Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
Chapter One: Spring's Blossoms Mingle. Tamam Shud.
Even in the high mountains of the Empire where the blossoms of Spring cling longest to their branches, Summer has fully come. The last delicate blooms have fallen, carpeting the ground to herald the arrival of Summer. Nights are short and gentle, and the days long and ever warmer. Further south, Summer has been in bloom for some time, but a week of festivals always helps the denizens of Ningen-do to accept the changing of the seasons. Lanterns are lit in even the meanest houses and narrowest streets, and there are parades with ribbon dancers and performers accompanied by raucous musicians. It is a time to stay up too late and mingle with friends.
Unfortunately, some stay up late accompanied only by their troubled thoughts. Ikoma Sakon rubbed the bridge of his nose as he crumpled yet another missive and tossed it at the fire. How to say that he now held Akodo Hizashi captive, and with good reason? Some things are too hard to put into words. He lifted his head and found his gaze turned to the east, where it settled, fixated on some unseen middle distance.
Hida An slammed his soup bowl onto the table, grimacing as it cracked. It was not that he was malicious in his actions, but he found so often lately that he did not have the right balance, the correct perception of the make of things. Everything around him either remained frustratingly immovable or broke at a glance, it seemed. He stood and strode to the window of his chamber, Ketsuen creaking as it moved with him, and scowled to the north, wondering how he could have ever considered that direction the safe one.
Delicately closing a Kakita-made fan, Doji Hajime stepped onto his balcony, absently admiring the spray of stars that adorned the skies above the sea. Here, and only here, he allowed his perfect on to drop, revealing a smile reminiscent of a cat that’s had its fill of cream. He was no shugenja, to read the weather and tell fortunes from its whispers, but he personally felt as though the mild, starry night was a blessing from Lady Doji herself for the achievements he’d won for the Crane Clan. He breathed deeply, turning slowly and looking to the north, feeling the most peace he’d felt in years.
Leaning back slowly so as not to disturb the strong drink in her belly, Shinjo Katsuko closed her eyes as she settled into the soft grass of the southern Unicorn plains. Around her, merriment reigned this night, a fragrant bonfire serving as a passable substitute for Lady Sun, laughter and the smells of herb-rubbed meats seasoning the air. She knew, perhaps more than any around her, how transient these moments were, and encouraged them whenever possible. She flexed her feet in their strong-soled boots and refused to look to the south, but rather opened her eyes and traced a pattern in the stars as far to the northeast as she could, making her own picture out of the pinpricks of light as she followed them to the horizon.
The blade struck, again, again, as Shiba Tateko murmured haiku with each kata. The summer winds had finally come to the Phoenix lands, and she stayed out as late as she was able, lighting no lanterns even when Lord Moon hid his face. This was where she found peace: she calmed her mind with each strike that whistled through the jasmine-scented air, and thought only of the sacrifices of Shiba. When her muscles quivered and her strikes became false, she sheathed her blade and turned to the south, her gaze determined and sad, wondering why she should be devoting every such blossom-laden night to preparing for war.
Nodding politely to his Otomo dinner guest, Bayushi Utsu turned his eyes away just in time to avoid her seeing them rolling to the heavens. He was bored, bored beyond speaking, and it ate at him from the inside like some of Bayushi Ariki’s more experimental recipes. Even sadane could not hold his focus now: he felt as though he lived every day waiting for it to end. Each night he remained awake with the help of as much frivolous company as he could find, but he felt as though even that would soon no longer exhaust him into sleep. He raised his eyes, the purple skin surrounding them cleverly hidden by his mask, and looked to the northeast, because it was as good a direction as any.
High on the Mountain, Mirumoto Shigetoki narrowed his eyes at the windswept landscape before him. The temples, dwellings and small terraced gardens were empty now, untended; as he watched a scrap of a winter blessing scroll, a discarded obi, a wooden teacup all blow about aimlessly in the wind, he could not help feeling a surge of guilt for what he had ordered. The Mountain was not easily lived upon, but the people who made it their home had all earned the right to be there, and he had removed that right with a simple command. Deeper within the mountain, in the caves that grow salts and strange bodies, Togashi Setsune opened his eyes after a long meditation. He turned his head swiftly to the south, and rose slowly, ponderously, flexing his limbs slowly as one does after a long sleep, his mind still clouded by the realm of the stars.
At the Castle of the Emerald Champion, Soshi Hige welcomes his distinguished guests. Sitting before a hearty meal on luxurious cushions, those with their names on the tablet — an ever-increasing number, it seems — bow low to their host before partaking of the late-night meal. High above the castle, in that realm of stars where all men’s eyes are drawn, a shooting star — one of the brightest sort that only appears during summer’s brazen nights — streaks across the sky and beyond the sea, seeking a destiny only it can know.
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