By Rusty Priske
Edited by Fred Wan
Asahina Ekei gazed across the sparse hills and listened to the approach of feet, too quiet for most to notice. The wind carried a little better for Ekei than most others, though, and the light footsteps could have been thundering horse beats for all that they could avoid his notice.
Soon he could see the source of the steps, as a single figure approached on the path. She wore a simple kimono, colored in tan and brown. As she got closer, Ekei could see the wear upon it; it was well worn and more than a little dusty. When she reached the Crane, she bowed deeply.
“Welcome to the Suzume Hills, Asahina-san. I am Suzume Chiaki.”
Ekei returned the bow, only not as deep. “Thank you for meeting me, Chiaki-san. I am Asahina Ekei. I am grateful for the invitation.” Ekei appraised Chiaki. She was neither young nor old, and certainly not unattractive, though most would call her handsome rather than beautiful or pretty.
“When I heard of your research into the ‘singing winds’, I knew that you would be interested in coming to our lands.”
Ekei nodded. “I had not heard of the hill song here, but once your letter told me of it, I could not stay away. May I ask how you heard of my research? Relations between our clans have not been close and I have never heard of the Sparrow being primarily concerned with artistic endeavors.”
“It is still an hour’s walk to the village. Shall we continue this conversation while we walk?” Ekei nodded in assent and the two of them continued down the path as Chiaki continued. “It is true that we of the Sparrow are primarily concerned with more practical matters than artistic ones, but I find that I enjoy the blessings of the moon, more than that of the sun. While the hard labors put in by the rest of my family ensures an early bed each night, I enjoy walking the hills, under the watchful eyes of the moon and the lights of the celestial heavens. It was during these strolls that I started hearing the music of the hills. To some ears it is no more than the whistling wind, but I thought I could detect notes and melodies in the wind.”
Ekei nodded again. “If it is the same wind song from my studies, the patterns are very subtle, but unmistakable once you know what you are listening for.”
“Yes. My first reaction was delight, but then I became concerned that there was something more to the music. What if there was something sinister behind it? I didn’t want to appear…” she trailed off.
Ekei smiled supportively. “I understand. Not everyone can hear the patterns and being seen as hearing things on the wind that are not there is not the most comfortable feeling, I am sure.”
“Exactly. I am so glad you understand. So, I tried to investigate on my own. I am no shugenja so I did some research and discovered your writings. I was quite relieved to find out that the music was not some trick.”
“It is far from a trick. I believe it is the air kami in celebration. When I have heard the wind song I tried speaking with the kami to ask why they make the music, but when I do so, the sound always stops and they will not tell me. It is my theory that it is something that has great meaning to them, but is not meant to be shared with us.”
“Well, I only know that the music is beautiful.”
Ekei smiled again. “That it is. Beauty is easily found in the world, but we must seek it out. Those that do not allow themselves to appreciate the world around them can never truly be part of it.”
“That is a wonderful sentiment, Ekei-san, but I should warn you that most of my clan do not care much for sentiment.”
“That is a shame, Chiaki-san. It is to my great benefit then, that I have met an exceptional Sparrow.”
* * *
Chiaki carried a small lantern, lighting the way for the two of them. “The moon is quite clear tonight, Ekei-san. I find the song is easier to hear without bringing my own light. Would you mind if I doused this?”
“That matches my own findings, Chiaki-san. Please do.”
The Sparrow extinguished the light from the lantern, but as she had said, the hillside was still well lit. “It was around here.”
“We should stay quiet.”
The two stood in that spot for minutes, waiting and listening.
The sound was barely audible. To most ears it would have just been wind, but there was an undercurrent. There was a pattern that was discernible and beautiful. Ekei closed his eyes and concentrated all his senses into his hearing, without calling on the wind kami at all. Soon he could hear individual notes within the wind, spinning around each other, in an inhuman concordance. The music was sweeter than any tune he had heard with the Crane, amongst whom lived the most talented musicians in Rokugan. The sound was so uplifting that he no longer felt the ground beneath his feet as he seemed to drift within the notes, spinning softly, part of the pattern rather than just listening to it.
Yet there was something else. He had experienced the wind song before, but never this strongly. It was always beautiful, but never this much so. Underneath it, though, there was something darker. It was still beautiful, but with a tinge of desperation or fear. Was it trying to communicate with him? In the past the air kami involved in the wind song had done so despite him, not because of him. Maybe if he reached out to them they would-
The music stopped.
