By Brian Yoon
Editing & Development by Fred Wan
“Hello, Robun-san,” the woman said softly. She stood in front of him, blocking his way out of the alley. She crossed her arms across her chest, away from the katana that lay at her side.
“I have been hunting you, Kakita Osei,” he snarled in response. A wave of anger rushed through him as he sighted his prey. His hands twitched, as if they wanted to fly to the katana at his side. His hands glinted blood red in the sunset. “You and your ilk are responsible…” Robun stopped. He could not remember what the Crane had done. All he knew was that she had wronged him.
“I am responsible for many things,” she said. “Masote’s death is not among them. Were you not a fool, perhaps you would have realized that.”
In a rush, it all returned to him. The treacherous woman was responsible for Masote’s death. Robun bared his teeth in anger. “Lies! You sicken me, Osei. You murdered a man for vengeance and call it honor.”
“And what have you done, Matsu Robun?” she asked.
A thought tugged at Robun’s consciousness from the back of his mind, but the fury drove it away. “How dare you deny me? Are you ready for death?” he yelled, drawing his blade.
She looked at him with sorrow in her eyes. “You make a step towards madness, petulant child,” she said. “Do not do this, or you will regret it forever.”
Robun screamed and rushed forward, his blade in his hand. She watched as he drew closer, making no move toward her weapon. It was as if his countless years of training had disappeared. He held his blade high for the killing blow, and then he saw the coy smile on his opponent’s face.
If he killed her, he would never be able to prove her guilt. She would never stand accused of the things she had done. Her dishonor would never be exposed. Robun could not allow that to happen. Grinding his teeth, he slowly lowered his blade. It seemed to weigh a thousand pounds, but he brought it to his side. “I will not be goaded,” he said quietly. “You will be punished for what you have done, and by greater men than me.”
Osei’s smile faltered. “Do it,” she hissed.
“I will not,” he insisted.
“You are a thoughtless, witless, barbarian!” she howled. “You are nothing more than a pawn, to be manipulated by the force of your own anger! Strike me down!”
The blade in Robun’s hand seemed to surge forward, as if it lusted for the woman’s blood. He steeled his will and held it in place. “I will not.”
Osei’s shriek of fury turned into maddening laughter, and suddenly a bright ribbon of blood appeared across her kimono as if she had been cut from hip to shoulder. Robun looked down in horror, but his blade was clean. He had not done this. “You are weak!” she cackled, dropping her own blade and staggering to one knee as blood coursed down her body. “You know nothing of honor!” She slumped over and was still.
Robun dropped the katana to the floor. It splattered in the pool of blood growing around his feet. Robun’s eyes widened with horror. He stared at his hands; they had turned into vicious claws, drenched with his victim’s blood. He shook them vigorously but the blood would not fall from his hands. The body at his feet was unrecognizably scarred, with one exception. Osei’s unmarred face looked at him. Her cold lifeless eyes stared mockingly through Robun.
A voice cut through the world. “Robun-sama? It is time for your meeting.”
Robun opened his eyes and the dream faded away. The wooden ceiling of the inn replaced the alleyway, and the inquisitive eyes of a servant girl replaced Osei’s cold faded gaze. He sat up and wiped the sleep from his eyes. If only he had been stronger that day. If only he had understood then what he understood now. Osei would have died in disgrace, exposed for her crimes, and he… he would not be haunted by his own impetuousness. His lords had forgiven him, but he had not forgiven himself.
“Thank you, girl,” he said quietly. The servant bowed and quietly left the room. Robun breathed deeply. He began his preparations for the day.
Friendly Traveler Village
Robun stepped out into the streets of Friendly Traveler Village. The streets bustled with activity, and Robun could barely make his way through to his destination. Once, the town had been just another small fishing town near the Crab-Crane border. The streets had been nearly empty, then, as no one had a reason to come. Due to the enterprising efforts of the former Yasuki daimyo, Yasuki Taka, Friendly Traveler Village became one of the most successful trading communities of the empire. The sake created in this land was considered top of the line, and business boomed.
