The Hunt I:
By Anon Author
The small room was dark except for a small circle of candles illuminating a low table, neatly stacked with rolled-up scrolls. The candles burned low, their wax creating tiny stalactites on the wooden floor. There was no sound in the room, save the low heartbeat of a man, his brow furrowed as he gazed at the scroll spread before him, his one good arm curling around it, as if in protection. Tamori Shosei’s lips moved silently and his heartbeat quickened as he read.
Tamori Euiko laughed in delight as she urged her horse up the incline. The wind blowing off the Dragons Heart Plain brought with it a pleasant chill and the sharp scent of snow. It would only be a few more days before the passes were closed and she would be stuck inside for the winter, and the young shugenja was making full use of her time.
Reaching the peak of the ridge, Euiko reined in her horse and looked around. After a few minutes, her companion rode up beside her.
Euiko-sama, the young Mirumoto said seriously, you should really allow me to take the lead. How can I protect you when you rush headlong into things? You know there have been reports of bandits in the area, and the magistrates are spread thinly.
The young shugenja grinned at her yojimbo, her closely cut black hair rippling in the wind. So serious, Isei? I thought you liked my adventurous spirit. She maneuvered her horse alongside his and looked up at him, her eyes wide. Do you really want to deny me my fun? Playfully batting her eyes, she burst out laughing when a reluctant smile broke his grim facade.
Not at all, Euiko-chan. But we do have a job to do. And your mother would kill me if I let you get hurt I don’t know how you got her to let you come meet the caravan in the first place.
Still grinning wildly, Euiko replied, Mother knows that I can handle myself. Now, the caravan should be just about at the pass. Shall we race through the shortcut? With a backward glance at Isei, Euiko kicked her horse up to a gallop, heading along the ridge towards the mountains. After barely a heartbeat, she heard the sound of Iseis horse behind her.
The path wound through the foothills, barely skirting ravines and crevices in some places, but both riders knew the terrain intimately. They were evenly matched, and their horses among the finest available to the tiny Tamori family. Finally, the path narrowed to ledge barely wide enough to allow Euikos horse passage, and she was forced to slow. Isei reined his horse in behind her, its mane damp from the exertion of the ride.
Once again, you are my better, Isei commented wryly. Now He was interrupted by a loud crash, coming from further into the pass. Immediately, he snapped to alertness. What was that?
Euiko spurred her horse forward as fast as she dared. As she crested the sharp rise leading into the pass, a sight reached her that caused her to pale. Avalanche! she shouted to Isei. It looks to have caught the caravan! Come, we must assist them. Dismounting, she half-ran, half-slid down the precarious slope into the pass proper.
Two pack horses had already fallen deep into the chasm, and were lost. The rest were straining at their bits, panicking, and rocks were still falling. A number of men and women were attempting to calm the animals, and others lay on the path, bleeding from wounds inflicted by the rocks.
Quickly, Euiko whispered a prayer to the earth kami. The rocks continued to fall, but they now fell to either side of the caravan, changing their course to avoid the people and horses. Meanwhile, she worked on stabilizing the cliff-side above them.
Within several minutes, the rocks had stopped falling, and it was safe for her and Isei to approach. Immediately, a young man dressed in the colors and garb of the Kitsuki detached himself from the main group.
Ah, Tamori-sama, it is thankful that you arrived when you did. He bowed deeply to Euiko. If you hadnt, we would be in a much worse situation. I am Kitsuki Atasuke, and…
Ignoring him, Euiko opened one of her pouches and pushed past him to the nearest casualty. Carefully, she withdrew some herbs from the pouch and began treating the womans wounds.
…you are? Atasuke finished quietly, staring at her.
After a moment, Euiko looked up. Well, are you going to help or not? She glared at him. If you cant help treat the wounded, then stay out of the way.
Speechless, Atasuke just nodded and backed away.
Euiko-sama is not normally so rude, Kitsuki-san. The voice behind him caused him to jump and turn around. She just does not like to see suffering. Isei looked at her fondly, then back at Atasuke. I am Mirumoto Isei.
Atasuke looked at him and blinked. I am Kitsuki Atasuke. He shook his head slightly. This is Tamori Euiko? he asked.
