(Originally published December 1st 2006)
Otaku Kiyomaro saw to his family's horses. They would need to be prepared for the spring and the long ride home.
The Winter Court of this Lion clan stronghold had been largely uneventful. Peace reigned, families met, clans exchanged words which would no doubt lead to fighting come the following autumn, a handful of marriages cleared the air for a time.
And here was Kiyomaro. Months from his gempukku, ready to come of age, trained as a Shinjo bushi with his fallen uncle's daisho.
His height and build were a problem for his parents. He was much taller than others of his age; he stuck out like a sore thumb. He would have trouble working at trade deals for his family, their livelihood, and they had all but given up on him.
His uncle had had the same problem, and his great uncle before him. The solution was always seen as thus: train as a bushi and earn his family honour and glory by leading a noble life or else dieing a noble death. His older brother also followed this path, though he chose to concentrate on higher social activities rather than intensive combat training. Still, Otaku Ryuken was already an accomplished samurai, known well amongst the Unicorn clan.
But Ryuken had been given the family daisho, a proud gift from his wise grandfather. Kiyomaro carried the daisho of his fallen uncle, the daisho passed back and forth between cousins in the Otaku clan for hundreds of years, the daisho that grants only small honour and a short life.
At least the big Otaku could handle other weapons. His ono was a particular favourite. Its head never failed to bite deep into training dummies.
A crab bushi named Hida Hankyu walked in and nodded slightly. Kiyomaro had seen him on numerous occasions over the Winter, noticeably eying up a kill when Otaku had returned from a hunting trip.
He looked flustered, or as flustered as a samurai can look without losing face. "Your presence is requested in the courtyard training grounds," he said, turned and walked back out of the stables.
Kiyomaro looked around. Aside from the horses, he was the only person the Crab could have been talking to. He walked out to the courtyard. Why had he not sent a heimin? he thought.
Waiting outside in the courtyard were a group of young samurai, similar to himself; three of them bushi and two shugenja. They nodded as Kiyomaro arrived. Hida Hankyu held a sealed letter, bearing Otaku Kiyomaro's name, as well as his own, and no doubt the names of all the others gathered. And one other: Soshi Sosumo, of the Scorpion clan. Kiyomaro recognised it as that of a young shugenja often seen lurking and watching a Lion bushi train, said Lion stood two feet from him now. Sosumo was a small boy, easily hidden within the walls of the large stronghold they stood in now.
"Where is the Scorpion boy?" Kiyomaro asked, looking down at the group he easily loomed above.
"A heimin was sent to bring him, Unicorn," came the reply from a young Phoenix girl with dazzlingly green eyes. She did not carry a katana at her side, but a small scroll case - she was shugenja, or would be after her gempukku.
"We wait for him, Hida-sama?" Kiyomaro ignored the disrespect of her address.
"We do, Otaku-sama."
Time passed, but there was still no sign of the Scorpion. In this time, Otaku Kiyomaro had made himself recall as many faces and names as he could. The two Crab bushi were Hidas, Hankyu and Ikki. The Lion was a Matsu boy named Kushi. The Phoenix shugenja was Isawa Nami no Yuki, her pale skin reflecting the wave of snow of her name. Last was the Dragon boy, Agasha Yakuza. The letter had been sent by Mirumoto Kido, the Emerald Magistrate resident at this stronghold. Why he had sent for such a group of samurai, none passed gempukku, no one seemed to know. It seemed unfathomable that they could help an Imperial Magistrate in any way.
A heimin ran up to Hida Hankyu, and bowed low. A brief glimpse of emotion crossed Hankyu's face, followed by a barked order at the heimin who ran off again.
"My apologies," he said. "In my haste, I did not tell the heimin to request the Scorpion's presence. This is why he has not yet come."
And so they waited some more.
Finally, the black robes and red mask of the young Soshi appeared. He bowed and joined the group. Hida Hankyu glared at the Scorpion as he casually strode towards the group, then unsealed the letter and read carefully.
"You are called to the Owana tea house at noon. Do not be late."
Looking up, it was obviously almost noon. With a glance at the Scorpion, all ran swiftly to the castle gates and out to the tea house.
Although Otaku Kiyomaro was large, he was also very swift, something his sensei would often remark upon. He made his way to the tea house with astonishing speed, arriving barely out of breath and still before noon. Looking over at the tea house, it seemed boarded up. At the door stood two Lion bushi, both women, and both wearing a Matsu mon. They were looking at the Unicorn. He chose to wait for the other samurai and compose himself, as he saw the Isawa appear from around a corner, closely followed by one, then another of the Hidas shortly afterward. All three of them stood catching their breath, whilst the Matsu women watched.
Noon came all too soon. With no sign of the other three samurai, the Crab, Phoenix and Unicorn all strode to the doors of the tea house. The Matsu stopped them to read the letter, then let them pass. Inside, heimin met the samurai to usher them to a room. Leaving their daisho at the door, they followed and were met by a Crane samurai sat on the floor with a woman making tea. As he finished, he looked up at the small group taking their places on the floor. He wore a sash showing his service to the Emerald Magistrate, and the mon of the Crane and Doji.