With increased business came unwanted attention. The town quickly became a hotly contested focus of Crab and Crane hostilities in the years following Toturi the First’s death. Surprisingly, it was witness to one of the first moments of Crab and Crane cooperation. When the two clans formed an alliance, they agreed to share the profits of the town. The Crane developed a strong presence in the village, expanding the town with many flourishing businesses. The Crab allowed them to take over many sectors of the town, though Friendly Traveler Village remained deep in Crab territory.
Robun stopped in front of a building and headed for the door. The building was indistinguishable from all the others on the street, save for the sentry. It was the only building in sight with armed Cranes guarding the entrance. Robun nodded to the guards and offered his papers for inspection before they could even ask.
“I have an appointment with the head of this organization,” Robun said.
The Crane scanned over the papers. He bowed and returned the papers to Robun. “You are expected, Robun-san. Follow me.”
The leader of the Crane expedition confounded all of Robun’s expectations. The man was not at all handsome. His angular face gave him an untrustworthy air, and the oily smile on his face instantly put the Lion at guard. Robun mused that the face would be less sinister were it hidden under the jingasa on the floor next to the Crane. Robun bowed and sat in front of the Crane.
“I am Matsu Robun, son of Matsu Ranmaru. Thank you for granting me this audience.”
The Crane bowed in response. “I am Naoharu. It is my pleasure to aid an ally of the Crane Clan. Tell me, what brings you so far south?”
Robun raised an eyebrow at the lack of surname, but continued without comment. “My lord Kitsu Katsuko sent me south to procure a keepsake. Personal business, however, brings me to the Friendly Traveler Village. Call it a curiosity, but it is something I wished to indulge before I returned to my duties.”
“If it is within my power, I will grant it to you, Robun-san,” Naoharu said. “The help of the Lion keeps our armies from being swept by the Dragon forces. I would relish any chance to return the favor.”
Robun nodded gravely. “My request is simple. I would like to meet some of the samurai that have been stationed in the Crab lands.”
“An odd request,” Naoharu mused. “However, I cannot see any harm in giving you access to the records of those samurai who have served in this area. I shall instruct Rumeiko to help you find whatever you need. If the records exist, my friend, you will have access to them.”
“Thank you, Naoharu-san,” Robun said.
Robun grabbed the sake cup and sighed heavily. “I don’t believe it,” he murmured to the cup.
“What don’t you believe?” someone asked and sat down in front of him. It was a large man in a fashionable kimono. His hair and mustache were impeccably groomed. The man was more concerned with his appearance than anything else. Everyone who met him despised him. Perhaps that was why, Robun mused, Benjiro used the man as one of his secret investigators.
“Greetings, Yukinaga-san,” Robun said.
“It is a wonderful day,” Yasuki Yukinaga said, grabbing Robun’s sake bottle without invitation. “A wonderful day for subterfuge. What did you learn in the Crane embassy?”
“I went through all the records of the Crane samurai stationed in Friendly Traveler Village over the past year,” Robun said. “It was a futile gesture. I checked against all the dates you gave me, Yukinaga-san. The same guards were stationed in this village during all three of the suspected bandit attacks.”
“I see. Have you learned of these guards’ current location?” Yukinaga asked.
“None of them are near Crab lands, let alone in this city,” Robun said. He shook his head. “Ten of them have been promoted to service at Kyuden Kakita, and quite a few more have become yojimbo to various courtiers across the empire. The rest have been reassigned into various defensive outposts within the Crane lands. It will be impossible to question any Crane about Osei’s movements.”
Yukinaga grinned. “I never expected to be able to ‘question’ any Cranes, anyway.”
“This search has ended up as a futile effort,” Robun said. “I cannot find anyone who is able to testify about any of Osei’s dealings. All of the ronin who might have been involved have disappeared. Everyone who might have traded with Osei or any of her aliases is similarly gone. It is as if Osei had never existed at all.”
“Wait,” Yukinaga said. “Did you note when the Crane guards began reassignment away from this village?”
Robun pulled out a scroll and opened it flat against the table. “The first of them was reassigned to Kyuden Kakita, about two months ago.”
“So that’s the Crane’s scheme,” Yukinaga said. “Those crafty tricksters. If I weren’t so disgusted with them, I’d applaud them.”
Robun raised an eyebrow. “Have I missed something?”
