Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
Landslide: An Epilogue to a Prologue
Hida An sat in his private quarters, his supper untouched and growing cold on the table before him. This was an unusual decadence for the Champion; usually, he ate his food promptly and with fervor, since one never knew when a meal would be one’s last. This evening, however, he found himself too distracted to eat, and rather irritated at himself for being in such a state.
“Tsuriko,” he murmured, gazing idly about his room at the painted fans on the walls, “I wonder often lately if you’d be better at all this…delicate court talk…than me. Though I guess that wouldn’t take too much, seeing as I’m pretty bad at it.” He frowned slightly, both at admitting his own lack of political prowess out loud, and at the fact that he was talking to his long-dead wife, something he did more and more these days. Their marriage had been happy enough, especially for one between a Hida and a Doji, and they had grown rather fond of each other during those six years they were wed. Sometimes An would find himself remembering her funeral: Renmazuo had just entered his sixth year and was doing his best to look upon his mother’s pyre without crying, although his chin wobbled; Miang, just past two years old and being held by her nurse, her startling green eyes taking in the flames without wavering. For his part, An allowed tears to flow, hidden from his folk inside Ketsuen’s helm, secure in the knowledge that the helm had borne similar tears from those who had worn it before him.
It was that memory, along with the more recent, terrifying ones of Winter Court, that made him unsure of what to do about the Phoenix’s proposal. He could see the wisdom in Asako Hoshi’s words of sending other Clans to serve a time on the Wall; and yet, those Clans did not have generations of strength bred into them, the raw endurance that was required to survive the southern conditions. His poor wife, sturdy though she was for a Crane, weakened and died from trying to live in this place, though she would not admit it even with her dying breath.
“A strong woman, you were, Tsuriko,” he grumbled, “and even then, not strong enough. What to do about those who do not approach your strength?” He sighed, running a hand along his receding gray hair that was caught back in a severe knot. His helm sat across the small table from him, looking up at him with its ancient, blank stare. “Don’t judge me,” he scolded it. “I judge myself enough.”
Someone tapped lightly on the shoji screen. Hida An started a bit, then growled, “Enter.” He hoped whoever it was hadn’t heard him conversing with his helm or his dead wife; both were more than enough cause for suspicion in Crab lands.
Kaiu Takanaka entered, his eyes downcast, his face completely devoid of its usual irreverent expression. He moved to the table and immediately knelt, bowing so his forehead touched the weathered hands splayed before his knees. “Sama,” he began, “I bring important news.”
Still rankling from his embarrassing habit of yammering to himself, An pushed himself to his feet with a grunt, putting his helm under his left arm. “If this is about that damned Atsutane kid, Takanaka, you know I’ve already sent for a Seppun to see if he’s telling the truth about his lineage.”
“No, sama,” Takanaka replied, his voice as quiet and formal as An had ever heard it.
“Miang’s wedding plans, then? She and Makuushio-san are more than willing to be married whenever we can convince the damn Yasuki that they really do want their reception on the Wall. She’s gonna wear her mother’s wedding kimono, since I guess that stuff is important to women, even ones who wield a blade better than a fan.”
“Sadly, no, sama. Although I will order the Yasuki to make haste with the reception plans in light of recent events.”
“What events?” An growled, impatience warring with a slight, gnawing nervousness at his karo’s unusual mannerisms. “Is it the Phoenix? I told them, I’d already talked with Miang and we both liked their ideas. What else—”
“Forgive my impertinence in interrupting, sama, but this news is much more important than that. Your son, Renmazuo-sama, was killed in a battle at Shiro Kaotsuki no Higashi a few days past. He died by the hand of Shinjo O-Shite…,” he coughed lightly, “…literally by both of her hands.” He began explaining the terrifying manner of Renmazuo’s death as relayed by several witnesses. A walking corpse that could not be killed by any means the Crab knew how to kill one; her parting message to Renmazuo; his son’s bravery and quickness to act. An heard it all it bits, forced himself to listen to as much as possible, but that nervousness from before was already welling into molten rage, threatening to erupt from the Living Mountain at any moment.
