The Legend of Kujaku: The Wandering Years

The Legend of Kujaku:

The Wandering Years

By Anon Writer

Yasuki Zhen scowled as he guided the lumbering ox along the worn path, his hand wrapped tightly around the reins as he walked alongside it. A wooden cart stacked with small crates rumbled along behind the beast, creaking and groaning with each bump in the road.

“Yun, this is absurd,” he called forward to his companion. “I’ve put up with this madness for three days, and where are we Lost in the Aireru Mori and following your little bird around in circles.

The other Yasuki glanced back over her shoulder in amusement. “We’re not lost, Zhen-kun. There’s a path, isn’t there”

Zhen swatted a low-hanging branch away from his face. “A strip of dirt in an overgrown forest isn’t a path. It’s a broken wheel or a bandit attack waiting to happen.”

“Bandits, in a Crane forest” Yun laughed as she gestured to the trees that surrounded them on all sides. “That seems unlikely, don’t you think Besides, we have Kujaku-san to defend us.”

As if to make her point, she motioned to the small peacock that was walking beside her. The bird’s tiny hat obscured its eyes, and it continued along the path in silence, politely ignoring the conversation between the two Crab merchants.

“How could I forget.” Zhen’s voice took on disgusted tone as his eyes fell upon the colorful bird once again. “Five koku could have hired three yojimbo for the duration of our trip. Instead, you pay ten to a peacock that gets us lost in a forest.” He barked out a mirthless laugh. “You should have gone to fifteen koku. We could have hired a Tsu Fish to carry us back to Yasuki lands on its back.”

Yun smiled brightly as she lifted a branch for the peacock to pass under. “Kujaku-san comes very highly recommended, Zhen-kun.”

“You paid ten koku to a peacock!” The ox snorted as Zhen shouted, earning itself a baleful glare from the man. “What is a peacock going to do with ten koku”

“Kujaku-san gave the koku to the peasants,” Yun explained as she smiled down at the quiet bird. “The war hit them very hard, and the money will help feed their families during the coming winter.”

Zhen winced at the news, as if the idea of giving away koku were physically painful.

In all likelihood, it was.

Katogama Toru was not a particularly bright man. Ever since his gempukku – his second gempukku, the one he had passed – his duty had been to stand guard over the path leading into the Aireru Mori. Since the Katogama were only a small vassal family, it was not very common for them to have visitors, and those visitors they did attract typically arrived along the southern road leading to Kyuden Doji.

Truth be told, few maps even showed that there was still a road leading north through the forest; certainly no travelers had stumbled out of the forest in the three years Toru had been guarding the path. A more ambitious man might have balked at what might rightfully be seen as a pointless assignment, but Toru was content in the knowledge that his presence at the forest’s edge somehow allowed the Crane to prosper. It also afforded him the opportunity to bring home the occasional frog or garden snake for his nephews to play with.

Needless to say, Toru was more than a little surprised when two Yasuki merchants, an ox, a peacock, and a cluttered wooden cart pushed their way out of the forest and into the open sunlight.

Had he been a clever man, Toru might have wondered what two Crab merchants were doing in Crane lands, or why they had chosen such an inhospitable route. He might even have wondered why they had gone to the trouble of dressing the peacock up like a little samurai, complete with a tiny hat and daisho. But because he was simple, Toru could only stare at the woman as she waved to him and wonder if he had ever seen someone so beautiful.

He was still staring when the caravan had drawn to within speaking distance. “Crane-sama!” the man shouted, startling Toru out of his daydream, in which had married the woman and become daimyo of the Katogama family. “Could you tell me if this is Shiro Katogama”

“Uh…hai, Crab-sama,” he replied, his eyes still on the woman. “Do you have, um…traveling papers I think I’m supposed to check for those.”

The man was at his side in an instant, his smile almost unnaturally wide. “Traveling papers” He laughed as he gestured to the small caravan: a beautiful woman, a dressed up peacock, and a bored-looking ox. “My friend, we are merely two traveling merchants, come to spread the bounty of economic plenty among your fellow samurai. Surely you would turn us away before we have a chance to introduce ourselves to your lord I am Yasuki Zhen, by the way, and my young associate there is Yasuki Yun.”

