Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
The Sleeping Dragon and the Waking Lion
“Are you sure this is the best idea?” Hitoshi asked as the peasant led them down the hard-packed earth that served as the road into the village. “Stopping in a village in Lion territory when they are hunting for Ren doesn’t exactly strike me as safe.”
“We can cover greater ground with the horses, and keeping them in the open while we rest is too risky,” Sendo replied. “The head of this village is a ronin who served with some distinction during the Yobanjin invasion years ago. If we are fortunate, Sakon would not have deigned to bring him into his scheming. If we are very fortunate, he will remember Tetsunori-sama’s kindness and be willing to assist us.”
“That’s owing a lot to fortune,” Hitoshi grumbled.
“The Little Teacher says it favors the mortal man,” Sendo returned wryly and immediately regretted it. His distaste for Shinsei’s teachings was something he should have left behind when he abandoned his previous life. One of many things, perhaps.
The peasant left the trio at the front of the headman’s house and gave each a zeni in return for a blessing that Sendo was happy to let Hitoshi provide. A older woman exited the small home at the sound of their approach and bowed reverently. Despite her rough clothing dirt-covered hands, she held herself as a samurai. “Greetings, sensei,” she said pleasantly, holding her bow. “It has been quite some time since our humble village has been blessed to host another samurai, let alone one in the company of two holy men. I am Amaiya, wife of the ronin, Ryoan, who protects these lands. Please come in.”
“Uhm, thanks,” Ren responded, not sure what to make of this dirty wife of a ronin. Sendo’s breath caught in his throat. He knew this woman.
“Please wait here,” Amaiya asked once they were within. “My husband is tending his plot. I hope our rustic appearance does not offend.”
“Amaiya-san, is not such toil work for your peasantry?” Sendo asked.
Her laugh was far more youthful than her cracked hands and the lines beneath her eyes. “We used to think so, sensei. But truthfully, there is little else to do, and we’d both likely go stir crazy if we did nothing. Ryoan believes that working side by side with his commonfolk fosters a bond of trust and respect between them. One cannot hope to lead without respect, after all.”
“Forgive me if my question sounded impertinent, Amaiya-san,” the monk apologized. “As a komuso, I understand the desire and necessity for anonymity or obscurity. I confess I recognize you. This is not how I would have expected to find you.”
The laughter left Amaiya’s eyes, replaced by neutral scrutiny. “I shall bring Ryoan-sama. You may help yourself to any rice in the kettle.”
Sendo turned to the others. “Ren, if you truly desire your birthright, your first true ally is at hand.”
Ren scrunched his nose. “That dirty woman?”
“She was Akodo Shirozuka,” he whispered, half in reverence, half in shame at bringing up a taboo subject as a life left behind. “She was rikugunshokan of the joint forces that drove the Yobanjin back years ago. She is a hero and a legend.”
“So… I just ask her to come with us, then?”
Sendo drew in a breath slowly and released it. “The time must come for you to leave the shadows, Ren. Let it be now. We will tell her everything.”
Ren’s eyes wavered for a moment, but he quickly found his resolve. “I don’t know if I’m ready… but I can’t keep hiding forever.” He forced a nonchalant laugh. “I mean, I’m already sick of running.”
“You have my support, Ren-sama,” Sendo averred. Hitoshi vigorously nodded his approval.
The door slid open and the ronin, Ryoan, removed his sandals and bowed to the three once he had stepped inside, Amaiya did the same before moving off to brew tea. Ryoan was of indeterminate age, with few lines on his face but deep, observant eyes. Rising, he stroked his neat, thin beard and took in his visitors. “My village is at your disposal, honored guests,” he began. “Please let me know how I may best serve you.”
Ren took a deep breath and stepped forward, fixing his eyes firmly to a point above the ronin’s head. “Ryoan-san,” he began mechanically, as if he had been rehearsing these lines for some time. “I am Bayushi Ren, former Topaz Champion and proud servant of the Empire. Although I bear a Scorpion’s name, I am, in truth, the second son of Akodo Tetsunori, the Champion of the Lion before he was cast down by a traitorous subordinate. I do not know what accident of fate parted me from my family’s side at my birth, but I cannot stand by while another occupies a position rightfully mine by birth and seeks my life to solidify his own claim.” He faltered slightly for his next words. “Uhm, I know that you once served my father, Amaiya-san.” He tried to wet his lips, but his mouth had gone bone-dry. “I… I think he’d rest easier, you know, if you helped me. And Ryoan-san, he gave you your position in this village. That means something, right?”
