The Burning Throne, Episode 44: The Short Sword

There are only 3 more entries left in this Writer Nerd Game Night serial. This is the final post by Steve Diamond. Steve runs Elitist Book Reviews http://elitistbookreviews.blogspot.com/ 

So our story is almost over. There is one more Makoto entry and a final one from Magatsu, and then we are done. If you want to read all of these in one place, I have been posting them on the Legend of the Five Rings forum into one thread. http://www.alderac.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=295&t=94523 

Continued from: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/the-burning-throne-episode-43-the-ignominious-end-of-bayushi-jimen/ 

The Short Sword

What is a wakizashi? Why do I carry one? Is it just the short blade a samurai carries? Is there more to it than just the blade used by a samurai to take his own life? Through my life—long by the standards of many samurai—I’ve never used it.

This wakizashi was my father’s before me, and he gifted it to me the night he passed into the spirit realms. As he pushed it into my hands, he told me that he had never had cause to use it, and that he hoped I never would either. He also said that his father before him had never used it. My ancestors have been men of peace. I’ve done my best to live my life as honorably as possible. Would my father be proud of me?

I pulled half of the blade’s length from its sheath and looked at the gleaming steel. There was no doubt in my mind that this was a weapon made for killing. But I don’t kill. I never have. I never will.

So what is the point of a blade that I will never use?

I’ve never been one to anger quickly. Patience has been one of my strong points. I will admit, however, that my patience wears thin of late.

I slid the steel back into its case and placed the wakizashi reverently on the mat where I knelt, then began changing robes. The one I’d been wearing was covered in the blood of some creature Makoto had killed in the spirit realms, but had left nameless. My large friend is old now. The consequences of traveling the spirit realms are vast, but Makoto said only that the benefits far outweighed a few years lost.

And I got to drown that bastard Jimen in a koi pond, Makoto had said. It really doesnt get much better than that.

There was a scratching at the door to my apartment.

“Enter,” I said.

A servant marked as belonging to the Otomo family slid the door aside and bowed her head to touch the ground. In her arms she held a bound bundle of silk. “The great Otomo Hoketuhime sends this as a gift, and requests you wear it to dinner this evening.”

“Thank you” I said. “Please leave me.”

“It is an honor to serve one of your station,” she said, then left.

What was that about? I wondered. Servants were normally polite, but that was…odd.

I unfolded the bundle of cloth. A kimono. The nicest kimono I had ever held. And it was in imperial colors. No mon decorated it, but the intent was clear.

What have I gotten myself into? I slipped the wakizashi through the sash of the kimono. The blade and its sheath looked drab and cheap against the material of the garb I had been gifted.

But the wakizashi was a comforting weight at my side. An honorable weight.

Maybe that was its purpose.

#

“Those robes become you, Todo-san,” Asako Keiko said.

I had to keep my voice low, after all, the most powerful people in the Empire were all attending this dinner. It was best if they did not hear me. “Their coloring would look better on you, I am sure,” I replied with a smile.

“Perhaps later we can test that theory.”

I raised my eyebrows at that. My dinner companion was beautiful. To me, one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. I had been smitten by her since we had first met in Phoenix Lands, just before this war began. Had it really been that long already? In all of the turmoil the Empire had faced, I had managed to find the woman I was sure the Fortunes had set aside for me. On the few occasions where I was able to hear my ancestors, even they approved.

“When this is over,” I said, “and the Empire has time to breathe, I want you and I to wed.”

The smile she gave me made my heart ache in the most wonderful way.

At the head of the table sat Otomo Hoketuhime in a robe that looked terribly similar to mine. I took in the rest of the guests and saw their eyes shifting from her garb to mine. The message, without her saying a word, was clear: he is mine.

Her daughter was absent, still being attended to by a host of shugenja and monks. I half expected Makoto to be absent and at Yuni’s side, but he was at Hoketuhime’s right with Magatsu on Makoto’s other side. It seemed they were in positions of honor for their deeds. Hoketuhime was making a statement to the assembled courtiers and nobility, the Order of the Paper Lanterns were her allies. With her greatest rival Jimen dead, it was a bold but calculated stroke on her part.

I had founded the Paper Lanterns to serve the Empire in its time of need. I had worried, questioned, and struggled, trying to unite a group of misfits, ronin, and outcasts, and yet the Fortunes had smiled upon us. I had never realized just how important the Paper Lanterns would become… How important I—as their leader—would become. It was a staggering honor.

