Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
Crane Clan * Shugenja * Air
The sunset burned across the waves, bright arcs of orange, pink, and yellow that shimmered in the calm blue waters. A few steel-blue clouds drifted across the sky, individual rays of sun turning their edges molten. Yoritomo Kazeko, the captain of a small Mantis trading vessel that plied the waves with ease, looked at the clouds suspiciously before turning to her sole passenger. “Looks like you’re lucky, Asahina-san,” she said with a big grin, the large metal hoops dangling from her ears clinking musically. “Storm’s coming in, and if you wanted to book passage even as soon as tomorrow morning, you’d be land-bound!” She chuckled, smiling invitingly at the man perched as near to the prow of the boat as she would let him get.
Asahina Takumi smiled, a slow smile that took awhile to reach his dark grey eyes, but when it did, his face was completely full of joy. “Well then, Yoritomo-san, I consider myself very fortunate to live in Jukami Mura, so that a captain as skilled as yourself is just one house over.” The captain’s grin grew bigger and more boastful as she puffed up with the compliment, then she thought to disguise it with a polite bow and strode off giving orders to her crew. They were due to arrive at the docks of Kyuden Doji within a few minutes, although the formidable estate was still concealed by high grey cliffs tinged purple by the setting sun.
Takumi turned his attention back to the north, concentrating. The captain of the Sea Silk was indeed right; the air and water kami were already hissing and burbling about a large storm to come. It was a little unusual for such a big storm to happen this early in the Spring, but then, it had been an unusual Spring. Even in Jukami Mura, where the coastal breezes kept the weather fairly temperate all year round, wet snows had been falling and turning the narrow, dirty streets to slicks of icy mud. Tension was high in town, with business for the local ronin and Mantis traders being more strained than usual due to cold weather and bad storms. Takumi had briefly considered moving back to the Asahina temple, but he had left it for his sturdy but inelegant townhouse for a reason; he found it easier to concentrate when not surrounded by others trying to do the same thing. He thrived on the white noise of a small city’s bustling population, and there, he was near to the sea, but far from anyone who sought to use his talents beyond the folk that brought him small trinkets to inspect or imbue.
“Sadly,” he murmured to himself, “of course they still knew where to come seeking.”
He’d received a message delivered by a breathless young man in fine Doji clothing who looked constantly to the ramshackle back alleys around him as he bowed quickly and handed Takumi the scroll. He waited, his twitching fingers his only outward sign of impatience, as Takumi slowly and carefully read over the missive three times.
The Honorable Doji Hajime, Clan Champion of the Crane, requests your presence within the week at Kyuden Doji. There is a matter of growing importance to our Clan, and you were personally recommended by your esteemed sensei, Asahina Yukiji, for your special skill in what we seek. We look forward to your arrival.
—Doji O-Hana, Karo to Doji Hajime”_
Doji O-Hana’s personal seal and chop followed, and Takumi ran his thumb over it absently as he considered. He was a man who did everything slowly and deliberately, a trait that was currently causing the messenger at his door to almost visibly begin shifting and fidgeting. At last, Takumi said, “I will, of course, make haste to attend Doji-sama. Allow me to write a response, and I will begin gathering my things immediately.”
So it was that now Takumi sat on the ship, the wind tousling his shoulder length hair, his eyes half closed with pleasure and thought. He was mildly curious about this summons—-perhaps even a little nervous, although that was a small thought deep in his mind; he was not a nervous man by nature—-but he knew his curiosity should be saved to investigate whatever it was they set before him.
The small trading vessel suddenly made a fairly sharp turn around a rounded cliff base, and Kyuden Doji appeared in all its glory. Nestled right on the shoreline with only a small port between the sea and the castle, its white walls fiery with the last of the sun’s rays. As they pulled up to the docks and the crew of the Sea Silk tossed ropes to deckhands on shore, Takumi removed a small envelope containing payment that he placed under the captain’s compass. She winked at him and deliberately turned her back. The Asahina climbed down a rope ladder with surprising grace and dignity, and made his way across the docks to a paved path that wound up to the castle.
Before he passed through the gates into the seaside gardens, he was met by two servants who seemed momentarily surprised—-they were expecting Asahina-sama, but not so soon!—-and led him through the winding garden paths and through the Kyuden itself. It was relatively quiet inside; Winter Court had ended not too long ago, and many courtiers had returned home until the Spring courts began. The servants escorted him to the third floor, and announced his presence before a set of elaborately carved birchwood doors that stood partway open.
