoned, it was taking its sweet time making itself known.
“Hiruma, then,” she said, and he nodded. “Such a pretty show of loyalty, Hiruma-san.” The amusement had molted into mockery. “I see the questions pooling in your eyes like koi. Ask them. I think I might even answer.”
“Why what” she countered.
“All of it,” said Hiruma Hayaku, all his questions flooding out of him at once. “I have heard the tales, Shinjo-sama. I do not know if they are true. But this village, and Hwang’s disappearance–none of it makes sense.”
“No,” Shinjo Kara said, almost to herself, “it wouldn’t. Not to a samurai.–You look startled. But what samurai concerns herself with such small things as a row of wilted seedlings or a grandfather’s leaking roof Even my clansmen were sometimes above such things. And in any case, the tales you have heard, most of them are true.”
“Your husband, Shinjo-sama–” He was becoming reckless. The worst part was that it didn’t seem to matter anymore.
“I’ve missed the Crab’s blunt speech,” she mused. “Yes, I killed him. Fools die early. Surely it’s something they used to teach, on the Wall”
“Hai,” he said stiffly.
“Better a death at my hand than at the Obsidian Magistrates’,” she said. “I see I’ve shocked you again. Are you sure you’re a Crab–No matter. He wanted to leave for the Burning Sands. I said I would stay. He raised a banner. I cut him down. It simplified matters greatly.” Despite the lightness of her tone, the expression in her eyes suggested nights without sleep, dreams without rest.
Dangerously, Hayaku found himself pitying her.
“He died. The village lives. Samurai, having choices, forget that the heimin, hinin and eta–yes, even the eta–do not. Hwang made his choice, and so have you; I have made mine.”
“One village,” said Hayaku, “makes no difference when the Shadowlands rules Rokugan.”
“One village,” she said, “makes all the difference to the villagers. And all the villages, side by side by side, are Rokugan. No less than you or I, Hiruma-san.”
Her words disturbed him, even if he had always heard that the Unicorn were soft-hearted. And “soft-hearted” was not precisely the term Hayaku would have used to describe Shinjo Kara. “Where is Hwang, then, Shinjo-sama” he asked.
Graciously, she let the topic drop. “I will show you what I showed him,” she said, “and then I will answer your question. Have you had enough breakfast, Hiruma-san”
“The food was excellent,” he said ungrudgingly. Food was food. And poison is poison–no, stop that.
The room beyond the Bamboo Room was stark in its austerity. A daisho stand rested at its center, though the sword on the top was no katana. Obsidian and onyx, thought Hayaku, staring at the gaijin blade with a mixture of fascination and disgust, bound with silver. Tarnished silver, at that.
“Draw it,” Shinjo Kara said. It was not a suggestion. “The obsidian will do you no harm.”
His teeth clenched as he pulled the blade free of its obsidian-and-onyx tomb. A second later, breath escaped him as though a Hida had punched him in the stomach. “Osano-Wo preserve us,” Hayaku whispered.
The blade was crystal with a vein of jade trapped, impossibly, within its heart. A gaijin blade of hidden crystal, its brilliance barely checked by the entrapping obsidian. From a distance, Hayaku saw how the blade might be mistaken for nothing more than dull steel.
“I showed this to Hiruma Hwang as well before I sent him on his way with food, salt and water,” the woman said softly. “I believe, though I cannot be certain, that he made it safely to the Burning Sands, and is in the care of those Unicorn who have chosen to dwell there–for now. I shall give you the same things; you would do well to seek him out there.”
“I don’t understand,” he said, sheathing the blade. It was as though an errant star had fallen into darkness beyond repair. “Why”
“Samurai have choices,” Kara said. “Yours is not mine; does that make it less worthy”
“Domo arigatou gozaimasu,” Hayaku whispered. “I cannot repay this.”
“Do itashimashite,” she returned equably, “and you can. I ask a simple thing only, which is the same thing I ask all the like-minded people who come this way.”
“Ask it,” he said.
“Never come back,” Shinjo Kara said, “or I shall strike you down as I did my husband. I will not permit the risk.”
He bowed deeply. “Hai.”
“I do not know where she has been these past centuries,” she said, “our lady Shinjo. But she promised to return, and when she does, there will be a Rokugan awaiting her, whether it lies in darkness or in light.”
“You may be waiting a long time,” Hayaku pointed out.
“No longer,” she said, “than we have already waited.”
And all the villages, side by side by side, are Rokugan.
He carried those words with him a long way.
Kara is Tuvan for “black,” prized as the color of clear spring water and feared as the color of evil. It seemed appropriate. No relation, of course, to Legend of the Burning Sands’ formidable Moto Kara.
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