The married couple stood in silence for a long time. Amaiya’s eyes had grown wide at Ren’s admission, but had quickly returned to the neutral, guarded look she had given Sendo before. Ryoan’s face never changed, but remained thoughtful as he accepted a cup of tea from his wife. Ren coughed slightly, then hastily bowed, hoping it would fill the silence.
A shout from outside was what finally broke the quiet. The two monks were on their feet and facing the door instantly, ready to defend Ren from whatever came. The door flew open and Hitoshi’s fist stopped short of a peasant’s face. The newcomer could only gasp in exhausted surprise and fall unceremoniously to the floor, arms upraised to shield himself. “Forgive me, Ryoan-san, farmer-san,” he apologized sincerely, kneeling to help the frightened man. “Our nerves are on edge as you can see.”
“Ryoan-sama!” the peasant panted, scrabbling into a bow. “I bring troubling news!”
Ryoan remained unperturbed as he sipped his tea. “Dear, I believe Suichi will require some water.”
Amaiya rose and left the small hut. Sendo lowered his hands and regarded the town leader. Although the basket hat concealed his features, irritation was evident in his stance. Ryoan simply sipped his tea and waited for his wife to return.
“Please, refresh yourself before you give us this news,” Amaiya said, handing a small earthen cup to the exhausted peasant. “Your news certainly cannot be so dire.”
“Thank you, Amaiya-sama,” the peasant gasped and downed the water. “Ryoan-sama, there is a large group of samurai approaching! My cousin, Asashi, from Nemu Mura was in the fields when he saw them! They were ransacking the houses and were heading towards the fields when he ran all the way here!”
The three visitors shared uneasy looks, but Ryoan’s expression remained unchanged. “Let us make preparations to receive them. They are the lords of this land, after all.”
Sendo crossed his arms. “It seems I was mistaken in my assumptions. We should go before they arrive, Ren.”
Ren shot a glare at Sendo. “You know the horses are too tired to outrun anything faster than hay right now.” He tempered the heat in his glance and turned it to Ryoan, assessing the man and his wife as they drank their tea. “Since you are the master of this village, I uh…I guess you should know that those men are chasing me.” He waited for a response, and felt his temper flare when Ryoan merely turned his lips up in the slightest of smiles. “Well, then, Ryoan-san, I guess since you’ve already got everything planned out, can you at least tell me what you’re gonna do with me?”
“The Lion have granted me custody of this village and, as such, they are my rightful lords. I will not detain you, but neither will I lie about what I have done.”
Closing his eyes and allowing himself one brisk huff of frustration, Ren forced himself to be calm. If he was truly going to lead the boldest clan in the Empire, he would have to expect to butt heads with others who possessed kabuto for skulls. Opening his eyes again, he studied Ryoan and Amaiya more closely, taking in their battle scars and wise expressions. “Forgive me, Ryoan-san, Amaiya-san. I can still be a rash young man, especially when it’s the worst time to do so. I would be honoured if you both would come out of your retirement and follow me.” He bowed low. “Please. I…uh, well…I have a terrifying task ahead of me, and I could really use those who love what the Lion truly stand for, I mean, that is, what Akodo-kami gave us all as his legacy, and…yeah,” he finished lamely, straightening to his full height and trying to fight down the heat suffusing his cheeks.
“Ren-san, were I to leave, tell me what you think would happen to Suichi and the people of this village.”
Ren turned to one of the narrow windows in the wall of the hut, a slice of molten summer sunlight slashing across his face. “All I know,” he said softly, “is that so far the only Lion who have shown their true courage must stay their hand, owing either to duty or a monk’s vows.” He felt anger rise in him again, and this time he tempered it into heated steel. “What do I think will happen to this village?” he growled. “I think that if you continue to SIT HERE and SIP TEA, it will be destroyed by that…that FALSE LION! If you’re willing to let the burden of these changing winds and nations fall on the shoulders of the small folk, then FINE. I can’t afford that…that…SLACKING on my conscience!” He stormed out of the hut, drawing his sword as he went.
Amaiya rose and left the room once again. Sendo swore. “Hitoshi, come, we must convince him against this folly.”
“He has made his decision,” Ryoan said between sips from his teacup. “A Lion cannot be raised surrounded by iron bars, Kiyomori-sama.”
The monk stiffened visibly and turned towards the ronin. “I have left that name behind,” he returned, hands clenching.
