Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
Sacred Ink in the Painted Desert
The Unicorn brought back tales of the Burning Sands with them, almost as many tales as they brought new customs, odd mannerisms, darker skins. For those who had only ever lived within Rokugan’s borders, the concept of an endless sea of blistering sand, blessed only with an annual rainstorm and the morning’s dew for moisture, were almost as unfathomable as grasping hands in greeting, wearing furs, eating the meat of four-legged beasts. Standing in the midst of the shimmering dunes, Mirumoto Ukkyo squinted into the ceaseless winds, their force whipping the cotton cloth wound about his head behind his shoulders, and said yet another silent prayer of thanks for the few stories the Ide had told him before he’d left the Empire. “Hey, Kensaburo!” he called over his shoulder, his voice as rough and gritty as the sands that chafed it. “We’re gonna have to suck it up and say thanks to the Unicorn when we get back. Their stories of the colourful oases that blossom after the rains turned out to be true, even though I still don’t believe most of the other stuff they said.” He shook his head, turning back to the valley in the dunes before him.
After countless days of nothing but merciless sun, a summer rainstorm had come suddenly in the night, awakening Ukkyo and his travelling companion, Mirumoto Kensaburo, and causing them both to stare at each other dumbfounded as they were soaked by water for the first time in months. This morning, they had kept moving northwest, seeking the promised city of Medinaat al-Salaam that lay beyond the the wastes. The Ide had advised that the two Dragon would be best suited to travel at night and rest during the day, but both had found the blistering heat more tolerable awake than asleep, and so they endured the wrath of the ceaseless sun, its searing globe stinging their eyes every afternoon..
Now, however, a lush oasis stretched in the valley below, carpeted with tiny flowers of every hue, a few stunted, hardy trees and tall cacti surrounding a pool formed by last night’s rain. It was the first body of water the two travellers had seen since they had left Rokugan’s western border two seasons ago. Ukkyo turned to his companion, his eyes crinkled in a smile above the cloth wrappings. “Looks like we’ll sleep in luxury this evening.”
“Not only this evening,” Kensaburo replied, his voice muffled by his own scarf and the voluminous moustache within it, “but likely many thereafter. It seems our destination is but another day’s travel.” He pointed beyond the oasis, and sure enough, shimmering in the distance were the fabled white towers with red domed peaks of Medinaat al-Salaam.
Ukkyo breathed a small sigh of relief at the sight, the exhaustion of the day’s travels leaving him, and made his way down the dune towards the oasis. Once he and Kensaburo had arrived at the bottom, they refilled all their canteens before stripping down to their smallclothes and giving their clothing the first wash they’d had in months. The caked sand that filled every fold of fabric settled to the bottom of the pond, and Ukkyo felt it was a good omen that their long travels in the sands would be fruitful.
After hanging their clothes over one tree’s narrow, twisting branches, Ukkyo smoothed a place in the sand under the other tree to meditate. Kensaburo’s booming laugh rippled across the pond. “You tellin’ me your feet hurt even though we’re stopping for the night before sundown?”
Ukkyo snorted. “It would be a waste of Setsune-sama’s gift if I did not use it, wouldn’t it?” He knelt in the warm sand and closed his eyes, the late afternoon sun almost pleasant now that it was filtered somewhat by the tree’s spiny leaves. As he focused on the warmth and peace of the sun, he willed the chrysanthemum tattoo between his shoulderblades to awaken, its golden blossoms finding kinship in the sun’s rays. Ukkyo felt that now-familiar blessed relief spread through his body, and he knew that Kensaburo could see his stripes of sunburn vanishing, his cramped muscles loosening, various scars shrinking ever so slightly. He allowed the tattoo to quiet itself, and remained in focused meditation on his gift.
It had been over a year since Togashi Setsune’s own sacred needle had bitten into the muscled flesh of his upper back, imprinting the chrysanthemum for all to see. When the marking was over, Ukkyo prostrated himself before his Champion, murmuring his words of gratitude into the cold wooden floor. “You honor me greatly, sama,” he said. “Such a gift bestowed by your own hand is valuable beyond measure.”