Yes. Isei looked at him quizzically. You recognize the name?
In a way, Atasuke said, she is the reason I am here.
Marriage? Euiko shouted incredulously, pacing across the room. Mother, you cant be serious!
Tamori Mine gazed at her daughter impassively from her tatami mat. Kitsuki Atasuke is an excellent match, and his father is an old friend of mine. You could not ask for a better pairing.
But I know nothing about him! Euiko protested, turning to face her mother.
Come now, Euiko-chan, Mine chided her daughter. You always knew that your husband would be chosen for the good of the family, rather than according to your wishes. The matriarch raised a teacup to her lips and sipped elegantly. Or did you really expect to be allowed to marry that yojimbo of yours? The son of a traitor is hardly a fitting mate for a Tamori maiden.
Isei is not a traitor! Euiko said hotly. I love him. And he loves me.
Mine raised an eyebrow. Did I ever call him a traitor? She sighed. The fact remains that his father is a traitor to clan and Empire, and as such is hardly the type of family we need ties to. We are a young family, and every marriage needs to be chosen carefully, for maximum benefit. Atasuke is from a high-ranking Kitsuki family, and he has achieved great praise for one so young.
Euiko knelt on a mat facing her mother. But mother, didnt you marry for love? How would you have felt if father and you had been forbidden to marry?
The matriarch looked at her sharply. I would have done my duty. Her expression softened slightly. That was a different time. The Agasha were a large and ancient family, and the marriages of individual people so far down the line were relatively insignificant. The same cannot be said of you.
But… Euiko protested vainly.
Euiko, Euiko. Mine looked at her daughter kindly. I know you think you love him now, but in five, ten, fifteen years, when the first blush of romance has faded, where will you be? Isei is a lowly yojimbo from a disgraced family. He has no land, no contacts. Atasuke is a good man. He is honored as a duelist and a magistrate, and his skill in tracking tsukai is lauded even outside the borders of the Kitsuki. You will be happy with him. I cannot say the same about young Isei.
Euiko bowed her head, tears rolling down her cheeks. I just wish… she whispered.
I know, my dear, Mine said gently. Duty is often difficult. But our duty to the family must outweigh our own desires. You know this.
For a long time, Euiko was silent. Finally, she sighed. I know, but I had hoped… She looked up, tears still wetting her cheeks. I really do love him, you know.
I know dear, Mine whispered. I know.
Isei caught Euikos expression as she emerged from her mothers room and he frowned.
Does she truly mean to make you go through with this? he asked, falling into step beside her.
Euiko nodded silently, her eyes still red from her tears.
Theres nothing I can do! Euiko exploded. Shes made up her mind that this is the right thing to do, and theres nothing I can do to change it! And perhaps… She paused slightly, finally continuing in a barely audible whisper, perhaps shes right.
Isei stopped and grabbed her arm, spinning her around to face him. Are you saying you want to marry this Kitsuki? he asked incredulously.
Of course not! Euiko said heatedly, pulling free from his grasp. She looked down, her eyes studiously avoiding his. But regardless… regardless of my wishes, I have a duty to my family and to my clan. I cannot ignore that.
And what of love? Isei asked softly. What of your own happiness? Would you really throw all that we have away, like so much trash?
Euiko looked up at him sadly, gently placing one hand on his cheek. Oh, my darling Isei. Im so sorry. I truly do love you. But sometimes… She sighed. Sometimes, love is not enough.
All you need is love, Isei said.
Euiko blinked back tears. A samurai must follow her duty, regardless of her personal feelings.
All you need is love, Isei said again, insistently. Come with me. I have friends that can hide us. We could be together.
Euiko jerked back slightly. I will not abandon my family, not even for love, she said harshly. I cannot believe you would even suggest it.
Isei looked at her mournfully. I just want to be together. With you.
At the cost of my honor, my very self? Euiko turned away and began walking again. I am truly sorry, Isei, but if I were able to come with you, I would not be worthy of your love.
But… Isei reached out to grab her arm again.
Just… Just leave me alone for a while, she said quietly, slipping out of his grasp. I need to be alone.
Isei just watched her go, his fists clenched.
