Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
Before the Assembled
Kuni Setsuna strode through the wide hallways of Kyuden Hida, returning the bows she received from passersby with a respectful nod. After being promoted to shireikan of the Kuni because of her service during the most disastrous Winter Court in the Clan’s history, she found herself committed to this kyuden in ways she never had been before. She knew now where her enemy lie, and it had breached these very walls. There was no need to travel the rest of the Empire to hunt the creatures most tainted — how could she ever have thought otherwise? — as this castle’s builders knew, those creatures would be easy to find if they ever made it past this formidable foyer.
Making her way to the audience chamber flanked by Kuni Gensuko and Kuni Shunsuke — she felt it unlucky to walk around with any more or less than two companions — Setsuna paused briefly to greet Kaiu Hachigoro as he hammered a new steel plate onto one of the gates of the passageways that riddled Kyuden Hida. “Hachigoro-san!” Setsuna exclaimed happily, startling the Kaiu smith ever so slightly. “Finishing your interior decorating, I see?”
He turned towards her, bowing as he did so, resting his hammer on the ground next to him. “Hai, Kuni-san. The Hida have very particular taste in their decor. Fortunately, I have an eye for these things.” He managed a faltering half smile as he rose, straightening and rubbing the small of his back, squinting up at the witch hunter’s face that was a full arm’s length higher than his own.
Setsuna grinned, a fairly gruesome sight that twisted the ruined right side of her mouth into a tattered snarl. “I’m sure your fine skills will serve the shell of the Crab quite well. Will you be finishing this work in the rest of the passageways?”
Hachigoro scowled, shaking his head slowly. “Unfortunately, my duties to the Clan lie elsewhere in the Empire as of tomorrow morning. This will be my last project within the kyuden for now.”
The Kuni raised a painted eyebrow, shifting her weight slightly. “Oh? Got yourself in trouble with An-sama, did you? I can’t even imagine why else he’d send a Kaiu away with so many of the Clan lost this winter.”
Scratching the back of his neck, Hachigoro bowed his head slightly to hide his embarrassment. “Witch hunters are indeed astute. I will be serving elsewhere, regardless of my wishes to stay.”
Setsuna clapped him on the shoulder, using her other hand to pat the seven-foot-long bisento strapped to her back. “I’m sure you’ll build something nice for the rest of the Empire. Just promise me you won’t make anyone else one of these, eh? It’s all kinds of good luck — even down to the fact that it’s exactly three inches taller than me — and I’d be pretty jealous if I saw some strutting Crane bearing one, know what I mean?”
“H—hai, Kuni-san,” Hachigoro stuttered. “I made it for you, and am grateful you love it so. I would never make that for one outside of the Clan. And—well—weaponsmithing is not the service I’ve been sent to provide.”
Rolling her good eye towards the silky rustling of Gensuko’s kimono and the creaking of Shunsuke’s armour behind her, Setsuna bowed slightly to the smith. “I’m not crude enough to pry further into a good smith’s punishment, Hachigoro-san. I wish you well, and a speedy return to the lands your fathers built. My companions remind me that my presence has been required by An-sama, so I won’t bother you further.” She walked away as Hachigoro made the usual parting pleasantries before turning back to his work.
Despite her companions’ impatience, Setsuna still found herself in the audience chamber before many others had arrived. An-sama sat in a chair on a raised platform at one end, his daughter Miang leaning against the wall to his left, Kaiu Takanaka standing at his right side. The room was not as full as it once would have been: most Crab had duties that they could find no relief from, and manpower was stretched extremely thin. A handful of Yasuki knelt on the floor, preparing a small table with bowls of a thick white stew ladled from a great kettle. Here and there, Kaiu smiths were finishing their reinforcements of the room’s structures, purposefully avoiding the piercing gaze of Takanaka that followed each strike of the hammer, each wooden beam locked into place. A few lanterns burned steadily in the iron sconces on the wall, but only the bare amount needed to light the room: rations were still tight on just about everything, even though the season had turned twice since Winter Court.
Setsuna strode to the dais at the end of the room, bowing low along with her companions to Hida An. The Living Mountain rose slowly, his voice booming from the raised visor of Ketsuen. “Setsuna-san. I see you have chosen to leave Hanshiro-san behind for this meeting.”
“Given the company, sama, I figured it’d be…prudent…to make sure he was busy. He’s attending to our Phoenix guests; they seem to like him.” Setsuna rose, keeping her good eye lowered — her bad one did that on its own — and rolled her shoulders. On the dais, An towered over her by almost a foot, but even when they stood side-by-side, he was one of the few that overmatched her in height, if only slightly. The superstitious part of her could not help but feel that was a good sign, a fortunate thing, to serve one of the largest Crab in history.
“Prudent? I’d be throwin’ yer ass out beyond the Wall if you brought that muddle-mouthed weirdo to Hiruma-sama’s own audience!” barked Kaiu Takanaka. “I’d paddle yer backside with those twenty ingots of good Kaiu steel you wear around, too.”
Setsuna laughed heartily, nodding to the Mountain’s Claw. “Hai, Takanaka-sama. It would leave quite a mark, too, I expect.” With that, she bowed again and retreated to the right side of the room, standing with her arms crossed while Gensuko settled herself delicately on the floor and Shunsuke flopped down with a grunt, batting his tetsubo around idly as it lay across his knees. They did not speak; small talk was not a trait Setsuna desired in those that accompanied her. They merely waited, and few can wait more patiently than a Kuni.