“It is,” Togashi Setsune agreed matter-of-factly, strapping on the gauntlets he’d removed only to perform his artistry. “But I do not bestow gifts where they are not fitting. The Chrysanthemum Blossom must shine brightly in the days to come. Who better to give it to than one descended from a mother of Hantei’s line and a father who chose the Mountain’s heights?” He motioned for Ukkyo to rise. “Your musha shugyo is well timed, Ukkyo. I marked my blessing upon you for your sense of timeliness as well. So long as Lady Sun shines upon you, the flesh granted you by your ancestors will be healthy. This serves both of our purposes.”
“Hai, sama,” Ukkyo replied, his eyes lowered even as he stood to his full height. He fought back the revulsion he felt when his Champion reminded him that he shared blood with his father; Setsune had likely done it on purpose, as he was known for testing people’s strengths by prodding at their weaknesses. “May the Kami grant that our purposes are always so fortunately intertwined.”
From deep within Setsune’s armour came a scratchy chuckle, a sound like pebbles being scattered on hot coals. “I also pray for such good fortune, Ukkyo.”
Ukkyo breathed deeply and came out of his reminiscence. It was refreshing to meditate on the gift he’d been given, and why he’d been given it; after all, as his sensei had taught him, one that meditates is one that has paved the path to his goal. He rose and began to help Kensaburo prepare their supper. A small pot with an inch of water in it, in which they added a cloth packet of seasonings, salted smoked salmon, and dried cabbage: the Unicorn truly knew what would sustain them in the desert. Even as long as they’d been travelling, they still had enough rations for another month or so, and that was with both men being hearty eaters. It seemed Kensaburo was also in a quiet mood, which suited Ukkyo just fine. They ate in companionable silence, watching the stars appear one by one as the sun’s departure turned the heavens from bright azure to deep purple.
As he cleaned his dishes, refolded his dry clothing into his pack, and prepared to lay down for the night, Ukkyo found himself somewhat nervous, anxious — perhaps even excited. He looked towards Medinaat al-Salaam, just visible above a sand dune, the city walls a brilliant coral hue in the setting sunlight, and thought of his father, as he had every single moment since beginning his musha shugyo. Gendo, the man’s name was, and that was the only name he’d possessed until he had had the good fortune to befriend Hantei Fujiwara on his famed musha shugyo before he became Hantei XL. After the Hantei’s coronation, he’d thanked Gendo by granting him the right to become Mirumoto Gendo. He also married his friend to his youngest sister, Otomo Keiko, and they had raised their only son, Ukkyo, both on the Mountain and in the courts of Otosan Uchi. It was noted by many to be an exceptionally blessed life; raised from ronin to royalty, as the Ikoma said. Ukkyo’s childhood was a happy one, rich with the benefits his parents’ places in society offered.
Unfortunately, it seemed that such privilege proved too much for his father’s ronin mind. A year and one season ago, during a clear Spring night with a growing moon, his father brutally murdered his mother, slicing off two of her limbs, and fled into the Burning Sands. Ukkyo was devastated: for three days and four nights, he did not speak or take any nourishment, only sat with his parents’ marriage scroll cradled in his lap as he knelt on the side of the Mountain. Finally, on the fourth morning, he rose, ate a great meal, and announced his musha shugyo to Mirumoto Shigetoki, not bothering to hide the anger that tightened his eyes..
I wasn’t expecting such a boon from Setsune-sama, though, he thought to himself with a grim smile as he wrapped himself in his travelling blanket and settling into the sands. It will keep me healthy long enough to discover the truth, avenge my mother, or both. From the moment Kensaburo had declared he would accompany Ukkyo on his quest, it had been a long journey that spanned the Empire searching for anything that might lead to understanding his father’s fit of madness: and then a longer journey once he realised the only one with the answer was Mirumoto Gendo himself. If the man had survived the sands, the Unicorn had assured Ukkyo, he would be in Medinaat al-Salaam. The city’s name had been hard for Ukkyo to pronounce at first, but he had repeated it daily to himself, his litany of purpose, and now it rolled easily off his tongue.
Ukkyo closed his eyes at last, feeling the serenity of the night wash over him. Comfortable in his blanket, hearing the familiar snores of Kensaburo next to him, he reveled in the sense of peace — however temporary — that came with purpose, the satisfaction of feeling close to one’s destiny. Back in Rokugan, he was a descendant of the Hantei line, expected to act and serve a certain way. Out here in the painted desert, he was just a chrysanthemum blossom amongst rare desert blooms, following his roots to the source to assess what his own fate might be.
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