The scratching of Atasukes pen on rice paper was the only sound in the room as Isei entered, leaning against the door frame. Slowly, after a few seconds, Atasuke looked up at the Mirumoto.
Leave this place, Isei said softly, trying to suppress his anger at this man who had so disrupted his life. Please.
Atasuke studied the other man, showing no outward expression as he took in Iseis disheveled appearance and his red eyes. Do you hate her so?
I love her, Isei said simply.
The magistrate nodded slowly. You want her for yourself, despite what it would do to her? he asked, still carefully calm.
Iseis control began to break down. I would care for her better than you could ever do. She deserves a real man, who loves her, not some boy barely past his gempukku.
And you are that man? Atasukes tone held the barest hint of disdain. She would be better off with someone who could provide for her, not the son of a traitor.
My father was no traitor, Isei growled, placing his hand on the hilt of his katana. He was a good man. You would do well to remember that. Now, leave this place.
Or youll kill me? Atasuke looked back down at the scroll and returned to his writing. I thought you better than that. Perhaps Euikos care for you is truly as misguided as her mother would suggest.
Euiko is mine, not yours! Isei shouted, his control finally breaking. Angrily, he drew his katana and settled into a stance, his facilities only slightly impaired by his rage. I will fight you if I have to.
Atasuke stood up calmly. You truly wish to dishonor yourself further with this folly? he asked, his hand on the hilt of his katana.
Isei pointed his blade at the others throat. Through clenched teeth, he spoke. Draw. Your. Sword.
The other sighed. If this is all that will make you stop, then very well. Smoothly, he drew his katana and walked out from behind the low table.
Isei smiled grimly and attacked. In a flurry of steel, several of his thrusts were turned aside, with no move by Atasuke to counterattack.
Fight, damn you, Isei growled.
Atasuke looked at him in exasperation. Im trying not to hurt you, you idiot.
With a growl of rage, Isei renewed his attack, and Atasuke parried each attack with calm precision.
Fight! Isei shouted.
Finally, Atasuke locked blades with the furious samurai and shoved him backwards. He stood there, panting slightly, while the other regained his footing. I dont want to hurt you, Isei. But if thats what it will take to make you stop this foolishness… He launched himself at the Mirumoto.
Isei furiously attempted to block the Kitsukis attacks, but rage and fatigue slowed his movements. Finally, Atasukes blade inscribed a long gash from Iseis temple down across his cheek. Batting Iseis blade away, Atasuke held the bloodied tip of his blade at his opponents throat.
I dont want to kill you, Mirumoto, but I will I have to. Now drop your blade.
Slowly, silently, his eyes never leaving Atasukes, Isei knelt and placed his sword on the ground.
Atasuke nodded. Will you agree to leave Euiko and I alone, and to abandon this foolish grudge?
Still silent, Isei nodded.
Will you leave this place and never return?
Again, Isei nodded.
Swear it. Let me hear you, Atasuke said.
Grimacing, Isei spoke. By the blood of Togashi, Mirumoto, and all of my ancestors, I swear that I will leave this place, never to return, and that I shall never again raise a hand against you or your wife.
Atasuke lowered his sword to his side. Very well. For your sake, I will not mention this incident to Euiko or her mother.
Isei just glowered at him.
Wiping off the tip, Atasuke sheathed his katana. I shall expect you to be true to your oath and to leave within the week. Gathering his scroll and writing implements, he walked out of the room, leaving Isei to gather the tattered remains of his dignity.
Isei was true to his word, and I to mine. This is the only record of this incident in existence, and it shall remain so for as long as necessary.
Shosei looked at the account, carefully written in his fathers precise hand. Strange, he had never thought of his parents as independent people before now. They had always been forces in his life, powerful but distant. To think that they had had lives of their own before he was born, that these events had happened when they were young was… strange.
Yet Shosei could feel another certainty. He knew, deep inside, in his innermost self, that this Mirumoto Isei had been responsible for his fathers death, and the attempt on his own. He could not say how he knew, but the certainty was there. His fathers unquiet spirit, guiding him from Yomi? Perhaps…
Whatever the reason, Shosei had found his quarry. He knew the identity of his hidden enemy.
Now, he just had to prove it.
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