“Send him in,” came a strong, melodious male voice from within the doors. Takumi entered a tasteful receiving room that also seemed to serve as an office. Low tea tables were arranged around the floor in a manner designed to give privacy but seem organic, each one topped with a sparse arrangement of early plum or cherry blossoms in a white vase. The walls were the same light birch as the doors, lacquered to a shine and decorated every so often with a painting or small mirror. Against the far wall, behind an elegant desk of carved oak, shoji screens had been slid aside to reveal a balcony overlooking the sea. The Crane do everything deliberately and with beauty, and Asahina appreciated the Clan Champion’s adherence to this philosophy; he stood on the balcony with his hands clasped behind his back, staring out to sea. Takumi was privately willing to bet he had been pacing his study moments earlier, but it did not matter; the man presented what he needed to, seemingly effortlessly.
Takumi gracefully prostrated himself in the middle of the room, noticing out of the corner of his eye that a woman, average-looking by Crane standards but with piercingly intelligent blue eyes peering over her too-wide nose, sat at a smaller desk in the corner of the room.
“I am Asahina Takumi, Doji-sama. My name and the ancestors I bear it for are honoured to be called to serve you.” He waited, feeling a little uncomfortable; he was Crane, so proper respect and politeness came easily to him, but it had been a long time since he had been in the presence of someone of such a high rank.
“Rise, Asahina-san. Your years in Jukami Mura have not tarnished your respect and dignity, I see,” Hajime said, a touch of humour in his voice. As Takumi straightened to a kneeling position, he glanced cautiously at the Doji’s face. Stern and slightly lined, it was nevertheless a very handsome face, framed by careful braids of long white hair. His breastplate gleamed with polish, and his hakama and haori were the height of current fashion without being ostentatious. Doji Hajime carried himself as a perfect Crane should—-not easy to do, given the standards they set for themselves.
The Champion met Takumi’s gaze and smiled encouragingly. “Please, Asahina-san. Sit with me at my favourite tea table. It is nearly past suppertime, and a meal will be sent up shortly.”
Takumi bowed slightly before moving to the table after Hajime. “It is too kind of you, my lord. I am most grateful.”
After exchanging a few more pleasantries while the servants brought in dishes with an assortment of fresh sashimi, small bowls of jasmine rice, and a warm decanter of sake, the Champion clapped his hands lightly and said, “So! We must get down to business, yes? Sadly, this entire business begins with hearsay, as they often do. O-Hana-san,” he said, turning his attention to the woman at her desk. “Do you wish to join us for dinner? I am sure those tax receipts can wait, yes?”
“As my lord wishes,” the woman replied, her voice very girlish and tinged with a hint of sarcasm. She walked efficiently across the room and kneeled at the table. Takumi bowed low, and she returned a polite bow before putting some yellowtail sashimi on her plate with a bit of rice, and eating daintily.
“Ah yes. We’ve all been working hard lately—-is it ever different, really?—-but there’s no reason not to enjoy the fruits of our labours, hmm?” He smiled at his companions charmingly, which Takumi returned cautiously and O-Hana returned with familiar enthusiasm. “Let us see. Well, I contacted the Asahina some time last week after hearing, ah…rumours, I suppose…of a recent encounter with the Lion armies. Your clan, as you know better than I, knows how to discern the properties of a nemurenai, and I sought their counsel. You see, we have suspicions—-nothing yet concrete, but disturbingly persistent nonetheless—-that a particular sword was used by the Lion in their most recent and rather….suicidal….attack. No news beyond that, I’m afraid, but the connection between this sword and the Lion’s very uncharacteristic behaviour cannot be ignored. Your sensei, Yukiji-san, is actually a companion of mine from our younger days, and so I sought her advice first. She took time to consider my question, and then recommended you to me, as she said you will search for this artifact with patience and persistence, and never become frustrated with people. Do you believe her assessment is accurate, Asahina-san?”
Takumi carefully placed his chopsticks across his plate before answering. “My sensei is ever too kind when she speaks of me, but truly, my lord, I do believe she does not flatter. I am known especially for my patience, nearly to a fault, I believe.” He cleared his throat and began to sip at his sake; it was very good, and soothing besides.
Hajime considered this, nodding slowly, delicately eating another strip of sashimi before responding, mostly to himself, it seemed. “Honest, as well, but not boastful. She has chosen well for this particular task.” Looking directly at Takumi, he said, “Well then! It is settled. That is one tile set in sure motion in this game. Please, be my guest here at Kyuden Doji tonight. The sun has already set and no matter is so urgent that you cannot attend to it well-rested. Tomorrow I will lend you a good horse—-Miya stock, you know—-and send you on your way.”
“Ah, yes, Doji-sama. I am deeply grateful. However, where does my lord wish for me to begin my search?”
The Champion smiled, rising from the table. “We actually have word that one of the Lion in the skirmish is now attending the Festival of Kono-no-Hana in Otosan Uchi…”