The meal was half over when noise from outside the room reached my ears.

Shouting.

Screaming.

Dying.

The sliding door to the room crashed open, and with it three Seppun Guard. Makoto was already moving towards the threat—whatever it was—and Magatsu was chanting. The other Seppun in the room rushed to the entrance, followed by many of the noble’s personal guard.

Then Fosuta Zuko stepped into the room.

But he wasn’t Zuko anymore.

I had first known him as a ronin, a strangely quiet, horribly disfigured, but supremely competent warrior. Zuko had been my servant since the days when we’d first fought against the Red Sun pirates. After he’d demonstrated his courage in battle, the tiny Spider clan had accepted his fealty, but he had continued serving with the Paper Lanterns, and I had even chosen him to be our first gunso. I’d relieved him of that duty after his mysterious disappearance in the north, but after his return he had been part of the small band that had journeyed to the All Mother. I thought that I knew him.

It wasn’t until that terrible moment, until I saw Zuko standing in the doorway of the Imperial dining room, wreathed in black fire that I understood the mistake that I had made. After so much time, so much war together… how could I have been so stupid?

The nearest Seppun to my scarred traveling companion vanished in a swirl of dust. The warriors froze, suddenly aware that they were not facing a mortal foe. Zuko had struck with supernatural speed. His kimono had been torn open and the faded tattoos of a Togashi burned black through his scars. I noticed his hand for the first time… Obsidian. Zuko was the bearer of the Obsidian Hand! I’d always assumed he’d worn gloves to hide his burn scars… How long had we had this cursed thing in our midst?

“What is the meaning of this?” Hoketuhime demanded, seemingly unfazed by her disintegrated solider. “Who are you?”

“I am Fosuta Zuko. Before that I was Togashi Shichiroji.”

From the far end of the table, Kitsuki Tsuze gasped. His disfigurement had even fooled our noble investigator. Makoto was confused, and shouting for the man he still considered his friend to stand down.

“The Poison Dragon!” the Phoenix clan champion shouted.

“You understand so little. I am the chosen avatar of Lord Moon,” Zuko boomed, his voice too big for his body. “No mortal shall take the throne. He has found you…unworthy.”

While the rest of us hesitated, Magatsu did not. The first boulder, laced with glittering, summoned jade smashed into Zuko’s face with an impact that flung those other samurai closest to the traitor away.

Lord Moon’s Avatar laughed, picked up the boulder in one hand and hurled it back. Screams of terror turned into screams of pain as the giant rock—a chunk of one of the room’s many pillars—crushed those samurai too slow to move.

All this time, the thought came unbidden into my mind. All this time that murderer has been under our noses. He had used us, lied to us, and murdered his foes all while hiding in my shadow.

Five Seppun surrounded the Avatar. There was no waiting. No delay. They all struck at once, like they had been trained. Unity can defeat most enemies…or so their training said. Instead the Moon’s Avatar seemed to bend around their strikes, flowing like moonlight across shadows. He struck out, quicker than the eye could follow, and his black hand disintegrated those brave samurai. He picked up the one still alive, holding him by the neck, and squeezed.

A wet snap was heard over the pandemonium, and the Seppun in the Avatar’s grip fell lifeless to the floor.

The hand! It was pulsing with black energy as waves of force crashed outward. That was why he had disappeared all of those months ago. He had gone in search of the obsidian hand. More charging samurai were disintegrated as Zuko roared. How could you fight a foe wielding the hand of a god?

Then Makoto was there. His tetsubo was a blur. My breath caught. I’d never witnessed such speed in a swing before. He truly had gained much in the Spirit Realms. Had the blow landed, I had no doubt that out former ally would have exploded into a shower of bone and meat.

But Zuko caught the tetsubo with the Obsidian Hand, then backhanded Makoto. The big man sailed across the room and through the wood framing of the paper walls. I could barely see through the hole, and Makoto struggled to rise, then fell again.

Zuko suddenly stood before me. Chiyoko seemed to slide between us, katana ready. She was one of the finest duelists in the Empire, and for whatever reason Zuko hadn’t noticed her. She raised her katana to strike him down…

…then hesitated.

I had never seen her kill. It was the briefest of moments, but it was enough for the Moon’s Avatar. He reached forward, absorbing Chiyoko’s swing on the Obsidian Hand, then grabbed her by the face. The Hand seemed to pulse, then my yojimbo crumbed into dust before my eyes.

“Zuko, you must stop this madness,” I whispered.