“That ronin, Naoharu, assumed command of the Crane in the city around two months ago. His superiors must have sent him over here to make sure we’d never get to the end of this.”
“He is a ronin?” Robun asked.
Yukinaga opened his mouth wide with exaggeration. “You don’t know about Kaneka’s advisors? Naoharu was sent to the Crane to make sure the Shogun could dip his hands in the affairs of all the Clans. He’s trickier than most people believe.”
Robun stood up. The Shogun was once a Lion, and Robun disliked listening to such theories. “I’m going to get back to the inn and rest for the night. I hope Benjiro-san is satisfied with our progress, because I don’t think we’ll be able to go any further,” he said. With a quick bow, he turned and left.
“Be at the Crane embassy tomorrow, Robun-san! Things will be very interesting!” Yukinaga called out at the Lion’s retreating back.
The Crane guards allowed Robun into the embassy just in time to watch the hostilities.
Hida Benjiro and two other Crab samurai stood in the middle of the embassy entrance room. Though they held no weapons in their hands, they were fully armed and looked ready to leap into action at any time. Several Crane warriors watched them from the sides of the rooms. They did not look worried by the Crab’s presence; perhaps they had grown used to the Crab’s style of diplomacy over the years in the village.
A door opened in the back of the room and Naoharu appeared. He quickly bowed to the Crab and smiled.
“What an honor it is to see you today, Benjiro-san. How may I help you today?”
“I can’t say I feel the same way,” Benjiro replied. “It disgusts me to have to be here.”
The Crane guards in the room shifted in their positions but remained silent. The smile did not drop from Naoharu’s face.
“That’s a shame, Benjiro-san. Regardless, I will do my best to address all of the concerns that motivated your… unexpected visit.”
“Earlier this year,” Benjiro said, “the Crane used dishonorable tricks and petty commerce to gain leverage in this town. You instigated bandit attacks so that you could raise the price on rice and increase the guards stationed here. The Crab Clan has suffered because of your games, and I demand that you make amends.”
“My, that is a bold claim,” Naoharu said calmly. “Do you have the testimony to back up your wild theory?”
“You have certainly done your work well, Naoharu,” Benjiro said, gritting his teeth. “The testimony does not exist because you made sure it would all disappear!”
Naoharu’s eyebrows rose in mock surprise. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you are talking about, Benjiro-san,” he said. “Regardless, I cannot take you very seriously without the necessary information.”
A dangerous glint shone from Benjiro’s eyes. He reached inside his armor, pulled out a scroll, and tossed it at Naoharu. He caught the scroll and unfurled it in front of him. His eyes quickly scanned the information.
“There,” Benjiro said. “All the information about the ronin used in the attacks, and the details of Kakita Osei’s schemes to put these bandits in motion. My agents were able to wrest this information from Tatsuya, a Crane Yasuki turned ronin.”
“Where is Tatsuya now?”
Benjiro’s frown deepened. “He is no longer alive,” he said. “He was murdered in our prison.”
“If I remember correctly, Yasuki Tatsuya was forced out of the Crane because he was embezzling funds from our clan,” Naoharu said. “Do you expect me to take the word of a dishonorable wretch over the honor of respected Crane samurai?”
Benjiro laughed aloud. “Treacherous Kakita Osei was no respected Crane samurai. She was no better than a common thief. Her honor is nothing.”
Robun could not stand aside and watch as Benjiro continued his tirade. He pushed to the middle of the room and stood next to the large Crab.
Naoharu shook his head. “I’m afraid I see no merit in your accusations. Osei’s movements are peculiar but not criminal. The timing of these attacks was mere coincidence, unless you can convince me otherwise with some credible testimony. I’m sure the woman had valid reasons for whatever she did. She served her clan honorably. If she were here, I am sure she would have set your worries at rest. Regrettably, she cannot.”
Before Benjiro could reply, Robun interjected. “We have no evidence, no testimony, and no witnesses, Benjiro-sama. We cannot do this.” Robun protested. Benjiro glanced at the Lion.
“You don’t tell me what I can or can’t do here, boy,” Benjiro growled and turned away. “Answer me, Naoharu. I will give you one chance to explain the Crane’s actions.”