At some point An realised he was striding towards his audience chamber. He did not remember leaving his quarters, but he was gripping his tetsubo with his right hand and still cradling his helm with his left. Takanaka was keeping pace well — he had a lot of practice with this — and An suddenly became aware that his faithful Claw had been asking questions for some time now. An halted right outside the back entrance to the audience chamber.
“So…sama? What do you mean to do?” Takanaka asked. It wasn’t fear in his tone, An decided — he was pretty sure the man no longer had a whisper of fear in his body — but rather uncertainty, not knowing what action he would be asked to take next.
An closed his eyes for a moment and bowed his head in respect to the Kaiu who had served him faithfully and fearlessly for all these long years; the man did not deserve An’s rage. “I mean for you to run this Kyuden for awhile, and I mean to go to war, Takanaka-san. And I mean for everyone to hear about it.” He barely waited for the man’s brisk nod of acceptance before turning and marching into the chamber where many of the Kyuden’s inhabitants and guests were taking their supper.
At his sudden appearance, the assembled made hasty bows. His barely-restrained rage must have been palpable, because none in the room so much as moved or tried to glance at one another. An stepped to the front of the dais and drew in a long breath.
“Hear me, Crab and guests of Kyuden Hida!” he began, his voice chasing silence from every corner of the room. “I am not the first father to lose a child in this Kyuden. Every day, mothers and fathers are stricken with the loss of their sons and daughters in service to the Empire, defending us all from threats that overwhelmed the Kami Themselves.” His son, who looked much like An’s father, raising his eyes in surprise as his foe kept moving after being run through. “But like any parent among the Crab, I expected to lose my children serving where they belonged, on the Wall. I would mourn them, I would stand at their funeral pyres, and I would fight all the harder against the enemy that slew them.” O-Shite’s fingers, finding Renmazuo’s throat and squeezing until there was no room in them for blood anymore, no room in his son’s throat for air. “When the Empire my son would have died for turns against him, turns against US, and uses some unspeakable, foul magic that cannot be combated with jade or steel to END HIS LIFE…I am angry.” O-Shite and her army of children at Winter Court, dying under his roof. No. Not now, he thought, clenching his fists. “When those who should be sending us thanks for sacrificing our children in droves so that theirs may grow up pampered send us instead armies to ravage our walls because they lost a handful of people to the Shadowlands…I am insulted.” The Phoenix, sending letters of outrage at having lost two of their most eligible maidens, and An marrying Ashida off to a Crab. This insult is far more grave. “And when this Empire dares to raise arms against us when so many of our troops died so that they could afford their SLIGHTS OF HONOUR…I AM ENRAGED!” He slammed the butt of his tetsubo into the dais, punching clean through its wooden slats, and glared at those before him, teeth bared in a snarl. “I have withstood this slight to my OWN honour long enough. Tonight, I will be the first Crab Champion in generations to leave the endless battle on the Wall and fight against living foes.”
He stepped down from the dais and made for the exit that led to the hallway. Those who happened to be in his path parted like silk for a Kakita blade, and he paid them as little heed as the blade did the silk. As he reached the doorway, he heard a strong woman’s voice say, “Hida An-sama.” He turned to see Asako Hoshi, standing but still bowed low. “I cannot say I fault your anger, and I will be sure to tell the Phoenix the reason for your war cries, but I beg of you, what of peace? Our agreement—”
“Peace? THERE WILL BE NO PEACE!” An roared, thrusting his helm onto his head. “I do not make threats of war as an idle political move, Asako Hoshi. The time for courtly words and actions are DONE.” He turned halfway back towards the door, shouldering his weapon. “Tell the Phoenix whatever you want; the Hiruma will provide an escort for you out of Crab lands when the sun rises. But warn them of this: if this Empire provokes the Living Mountain towards their provinces, I will come, and I will bury them ALL in a landslide of their THANKLESS CORPSES.” Without another word, he left the room, and indeed, not another word was spoken in the chamber until long after the moon had risen.
That night, Kyuden Hida dreamt only of a terrible war, of pyres burning until they outshone the Sun Herself in all of Her Summer glory.