He looked at me with his one eye. Whatever humanity had been there before had been washed away in an obsidian wave. “Even you can’t thwart a god, Todo.”

He reached for me next.

I was yanked backwards and sent sprawling. I could see Zuko’s black fingers grasping at me as I was pulled away. I rolled and slid until I hit a table on the far side of the room. When I looked, Asako Keiko stood where I had been a moment before. She’d pulled me out of harm’s way.

The Poison Dragon shoved my betrothed aside with his Obsidian Hand.

She was nothing but dust before she hit the ground.

“Keiko!” I reached for her, but my fingers passed uselessly through the falling ash.

More boulders—some from Magatsu, some from the other shugenja—were ripped from pillars and the floor and were pounding Lord Moon’s Avatar relentlessly, but all to no effect. The Imperial Palace was being torn apart around us.

Pure jade energy erupted from Magatsu’s hands and engulfed Zuko. The green flames danced around the Avatar’s body, then snaked down to his hand. Zuko held it up before his face, expression curious. “For one so blessed by the kami,” he said, voice clear even above the screams and shouts, “you are incredibly weak.”

Zuko leapt forward, stabbing obsidian fingers at Magatsu’s throat.

The Crab shugenja’s bodyguard, Tamori Fubatsu, stepped in front of him with swords raised. He deflected the Obsidian Hand with his katana and wakizashi, black sparks exploding from the impact as the metal and stone scraped together. The sparks became a dozen flying black shadow spiders with tiny yellow eyes. They landed on Fubatsu’s face and he screamed as they bit him repeatedly. Fubatsu began to convulse as he was overcome with poison.

Ikoma Katsu, the Lion bard and historian of the Paper Lanterns, appeared and shouted, “No, Zuko! You are not this man! You are our friend. Please remember!”

“You are a fool and every word you have written or spoken are without meaning.” The Avatar of Lord Moon casually swatted aside the helpless Fubatsu, and the spinning man hit Ikoma Katsu and Kuni Magatsu who both crashed against one of the few pillars that remained standing. The spiders swarmed all over Katsu, and the Lion thrashed and kicked as they bit him.

Arrows flew from the hole where Makoto still lay, struggling to even get to his knees. Tsuruchi Machio stood over our stunned gunso, shooting as many arrows as possible. They should have found their mark, every single one of them. Machio, brash though he may have been, was one of the best shots I had ever seen, probably one of the best archers in the whole Empire.

None of the arrows pierced flesh. Their flights seemed to bend around Lord Moon’s avatar.

Zuko snatched an arrow out of mid air and hurled it back at its source. The arrow caught Machio square in the throat.

The mad man froze. “Machio…” It just a moment of coherence flashing through the mask. Of course, it had been because he was trying to save the life of Tsuruchi Machio that Togashi Shichiroji had first murdered a man… Shichiroji had sacrificed his honor, become a criminal and a fugitive, and hidden as the ronin Zuko, all to save a reckless youth from a pointless duel… He seemed stricken as he looked at the still form of Tsuruchi Machio, but then the moment passed, and Lord Moon was back in control and then the shogun and his retainers were consumed in black fire.

Makoto had crawled over to Machio, but it didn’t matter. I could already tell Machio was dead, a look of shock frozen on his face.

All my friends are dying, I thought. The Empire will die with them.

I was walking before I was conscious of having made any decision.

Samurai were dying all around me. Nobles, champions, heroes, generals, it didn’t matter. Even the Jade Champion’s magical fire was turned back against him and that great shugenja was burned to a crisp. With a touch here, and a touch there, Zuko turned the last line of defenders of Hoketuhime into dust.

“For all your honor,” Lord Moon’s Avatar said, “you samurai are remarkably focused on yourselves. You fight for status. You fight for glory. You are not worthy of leading the world. You, Hoketuhime, are not pure enough.”

I edged closer.

He motioned to the dead and dying around the room. “All of these men and women? They are nothing. You surround yourself with those who could not even touch one such as I. How did you expect to rule with such impurity around you? None of them had the soul strong enough to even touch a god.”

He’d forgotten all about me, and now I stood directly behind him.

“It is time for all this to end,” Zuko said.

My wakizashi took him between the shoulder-blades. I pushed until the handle was flush against his back. Blood, bright and red to my eyes, began to drain slowly from the wound.

Zuko tried to turn, tried to lift that awful Obsidian Hand. Makoto had taught me everything I knew about weapons and fighting. Once he had said, “Ide Todo-sama, should you ever need to kill anyone, remember this: all men die equally when stabbed through their heart.”