Ekei stood on the hillside with Chiaki at his side. There was still a slight breeze but there was nothing unusual about it. He looked at his Sparrow companion and she smiled effusively back at him.
“That was the best I have ever heard! They were singing for you, Ekei-san!”
* * *
“I am sorry that you need to depart so soon, Ekei-san.” Under the light of day, Suzume Chiaki seemed a little older than she had the night before – possibly a little sadder as well.
“I am afraid I must. After what I experienced last night, there are some scrolls I wish to reference back at Shinden Asahina. I appreciate your invitation and- ” He was interrupted by a commotion in the streets. Both peasants and samurai were rushing past, clearly concerned about something. “What is…?
Chiaki flagged down one of the passing farmer and asked, “What is it? What has happened?”
The peasant responded, “There has been an accident at the mine. It is in danger of collapsing completely!”
Ekei looked concerned, “A mine cave-in?”
Chiaki shook her head. “It would be worse than that, Ekei-san. The rice crop has been poor this year, so the income from the mine, small as it is, is crucial to the clan. Also, many lives would be lost.”
“Would you like my assistance? Perhaps the mine can be saved.”
“Any help would be appreciated, Ekei-san, but I cannot imagine what we could do to halt a mine-cave-in.”
Within moments of arriving at the scene, Asahina Ekei took command of the situation. The roof had not collapsed completely, but it was clear that the structural integrity had been severely compromised and the workers would not have time to complete needed repairs before it gave out. “You,” Ekei snapped at a passing man covered in grey rock dust. “Are the needed materials available? Can you support the ceiling?”
The man took a quick glance at the Crane and replied, “We have what we need, Asahina-san, but we don’t have the time. The men can go in, but they will perish before the work is complete.”
“Move the materials into position and be ready to work quickly.” Ekei did not look back, assuming the Sparrow would follow orders. As he moved, he called on the air kami. They swirled around him until he sent them into the mouth of the mine.
Through gritted teeth and past a sweating brow he said, “Now. Get in there.”
The Sparrow workers sprang into action. The rocks continued to fall but Ekei maintained a pocket of air for them to work in. They dealt with some disorientation as their ears popped and it was difficult to breathe, but they did not hesitate.
Ekei rested, leaning against a boulder, drinking a bowl of water brought to him by a thankful Sparrow. Chiaki approached, accompanied by the dust-covered worker the Crane had given his orders to. “Asahina Ekei,” Chiaki said, “please allow me to introduce Suzume Yugoki, the daimyo of the Sparrow Clan.”
Ekei gulped down the water he was drinking and bowed. “My apologies Suzume-sama. When I spoke before I did not know who you were.”
Yugoki shook off the apology. “That is not necessary, Asahina-san. Under the circumstances you could not have realized. Besides, it was your action that saved our mine, and possibly our clan. That certainly does not require an apology. Instead, I would like to extend our thanks to you and the Crane.”
“It was only luck that I was here, Suzume-sama. When Suzume Chiaki invited me, I had no idea that I would be in a position to return the favor.”
“Then we have to thank the kami that you were. This was a great thing you did for us, Asahina-san. The Sparrow do not forget such things lightly. If there is anything we can do for the Crane to return the favor, you need only ask.”
“That is a great thing you offer, Suzume-sama. I shall extend your words to the leaders of my family and clan. They will be greatly pleased.”
* * *
Far from the Suzume Hills, deep in the Shinomen Forest, Chuda Kyuwa approached his master. Daigotsu did not turn to face him as he said, “What is it?”
Kyuwa pulled a scroll from the bundle he carried. “The plan was successful, Lord Daigotsu. Chiaki manipulated one of the Asahina into saving the Sparrow.”
“From an accident she caused.”
Kyuwa smiled. “Of course, Lord.”
“And what have we benefited from this subterfuge? Do we have someone within the Crane yet?”
“We do not, my Lord. Chiaki did not attempt to turn Asahina Ekei to our side. Instead she was able to procure these.”
“Invitations to attend Winter Court at Kyuden Otomo.”
Unseen by Kyuwa, Daigotsu’s eyes widened, and a smile crept onto his face.
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