Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
Tidings From Afar
The soap was crafted from some of the finest red salts found in Medinaat Al-Salaam and the whitest sands from the shores of the Nahr’umar River in the Senpet Empire. The Ujik-hai, who trained Huo, favored its use after long rides in full armor. The bar also contained exotic oils and herbs which added a pleasant aroma that aided in relaxing the muscles and soothing the nasal passages when inhaled with the steam from a bath. It had yet to be used, but being among the last of his supply, was misshapen and cracked in places. Even two years old, the cream and crimson freckled bar’s pleasing scent filled Huo’s nostrils and caused a wave of nostalgia to sweep over him. He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, and tried to imagine being back in the bath houses of Medinaat Al-Salaam; the steam opening up his pores as the dwindling daylight filtered through the long windows and his fellow riders good naturedly joked with one another after a long courier run. Huo allowed himself to smile.
A knock at Huo’s quarters started him from his waking dream and he rose from his seat, gently setting the soap down on the wax paper wrapper he had removed it from, and answered the door. The servant bowed deeply and presented a tray to Huo, upon which was a bottle of shochu and a square of azure paper. Huo bowed, accepting the tray, and the servant hurried off to perform whatever other duties were required of him that day. Closing the sliding door, Huo set the tray on the rugged side table in his quarters and picked up the piece of tissue paper. It was coarse and lacked color uniformity, but this was not a problem, and was likely some of the best made paper that the Crab had on hand.
Huo relaxed back into his seat and folded the paper in half between his two hands and held it there for a moment. He waited some time, letting his mind drift to the events of the past several days, and then began to rub the paper together between his palms. His mind wandered as he worked, and was not surprised with what it rested on.
Huo had volunteered to go to Kyuden Hida for several reasons. After being in Rokugan and learning the proper ways of the Samurai for two years, his wanderlust had begun to set in. His bones ached to be back in the burning sands, riding the desert, and delivering messages from city to city. A month’s long journey across Rokugan from the Unicorn to the Crab lands and back would be a welcome change of pace to the monotony of married life and infantry drills. He had realized that his intentions for being so enthusiastic with volunteering weren’t of the wish to travel expressly, but the location to which he was going was rumored to be dangerous. It had been his intention to perish here. He was by no means satisfied with his life and felt assured of continued misery living with his wife and mother and his unabsolved hatred of being born a bastard. He had pondered what life would have been like had the Lion started the courtship properly with his Utaku mother; instead they gave into weakness and lust. The union was foolish and Huo’s mother was quickly given a duty in the burning sands. Once her shame was old enough to be left with a dojo in Medinaat Al-Salaam, she was released from her charge and returned to Rokugan.
Such sadness had filled Huo’s heart and as he slowly learned of his half-sibling’s conquests, it quickly turned to jealousy and hatred. The gaijin style taught him by the Ujik-hai was vicious and he used this anger to fuel his studies and quickly became a strong pupil in the dojo. He soon outpaced his peers and found himself in classes with students surpassing his age and was sent on short assignments to the various places around Yakeru yoni Atsui delivering messages and small packages. Several times a year, he would get the chance to travel with a group of students from the great city to the Senpet Empire with only one large yurt to share. It was nothing for two men to lie with one another for warmth and comfort on the cold nights in the open of the Yakeru wastes. Those small occurrences were among the only times Huo could remember being happy.
The temperature in the Shadowlands had tugged at his melancholy and brought back memories of his travels in the open of the desert, but he had not allowed himself to shirk his duties by falling into these memories. He had been secretly excited to journey into the Shadowlands and was hoping to die there, but he did not want to do so imprudently. He had been foolish for wanting this, he knew, but only realized how foolish when he heard Hyun-Shik and Heiwa convince Ashida-Sama to return. The proverb Hyun-Shik told was foreign to Huo, but it brought to mind a separate one about a man and his fortune. The man knew that whatever happened to him set other things in motion and he would never truly know if what befell him would beget good or bad luck. Huo had been convinced that he had been cursed by the spurious union that formed him and would die so. It would seem that Huo’s time in the burning sands, the misfortune of his mother’s union, even the hatred he felt for the Lion had more than prepared him for surviving the Shadowlands. Fate found humor in all things it seems. Huo only found himself crossly grateful.
Heiwa had voiced concerns of companionship to Ashida-Sama that tugged at Huo’s heartstrings as they shared a moment over a bottle of shochu about happiness. It shocked Huo to find such feelings appreciated, endorsed even, by another Rokugani. It seemed that perhaps there may be more Heiwa had in common with Huo. Yet, before Huo could act upon these emotions, Heiwa was felled. Huo barely remembered the battle but will never forget the despair he felt at seeing Heiwa lying motionless. The Lion had whispered some prayer to the Kami and Huo recalled yelling at her, incensed to know if it worked. The weight of carrying Heiwa back to Kyuden Hida had been the heaviest load he had ever bore. Huo swore he felt the Shadowlands reaching out to engulf Heiwa’s spirit and the weight of not knowing if he would be saved was almost too much to bear.
Huo stopped rubbing the paper together and examined it closely. It felt much finer now, and the color had become uniformly faded. He took the soap and wrapped it back up in the wax paper and then carefully enclosed the object in the softened tissue paper. He looked around and cursed quietly, remembering he had left the tie cord in his pack. The blue tissue paper unfurled itself as he released it and Huo dug into his pack until he found the spool of decorated cord. The cord was made of tightly bound strips of grey, almost silver, and white batik that Huo used to tie his black mane of hair up with. He cut an appropriate length off of the spool and set it down next to the soap. He wrapped the package up, again, commented on how when he had done it before it was perfect, and then bound it in the cord. He admired the crude job and admitted it was probably the best he could do given the circumstances.
Tucking the small gift into his obi and grabbing the bottle of shochu by the neck, he left his room and headed toward the infirmary. He had spent most of his time there since being purified by the Kuni and had even restrained Heiwa once while medicine had been administered during his fitful rest. It was disparaging to see Heiwa in such a state, but Huo was immeasurably pleased that the Lion’s prayer had been successful. Huo entered into Heiwa’s cell in the infirmary and placed the bottle and the blue, steel, and white package on the table next to the cot. He found the seiza stool as he left it and returned to his vigil, hoping that Heiwa’s sleep would continue unaffected by dreams.
Not long after, Kawahime entered the cell and began a set of prayers. So as not to be rude, Huo bowed, stood, and exited. He had found her less annoying now that she had stopped pressuring him to accept her prayers for guidance and assistance and was even considering a cordial relationship with her since she started praying over Heiwa for health. Huo decided that instead of standing around waiting for Kawahime’s prayers to end that he would fetch some tea for them. Upon returning with the proper implements, Huo saw that the infirmary was different than how he left it. Kawahime was no longer praying over Heiwa and the servants were no longer rotating from his now closed chamber.
Huo approached the cell, but was interrupted by a servant, who politely informed him that Heiwa had awoken, but had asked to be left alone. Huo grunted in understanding and handed the tray of tea to the servant who took it confusedly.
Huo nodded to Kawahime and left the infirmary. He was sympathetic to Heiwa’s need for privacy, but was bewildered at the timing and decided to put his mood to better use. Huo headed toward the Crab dojo to train for whatever the coming days would bring.
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