It seems his lessons had taken root.

The black fire disappeared. He seemed to shrink. I caught Zuko’s body as he slumped down, and gently guided him to the floor. The crazed look on his scared face had been replaced with…gratitude.

Lord Moon’s essence was gone, and all that remained was a broken man, a man who had put friendship above bushido and paid the ultimate price. “Thank you,” he said. “I can do no more harm to this world.”

The light left his eye, and he was gone.

#

“Do you know why you are here, Ide Todo?” Hoketuhime asked. She sounded tired. More tired than anyone should ever sound.

“No,” I replied simply.

“I have been told by every faction present in the city—not to mention a few outside the city—that they will support my claim to the throne.”

“Then I will be your humble servant, and a servant to the Empire,” I said quietly.

My hands were still stained red with Zuko’s blood and the grey ash that had once been Asako Keiko. There had been no time to change. No time to wash.

No time to mourn.

My right hand still held the hilt of my wakizashi, which was again sheathed. It felt heavy.

“You will serve the Empire,” she agreed. “You will serve as my Voice.”

“Me?”

“You.”

“Why?”

“Do you want me to compliment you?” she asked in resignation. “Tell you how you not only saved my daughter, but my life? How you have accomplished every single task given you, no matter how impossible?

“No,” she continued. “No, I will not do that. I simply don’t care what you have done. I care about what you will do. How much good do you think you can do for the Empire, Ide Todo?”

“Much.”

“How much good do you think you can do as the Voice of the Empress?”

“More.”

“The other factions will only accept me as Empress if you are my Voice,” she said, suddenly deflating. For a brief moment, I saw her only as a woman who had nearly lost her daughter and her own life in a single day. “Accept, Ide Todo. Accept so we can start again.”

I would like to think that the decision was hard, but it wasn’t. She was right. I could do more good as the Voice of the Empress. I could temper the Empress’…temper. “I accept,” I said, no hesitation in my voice.

“Good,” she said. “You will have to do one more thing.”

“As you command.”

She smiled at that, almost with sadness. In a way, this would be her first command—unofficially—as Empress to the Emerald Empire. “I cannot have the Clans thinking of you as a Unicorn. No favoritism. You will marry into the Miya family.”

“There will be no love there,” I said. I struggled to keep the tears from my eyes. I saw Asako Keiko turning into dust again before my eyes. She’d died to save me.

“Love is weakness, my Voice,” she said with humorless smile. “You and I…” she hesitated. “You and I are not allowed to have weaknesses.”

#

What is a wakizashi? Why do I carry one? Is it just the short blade a samurai carries? Is there more to it than just the blade used by a samurai to take his own life? Through my life—long by the standards of many samurai—I’ve used it only once.

I drew the blade again and took a clean cloth and blessed water to it. This was how I cleaned it. How I honored my family.

The wakizashi was my father’s before me, and his father’s before him. He never wanted me to use it, but I could swear I heard him in my mind telling me that I had done well. Was my father proud of me?

I think so.

I inspected the blade. Every trace of blood was gone. It was clean. Like nothing had ever happened.

But I knew that wasn’t the case.

I have only killed once, and once was almost more than I could bear. I never will again.

So what is the point of a blade that I will never use?

The wakizashi—the short sword—to me, is a blade that represents what we should all be as samurai. It is the blade that waits patiently while its bigger companion is used. It is the blade that gives a samurai comfort in knowing that he is never weaponless. It is a blade that, despite its small size, is something every samurai aspires to carry.

A katana is nothing without a wakizashi.

Those weapons are symbols of who we, samurai, are.

Are we pure enough to live up to that challenge?

The short sword? The wakizashi? Maybe, just maybe, it should remind us of what we should truly be.

I changed my robes and slid the sheathed wakizashi through the sash again. The weapon didn’t seem so drab anymore.

It was part of me.

It felt comfortable again.

Honorable.

Pure.

#

To be continued next week with the final journal entry of Hida Makoto. http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/the-burning-throne-episode-45-diary-of-a-crab-final-entry/ 

4 Responses

  1. I would like to think that he does find love when he marries. He’s a sweet man. And I know that some might think I’m a little crazy for this, but I tend to think that people created in fiction are real… somewhere, in some alt dimension. They get life when they get dreamed up, and they have to live somewhere.

  2. Excellent. That’s all that need be said.

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