"Greetings, young samurai. Are there not more of you? My note was quite specific."
Sometimes, small lies must be told. "We do not know, Doji-sama," replied Kiyomaro, bowing.
Up to the door ran Matsu Kushi, immediately seeing the women of his clan guarding the door. Bowing profusely, he made to enter, but was barred by one of the warrior-woman's arms. "Where is it you go, little Mats-san?"
Kushi looked bewildered, replying "I have an engagement in this tea house. By order of the Emerald Magistrate."
"You have proof?"
Matsu Kushi remembered that one of the Hidas carried the letter of invitation, and he was sure they passed him by at a full run not too long ago. "My proof was carried by others also named upon the invitation. I am sure they have already arrived."
"Indeed they have. In you go, boy." She scowled down at him as he walked into the tea house. He was met by a young heimin woman, who ushered him to the others.
"You are late, Matsu-san" the Doji noted, as Kushi knelt down.
"My apologies, Doji-sama. I came as quickly as I could."
Noting Kushi's still heavy breathing, the Doji nodded politely, and continued drinking tea, waiting for the next arrival.
Outside, the Dragon boy marched up to the tea house doors. Once more he was barred by the Matsu guardswomen, though they were more wary of this spellcaster. "Where is it you go, little Dragon?" asked one of them, boldly.
"I go to meet with my fellow samurai in this tea house." There was something odd about the way the Dragon spoke. His eyes were slightly glazed, and his posture askew.
"Very well," spoke the other Matsu, "you may pass, Dragon-san." She was clearly wise enough to know the boy had no letter of invitation either.
Once inside, the Dragon placed himsel fon the floor in front of the Doji, bowing profusely and apologising for his lateness, blaming an incident at the castle gates for barring his path, and his honourable intervention in it.
But there was still one more samurai to arrive - the little Scorpion, Soshi Sosumo.
Minutes passed, and finally the little Scorpion came into view. He was dressed in an impeccable robe, his face partially hidden by a small red mask. Leading him to the tea house was a heimin, who clearly felt put upon. As they both arrived, the heimin turned to face the Soshi, bowed and ran off. Sosumo then walked towards the guards. They were not impressed by the well-dressed little boy. "I will assume you are with the others. Did you think to bring your invitation, Scorpion?"
"Honourable Matsu-sama," said the boy, bowing low, "I have been called here by Mirumoto Kido, the Emerald Magistrate. My guide to this establishment has caused me to be later than I should be. I have no invitation, as I am sure the one given to all of us is already inside. I offer you my apologies, as I will now go and offer to the others here."
He walked between the two Matsu, who were still bemused by his arrival.
"You are late," said the Doji as Sosumo sat.
"My apologies, honourable Doji-sama. My heimin guide to this tea house caused me to be slower to arrive, and the Matsu outside caused further delay by asking for my invitation, which Hida Hankyu carried with him in his haste to arrive."
The Doji looked upon them both, realising what had transpired.
"Very well," he said, looking down to his tea. "As you are now all here, I can begin to tell you why you are here. You have spent the winter here, at Shiro Owana, as a guest of Kitsu Owana. Surely, you will understand that you may pay him in kind for his hospitality. Mirumoto Kido, the Emerald Magistrate resident here, has requested that I give you the chance to honour his hospitality on behalf of your families."
He paused, taking a sip from his tea. The woman who had prepared it left the room quickly.
"Underneath this tea house have been found tunnels. We do not know who constructed them, or when, or why. All that we do know is that many heimin have begun to disappear from this tea house, and we need those of noble spirit and warrior virtue to investigate."
He drank the last of his tea, stood, and walked out of the room, gesturing for the group to follow him.
Standing quickly, they followed first down a short staircase and into corridor. Further staircases followed, leading down deeper and deeper into basements and sub-basements, all filled with barrels of sake and chests of tea. Finally, the group reached a room with a carpet sat square in the middle of the floor. It was big, heavy and made of black fur. Something about it glinted green in the torchlight of the room. Something that the two Crab knew all too familiarly. The carpet was covered in jade powder.
"Beneath this carpet is a grate leading into the tunnels. It is covered for one reason, and one reason alone. It is incredibly Tainted."
Two heimin appeared from behind the group, and lifted the carpet with long poles. As it was raised, the Doji flung a short stick of pure jade towards the openings. As it glanced upon the metal grating, it turned instantly jet black, crumbling away into dust.
One of the Crab gasped, though in the torchlight it was hard to tell which.
"You will all be going into this tunnel and finding the cause of the disappearance of the local heimin. They always disappear one or two at a time, always in the depths of night, and always from this tea house. Sending a group such as yourselves will be sufficient to investigate."
With that, he turned and left the room, with the startled group, none of them yet past fifteen years old, stood awkwardly. They knew what was to come.