Ryoan’s eyebrows raised. “Have you?” The two men stared at each other, the placid ronin and the seething monk. Finally, Sendo turned and stormed out after Ren. Hitoshi bowed awkwardly and followed, leaving Ryoan to his tea.
“Do not be so hard on him, dear,” Amaiya chided as she reentered the room, carrying a large bundle in her arms. She had changed from her roughspun field clothing into a brown kimono and hakama. “Sendo witnessed firsthand what he thought was the shame and complete destruction of his entire family. You cannot blame him for being so protective of Ren-sama.”
He brushed the comment aside, instead eying the mon that now adorned her right shoulder. “You are reclaiming your old name.”
She laughed, then. “Dear, you know what a powerful weapon it is. It will lend weight to the boy’s cause.” She looked down her left sleeve, bare of any symbol. “My heart remains yours alone.”
“And yet you go off to serve a new lord, it would seem.”
Amaiya sat across from her husband and began to unwrap the bundle. “You make it your business to know the mind of everyone on the field. I make it mine to know yours.” She withdrew a large feathered fan and swatted her husband’s nose with it. “I knew that when Ren-sama left just now that you would lend him your mind. I have followed you for nearly a decade, husband. Would you cast me aside now?”
Ryoan smiled and took the fan from her. “Let us remind the Empire of our strength, my dear.”
The monks finally caught up to Ren outside the village. The commotion caused by Suichi’s rushed entry and the sight of an armed samurai charging out of the headman’s home had drawn most of the villagers out into the open.
“They would all die, wouldn’t they?” Ren, keeping his eyes fixed on the rising dust cloud down the road. “That’s what Ryoan-san meant. If I had fled, they’d kill them all for harboring me.”
“Hai,” Sendo answered without pause.
“And,” Ren continued slowly, working something over in his mind, “I guess that’s what Amaiya-san meant when she said you can’t lead without respect? Would anyone follow me if they knew I would just abandon them to die?”
Sendo smiled ruefully beneath his tengai. “Hitoshi, you must escape now,” he said, turning to the other monk. “If we do not return to the temple, you must spread the word of our deaths. See that justice is done to Sakon.”
Hitoshi stood his ground for a long moment, then finally nodded. “I hate the thought of running from a fight, but I will do this.”
“There should be little need for that.” The three turned to see Ryoan strolling down the path, idly wafting his feathered fan. He squinted past them, down the road. “There can be no more than ten of them. There should be little danger to Ren-sama.”
“Ten mounted against three afoot?” Sendo returned hotly. “Or do you intend to fight with us? Perhaps that will turn the tide.”
A sudden call rang through the village, and Sendo barely recognized it as Amaiya’s. “TO ARMS!” The peasants about them moved quickly but orderly about, some gathering tools, others long, sharpened bamboo shoots. Amaiya rode down from her home on the back of a pony that looked more suited to pulling a furrow than riding into battle. She had donned the straw mane favored by the Lion’s samurai-ko, and her armor gleamed blinding white in the midday sun. She trotted next to Ryoan and bowed from the saddle. “Ren-sama, Akodo Shirozuka humbly requests the command of this battle.”
“H-hai,” Ren replied, shaken somewhat by the suddenness of the request.
Shirozuka smiled encouragingly at him and he could see Amaiya in her again for the briefest moment before she was swept away once more by the rikugunshokan. “FORM UP!” The peasants fell in line.
“They are approaching in a straight line,” Ryoan supplied. “I don’t believe they will be expecting a fight. Let us give them a surprise. Moon formation.”
“MOON FORMATION!” The peasants with spears lined up along either side of the gap in the village’s perimeter fence. Shirozuka rode forward, placing herself between the end of both rows, planting a yari in the dirt beside her before stringing her daikyu.
Ryoan approached Ren and bowed low. “It is expected for a servant to die for his lord, but it is a worthy lord indeed who would die for his servants. I believe I shall accept your gracious invitation into your service and place my mind and all of its arts at your disposal. If my Amaiya is to become Akodo Shirozuka again, then Ryoan shall once more be Sun Kongming.”
“Now,” he continued, looking past the boy and down the road to the approaching patrol. “They are within earshot. Let them know who you are.”
Ren turned and raised his katana and roared. “I am Akodo Ren, son of Akodo Tetsunori! True Champion of the Lion Clan!”
The patrol galloped through the gates and into the gauntlet.
Back to Fictions