Eventually, a procession of thirty or so made its way into the chamber, led by two Hiruma scouts. Their garb, ages, and appearances differed greatly, but they all wore the same awed expression of those who have just returned to civilization after long months in the Shadowlands. Each carried with them a sack tied with a blue ribbon, the Hida family seal on each ribbon showing that the sack’s contents had been inspected and counted before they entered this room. A foul, familiar smell emnated from the bags, that of rotting flesh cured with quicklime powder; Setsuna breathed it in deeply, smiling slightly, her heart racing with joy at the thought that now there were even fewer to serve in the Dark Brother’s army.
These ragged folk were brought before the dais, where they all prostrated themselves before Hida An. As they did so, Hiruma Ashida strode into the room alone, head high, eyes fierce. “An-sama!” he announced while bowing low, his voice steady and proud, “My mission is complete. I have retaken Shiro Hiruma with the help of these who proved their strength against the Shadowlands!”
Hida An grumbled something inaudible, then stood up straight and said, “A man needs his home for his children to inherit. I thank you, Ashida-san, for your dedication in retaking something that belongs to the Crab from the foulness that never hesitates to take everything from us.” He breathed deeply, a sound like a bellows being worked inside a metal room, and turned to those bowing before him. “You,” he nodded toward the ronin, “who have either answered the call of the Twenty Goblin Winter, as many in this great Clan have done before you,” he waved a gauntleted hand at the young Crab “or proven yourselves to be true Crab at your gempukku…you have TRIUMPHED! You LIVE, and those whose heads you carry do NOT! Present the harvest of the Shadowlands to the Crab Clan.”
Takanaka stepped forward and took the proffered burlap bags, announcing the total count of heads written on each bag as he did, bowing his head slightly to the one who bore the bag. Two of those present, one a young Hida girl, one a ronin man with unbound hair tumbling nearly to his waist, received a personal thanks from An himself, as their counts were the highest. Takanaka tossed the bags in a large chest on a corner of the dais, then bid those before him to rise.
“Usually this’s where I’d tell ya that yer stupid if ya think it gets better ‘cuz you achieved your gempukku, or ‘cuz you don’t have to be a ronin no more. The Wall’s the second-worst place in the whole damn Empire, the first bein’ what lies beyond it, an’ yer nightmares ya developed out there ain’t gonna get any better livin’ here.” He stopped, and chuckled, a barking, hacking sound. “Well, I guess I just DID tell ya all that. But here’s the thing. The Crab ain’t had things this shitty in a real long time. I ain’t gonna give ya all that tough talk I normally do; truth is, we need ya. We need every single one of ya, real bad, and we’re glad ya came when we called, and glad ya made it out alive. So! Now’s the time when those of ya that ain’t got a proper Family name stand up and pick one, and all of ya get ta pick a meal fer supper, too. The Yasuki over there have some good stew that’ll tide ya over until the food’s all cooked.”
The group got to their feet, those already of the Crab standing to one side, leaving the seventeen ronin before the dais. “An-sama,” said Ashida, “let it be known that although it seems those in the Dark Brother’s army took losses comparable to our own this Winter, as Shiro Hiruma was not as overrun as it once was, I could not have taken back my home without these fine samurai. I would be honoured to have any that wish it in the Hiruma family to help rebuild us to greatness.”
Hida Miang stepped forward slightly. “Any with strength such as those of you possess are wasted by not being allowed to serve the Empire. The Hida will use your strength to fight the greatest of wars.”
Kaiu Takanaka nodded to the ronin. “Yer probably sick of hearin’ me yap already, but the Kaiu are always real glad to have strong arms and hearts that match. We’ll take ya in.”
Kuni Setsuna moved into the light of one of the torches. “You have looked on visages much more fearsome than mine, and slain them without hesitation. If you had hesitated, your own visage would be worn by some creature of the dark now. If you wish to paint your face to show the Dark Brother you have no fear to hunt him, the Kuni will welcome you gladly.”
One of the Yasuki moved forward, making fluid circles in the air with his hands. “If you hated what you saw out there and never want to go back, but want to serve those who DO go back, join the Yasuki.” He smiled toothily, clasping his hands in front of him.
Hida An snorted, then looked back to the ronin. “Name your choice of Family and food. These are what’ll sustain you when the weight of the Wall seems to crush you.”
Each ronin stepped forward and declared their choice. Seven went to the Hiruma, one to the Kuni, two to the Kaiu, five to the Hida, and one went to the Yasuki with an expression of gratitude on her face. One ronin was left, the one with the long hair that had brought back many kills. He looked to each Family with a thoughtful expression on his face.
“Atsutane-san,” piped up one of the Hiruma scouts quietly. “Make your decision well.”
He nodded slowly, giving her a small smile. “Always, Nyako-san. Hida An-sama, I have made my decision. For my Family name, I will choose Hantei, as it was the name of my father, although he was not yet Emperor when he sired me. Oh, and for supper, I’ll just have an extra helping of that stew the Yasuki are dishing out. It smells fantastic!”