Zhen paused as he noticed the subject of Toru’s attention, and then lowered his voice so as not to be overheard. “Yun-san was just telling me how much she was looking forward to a tour of the fabled Katogama provinces. Perhaps you might know of a local who would be willing to show her around”

Toru smiled sheepishly at Yun, and was rewarded for his effort with a small wave and a playful wink. “I-I suppose I could…”<br />
<br />
Before he could finish his sentence, the Yasuki man was talking again. “Wonderful! I am sure that she will be most appreciative.” He waved to the girl and she approached them, the peacock following only a few feet behind her. “Jun-san, I would like to introduce you to…I’m sorry, friend, I’m afraid that I didn’t catch your name.”

“T-Toru,” the sentry replied. “You, um…” His mind raced for something to say, something that would impress this vision of beauty. “…that’s a very nice peacock you have there.”

Yun giggled at the odd compliment. “Thank you, Toru-sama. But I’m afraid that he is not mine. His name is Kujaku, and he’s a very skilled ronin yojimbo.”

The Crane glanced down at the peacock in time to see it bob its head in acknowledgement before it turned away from the group and looked towards the distant castle. Something about the bird’s movements made Toru uneasy; they reminded him too much of the one time he had met a Kakita duelist. They were too relaxed, like a cat that could stay still for hours and still pounce on a passing mouse in the blink of an eye.

“…such poor equipment I would have expected much higher quality from the Crane.”

Toru blinked in confusion as Zhen’s voice snapped him out of his thoughts. “I’m sorry, Crab-sama. What was it you were saying”

“Look at your sandals,” Zhen repeated. “Such poor quality! I bet your lord bought those from a Yoritomo, neh Such thieves! I can understand why one might turn to the Mantis for supplies in times of hardship, but now that the war is over, there’s no reason to settle for second-rate goods, right”

“I suppose not,” Toru reluctantly agreed, his eyes turning back to Yun. “Yasuki-sama, do you…”

“Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself,” Zhen interrupted as he waved Yun back to the cart. Toru felt a pang of regret as she walked away, but forced himself to remain stoic. He had always been told that true samurai remained stoic in the face of love, and that is exactly what he intended to do.

But how was he to win her love if he couldn’t show Yun how he felt about her

Toru nodded absently to the other Yasuki, who hadn’t stopped talking since Yun had left. Maybe a poem would work…but how did those go Seven syllables, then five syllables…no, that wasn’t it. Five then seven then five. But was he allowed to use her personal name in his first poem to her Toru wasn’t sure if that would be too personal, and he didn’t want to begin their courtship on the wrong foot.

“Toru-sama” Zhen asked, pulling him away from his thoughts. The Yasuki was holding a scroll and a brush out to him. “If I could just have your chop here”

“Ahh…hai, of course,” Toru replied, embarrassed. He made his mark at the bottom and then handed them back to the Crab. “Yasuki-sama, um….what was this for again”

Zhen carefully rolled up the scroll and grinned at the other man. “Why, it was the contract we were just discussing, Toru-sama.” He bowed to Toru and then walked back to the cart, upon which Yun was already seated. “Twenty koku may seem steep, but I assure you, he comes very highly recommended.”

Toru frowned as he watched Zhen climb into the cart’s driver’s seat. He wasn’t entirely sure, but he had a vague feeling that something had just happened to which he should have been paying closer attention. Once he was seated, Zhen snapped the reins and forced the cart into motion towards the distant castle.

“I’ll be sure to put in a good word for you with your daimyo!” the Yasuki called back behind him. Yun turned and waved goodbye, and Toru waved back, a pleased smile on his face. A minute later, the two had disappeared down the road and were little more than a cloud of dust.

The Crane sighed in contentment and turned back towards the forest, a pleased smile on his face. Yun had waved goodbye to him, which meant that she shared his feelings. He wondered, vaguely, whether he would be forced to take the Yasuki name once they were married.

And then, he noticed the peacock standing beside him.

Toru looked down at the peacock.

The peacock looked up at Toru.

Toru frowned. Something wasn’t right.

The peacock turned its head slightly to the side as it watched the Crane samurai think.

Minutes passed.

“So…” Toru finally asked, his voice breaking the uncomfortable silence. “Where did you get the little hat”

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