“Listen to Robun, Benjiro-san,” Naoharu replied, his eyes intent on the raging Crab. “By reputation you are not a political man, so I will be blunt with you. It is a grave insult for you to barge into an ally’s home and accuse him of nefarious plots. The insult is worse if you have no testimony to back your claim. On such insults are alliances broken.”
“Do you seek to cow me into submission with your threats, Naoharu?” Benjiro asked. “A clan would not wring more money from a trusted ally. You were the first to violate the trust with Osei’s treasonous crimes.”
“Benjiro-san,” Robun said. Surprised at the tone of the Lion’s voice, Benjiro looked at him. “You are angry at the increased prices, but I cannot let you continue in this manner. Both the Crane and the Crab are the Lion’s allies, and thus I stand unbiased by affiliation. We have no proof of Osei’s crimes, and to throw them at the Crane is unseemly.”
“You killed her yourself for her crimes,” Benjiro said.
“I acted without thought,” Robun replied. “Regret is a sin, yet if I could take back my actions I would. Instead, I can only act with the honor and restraint that I should have shown that day.”
The room fell silent. “Stand aside, boy,” Benjiro said.
“I cannot,” Robun replied. “Honor demands that this be done properly.”
The silence continued. Benjiro stared at the Lion, his eyes scanning for the thoughts that lay within. His mouth stretched into a thin line, and his hands twitched as if they were eager to go for his weapon. Robun did not care. He stood awaiting the future.
For the first time in months, Robun felt at peace with his actions.
“We will come back with testimony, Benjiro-sama,” Robun said softly. His voice reached everyone in the quiet room. “We have failed this day, I have failed, but there are other days. If wrongdoing has occurred, it will happen again. If we are vigilant, we will have our chance. I believe our cause is just, and I will not stop until I can prove it. Once we have the testimony for our claims, I promise you I will die before I allow those guilty of these crimes to escape the consequences of their actions.”
Benjiro looked around at the others in the room. The Crane guards in the room all wore frowns on their faces, and from their postures Benjiro could tell he had offended them deeply with his words. He looked at Naoharu. The Crane leader still stood in front of him with the same insolent smile on his face. Finally he looked back at the resolute Lion.
After a long moment, Benjiro pushed his way out of the building without another word.
Robun mounted his horse in front of the teahouse, ignoring the glares from all around him. Robun knew there would be considerable ill will among his Crab allies. The word had spread quickly of the confrontation, and it was not long before the entire city knew what had happened. The guards on the street studied his actions carefully, as if they were waiting for any provocation to bring him down. He could see the guards eye the Crane delegation with equal distrust. Old hatreds were tough to quell, Robun thought, and he wondered if his actions had pushed them back to the forefront of their minds.
“Robun-san!” someone called out from the crowd, and Robun turned to face the voice. Naoharu pushed through the others and stood in front of Robun’s horse.
“I thank you for defending the Crane’s honor today,” Naoharu said, smiling widely.
“The only honor I defended was the Lion’s,” Robun said.
“Just so,” Naoharu replied. “The honor of the Lion cannot be questioned. Still, you are a curious man, Matsu Robun. It is not often a man will risk his life as you have today.”
Robun glanced at Naoharu. “You knew who I was and what I was after, all along.”
“I make it a point to know all of my opponents.”
“I only did what honor demanded today,” Robun said.
“Are you satisfied?” Naoharu asked.
Robun frowned. “I started this journey to set Osei’s legacy at rest. I wanted to resolve the questions surrounding her business in the Crab lands. Instead, I found none of the answers, and I may have alienated the brother of a Clan Champion.”
Naoharu shook his head. “You will find that nothing will ever go as planned. The world is convoluted by politics. In this mess, it’s best to simply take what you earn and declare it a victory.”
“Perhaps you are right,” Robun replied. “Goodbye, Naoharu-san.”
“Good luck in your journey, Robun-san,” Naoharu replied. “Perhaps our paths will cross again in the future.”
“I promise you that they will.” Robun turned his horse to head out of the city and raised his hand to guard his eyes. His hands glowed golden with the light of the waning sun. One day soon, perhaps he would begin the long journey home. Until then, however, he had an oath to fulfill to the Crab, and he would do so with honor.
Discuss these events in our Story Forum!