Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
Asako Hoshi found herself with her hands clenched tightly in her lap, and an unfamiliar fluttering in her belly. Is this…nervousness? she wondered to herself. It must be. I have not felt truly nervous since I was a young girl. She felt vaguely irritated at recognizing the feeling for what it was — it had been a full forty years since her gempukku, and she thought herself quite safely past those unruly emotions of youth.
At least I have the consolation of knowing that my nervousness has nothing to do with a passing fancy for some Isawa prettyboy sitting across the table from me, she thought, smoothing her hair with a casual motion. Indeed, none could mistake her dinner companion for anything other than a Kuni, and Kuni Hanshiro was fearsome even among his Family. His face was painted with striking lines of black, bright green, and a cloudy grey. Grey eyes peered at her with hawklike intelligence from within their black lining, the teeth that consumed his supper shockingly white next to his black lips. He’s certainly no Isawa, Hoshi mused wryly, picking up her chopsticks to resume eating her meal. Perhaps a healthy case of nerves will help…if I do not let it show, of course.
“As I was saying, Hanshiro-san, you among the Kuni understand the Inquisitors better than most in the Empire. Our paths diverge only at our methods used; we pursue the same passion. I believe that others in the Empire can relate similarly to the various Crab families. This is our reason for our long journey under the banner of peace,” she said, gesturing to the six other Asako Inquisitors that sat a slight distance down the table, “we seek to forge mutual understanding with the Crab based on the idea that we are not all so different. We must face the reality of a greater, terrible enemy, one which you know better than I.” She delicately ate another bite of rice: it was quite good, which surprised her somewhat, but then again, she supposed the Kuni respected what nourishment they could acquire at this strange fortress in the mountains at the northeastern border of the Crab lands.
Hanshiro remained completely silent, finishing his meal, his unsettling eyes never leaving her face. It had been many years since Hoshi had faced one such as this in the courts, but she formed her on to be one of casual politeness, bordering on disinterest, and tried to still her roiling belly with her supper. Just as she was on the verge of joining the quiet conversation of her followers, Hanshiro spoke abruptly.
“You speak true, in many ways. You do not know the true enemy as well as I do; however, I’ll admit you seem to know more than most. If all you wish is to speak with Hida An-sama and present your idea, you’re in luck. He has specific orders that any among the Phoenix are to be escorted into Kyuden Hida as soon as possible.”
Hiding her excitement with a gracious bow, Hoshi replied, “Ah, this is wonderful news, Hanshiro-san! Shall we leave in the morning, then? I believe our journey, although arduous, has not exhausted us enough to need more than one night’s rest, yes?” she said, looking to the other Asako. They murmured assent in various ways, and Hoshi stood from the table, laying her chopsticks across her bowl. “We thank you for the meal and your hospitality, Hanshiro-san. Indeed, we thank all of the Kuni for sharing this Shiro with us, despite the unfortunate differences brewing between our Clans,” she said, nodding around the room to the various Kuni who skulked about the sparse dining hall. Leading the procession of Asako that followed her in two neat rows, Hoshi returned to their guest quarters and fell into the exhausted sleep of one whose mind has been fully taxed.
The summer sun dawned on Kuni Hanshiro leading the seven Inquisitors through the dreary passes of the mountains that roughly divided the heart of the Crab lands from the eastern shore. “Tell me, Hoshi-san,” Hanshiro said suddenly, guiding them across a narrow stone bridge, “why would you seek to bring others to our Wall? That seems to me as though you find our sacred duty since the dawn of the Empire…lacking.”
Hoshi felt no nervousness now, as she finally was prepared for something this eccentric man said. “If anything is lacking, it is not the Crab’s tireless service on the Wall, Hanshiro-san,” she replied, shaking a jagged stone from the sole of her boot. “The only fault the Crab have in all this is not allowing the rest of the Empire to see that the whispered horrors coming out of your lands are not merely something to scare children with. Plenty of other Clans foster out their younger members to others to allow them to see what life elsewhere is like. For those folk who have much anger and vigor and nowhere good to aim it, I believe the Wall would be both a good use of their temperament and perhaps a humbling lesson to them.”
“Only if they survive it,” hissed the Kuni. “It is a dreadful place, terrible, icy death, unspeakable landscapes beyond it, and I for one wish to lose no more blossoms of the Empire to the Wall.”
Hoshi raised an eyebrow at the man’s back, surprised by his show of passion. “Flowers? Hmm. I suppose some of them are rare, sweet blossoms that wither at the first breath of autumn, but if you think there is only one sort of flower that grows in all the Empire, Hanshiro-san…” she trailed off, leaving the insult unspoken.
“We won’t plant them here,” he rasped. “Nothing healthy survives the cracks on the Wall, takes root in the…the beyond-the-Wall. It cannot be done. We will have failed you all.”
Fighting back the flutters of nervousness that threatened her once again, Hoshi decided a light tack would work best here. “Failed us? No, Hanshiro-san, being overwhelmed by one of the largest oni advances in Rokugan’s history, led by the Dark Brother’s very bride, is not what constitutes failure. Even granting that the rest of the Empire is lacking the proper education of the Wall’s true horrors, we have failed you. Can you not see the difference?”
Hanshiro breathed heavily, his hands flexing open and closed. He strode along the path with the heedless speed that only one familiar with treacherous paths can do. “It…cannot be. No more blossoms. Crushed under their skittering feet. No more.”
Doing her best to keep pace with the agitated Kuni, Hoshi thought quickly. “As I mentioned before, there are many types of blossoms in the Empire. In the Phoenix lands, we have a hardy bloom that covers the ground from after the last snowmelt until the first flakes fall again. It is called phlox, and though its purple blossoms and glossy leaves are a lovely sight, that is not what defines its true character. Storms rage, people and beasts traverse the ground covered in this far-flung plant, diseases strike, rains do not come for nearly a season…and still, there it blooms, bravely putting forth as many star-shaped blossoms as it can force out. Would I send the Wall a blossom cultivated in the warmth of Court, lovely, multilayered and useless? Or do you think that perhaps I possess enough sense to dispatch an army of phlox blossoms, hardy and willing to adapt?”
Hanshiro was silent for a long, long time. Hoshi forced herself to focus on the path before her and not on what he might say. Finally, as the sun was setting, he turned around suddenly and bowed slightly. “You will send ten blossoms for every one you want to return home, yes?”
Hoshi nodded gravely. “Callous as it may sound, the real benefit to the Empire is not the nine blooms lost, but the one that returns home with a story.”
Hanshiro narrowed his eyes, and then gave a quick, feral smile. “Good. We sleep now.”
Four days later, they arrived at Kyuden Hida. They were greeted by the tallest woman Hoshi had ever seen, one Kuni Setsuna, who led them all into the palace, dismissing one of her followers so Hanshiro could take the man’s place. They stopped before an open screen, which Setsuna alone passed through; beyond it, Hoshi could make out a large, dimly-lit room with a few people inside. Occasionally one of two booming voices would cut through the ambient noise in the hallways, but not loud enough to be intelligible. Setsuna returned, and the three Kuni spoke amongst themselves for a short time, until the massive shireikan turned towards the Asako again.
“Hida An-sama is regretfully preoccupied at the moment, and says he’s sorry for it since he’s really looking forward to talking to you all. He’s suggested that his daughter, Hida Miang, will be able to hear your words. She’ll tell her father about what you said as soon as he has time. You okay with that?”
Hoshi bowed graciously. “It would be an honour, Kuni-san.”
Setsuna turned and walked briskly into the chamber, followed first by the diminutive girl that accompanied her, and then by Hanshiro. When Hoshi moved to follow, Hanshiro stopped her with a shake of his head. “Wait here. Hida Miang will not wish to see you with so many onlookers.” He paused, then said, “Remind her of the blossoms. She’ll like that.” With that, he vanished into the shadowy room, and Hoshi turned to her fellow Inquisitors.
“Well, it seems we’ve come all this way to discuss gardening with An-sama!” she said brightly. The Asako all managed some quiet chuckling, even as they cast their eyes about nervously. “It is no matter. Stranger blossoms than the Phoenix and the Crab have been cultivated within the same box before.” She tapped her chin thoughtfully. “It is so easy to find the beauty in a plain flower when your other alternative is a field of nettles,” she murmured. “We must succeed here, or we all go to rot.”
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