Monday, August 11, 2008

Chapter Two: Heat of Summer

It was a long, hot walk to Lonely Shore City, but the Shinozaki were relieved when the city came into view over the hill. As they saw the line of travelers, horses, and carts stretching a great distance from the city gate, their relief turned to frustration. "I will go to the head of the line," said Itsuko, because she knew that no man would take offense to such a beautiful woman, "and I will see what the trouble is."

The official at the front of the line, frantically sweating as he hurried to stamp travel papers and collect tariffs, explained the situation to her thusly: "All of the other officials are engaged with an urgent situation within the city." Itsuko coyly asked, "Is there any way I can relieve your pressure? Perhaps I could approach the head magistrate and speak to him on your behalf?" The man, smitten with her beauty, agreed to this solution, and the Shinozaki were allowed entrance to the city.

The city was in great turmoil, bands of peasants roaming around, yelling things such as "Come out and face justice!" or "Find the demon before he claims another life!" A spectacle in the village square caught the Shinozaki's eyes: A peasant woman, standing on a large stone in the town square, her hair long and unkempt, her clothes muddy, and her face read from tears. She shouted and wailed as she clutched a small wrapped bundle to her breast, sobbing and saying things like: "Demon man!" and "He killed my child!" Reasoning that she was the source of this confusion, Goro asked her what the trouble was, to which she responded by explaining that she had awoken this morning to find her husband Tekka drowning her baby in the river, and that she knew now that he was a demon, for he had never treated her properly. Goro questioned her as to where her husband ran off to, and she did not know, although she believed him to be with his fisherman friends. The Shinozaki left the woman to her sorrow and continued on to the head magistrate's house.

The magistrate, whose name was Kanbe, was standing in front of his house, conferring with a policeman about important business. When he saw the scruffy-looking band of ronin before him, he inquired, with some distaste, what business they had with him. Upon hearing of the plight of the poor official at the gate, he promised to send another official to provide assistance. His gaze becoming more piercing, he questioned them as to what their business was, and, upon finding that they were simply traveling through, he extended them a most generous and noble offer: if they would help him find the peasant man who had got the whole town in such an uproar, he would allow them to stay in town, and even draw up travel papers to their next destination. The Shinozaki agreed, and, reasoning that the harbor would be the best place to look for a fisherman, they all headed in that direction.

Along the way, an alarming situation presented itself: at the gates of the Mantis Clan's embassy, a crowd of peasants was demanding that the guards let them in to search the building. The guards dutifully refused, and it looked like the intense heat was forcing both sides into a tense confrontation. Goro stepped in to mediate the situation, explaining to the peasants that there was no need to search this building. The crowd turned against him, however, accusing him, as a stranger, of being in league with the oni, and it was only through the intervention of Itsuki, who earned the respect of the peasantry by revealing himself as a shugenja, that the matter was resolved. The Mantis guard, grateful to Itsuki for his timely assistance, offered him a gold coin.

At a sake house down by the docks, the House of Driftwood, Itsuko reasoned that the best way to begin searching for Tekka would be to question his friends. Ordering a bottle of sake, she set to work plying the old men's lips with her feminine charms. Although they were reticent to admit they knew Tekka, or any of his friends, their moods changed when Goro threatened to brandish his sword. They admitted that Tekka's friend Yoro was hiding in the basement, and the waitress opened the door.

Yoro was most enthusiastic to help, once he understood that the Shinozaki did not intend to harm his friend, but simply wanted to take him to the magistrate. He confessed that when Tekka had approached him looking for a place to hide, he took his friend to the place where he worked: the northern warehouse at the Daidoji Trading House. He led the Shinozaki there, and unlocked the door for them, and the Shinozaki gratefully allowed him to leave, so as not to see his friend disgraced so.

Tekka was curled up on his side in the dim light, clutching his wounded head. He put up no fight. "I know what I have done," he said weakly, "and I do not blame you if you kill me like the dog I am. I am a weak man, and I could not survive another day of the child's crying, and the prospect of having to feed three when I could barely make enough money for two made something in me break." He meekly allowed Goro to bind his wrists, and, hiding him under a cloak and hat, the Shinozaki led him through the crowd to Kanbe the magistrate.

Kanbe was most grateful for their help, and ordered his subordinates to tell everyone in the city to gather in the town square. In front of the gathered crowd there, he proclaimed: "You see this man before you? He is simply a man, not anything more. A simple murderer, not a fearsome oni." He drew his blade, kicked Tekka down to the ground, and with one quick stroke beheaded the murderous peasant. "And now he is justly punished," Kanbe declared. The crowd cheered, and began to disperse, leaving the woman alone with her sorrow, and her dead child.

The Shinozaki decided that the wisest course of action would be to take a boat south to the Asahina territory and see if any of Itsuki's friends there could help them. Regrettably, Nao had to sell her prized horse, Shino, but the two would be reunited in a future installment of this tale. And what new troubles awaited the Shinozaki in Jukami Mura, the "Port that Never Sleeps?"

You will find out in the next installment.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Chapter One: The Shino Festival

Each spring in Ookami Toshi, the City of the Wolf, the Shinozaki family would stage the Shino Festival, celebrating the bravery of their founder. Traditionally, the Champion of the Crane Clan would visit, to honor the family that had so dutifully served the Crane. For the first time in a year, Nao, Itsuki, Natsu, Goro, and Itsuko returned from their schooling to their home town of to help their father Matsuo prepare for the festival. They were all happy to be back in their ancestral estate once more, and, after their work was done for the day, they took the opportunity to visit their old friends and acquaintances.

Goro and Itsuko, of course, the least honorable among them, headed to Merchants' Row at the south end of town, for less-than-honorable purposes, and Nao followed close behind to ensure that they would not come to harm. But Itsuko visited the House of the Red Crane, an establishment favored by the few upper-class samurai that called Ookami Toshi home, and Nao knew that she would not find danger there. Goro, however, seeking the thrill of the underworld (such as it was in such a small city), snuck away down a back alley to get away from his faithful guardian and entered a nameless tavern, dimly-lit and patronized only by drunk, desperate men. There he ordered up a bottle of sake from the rough-looking waitress, and proceeded to drink himself into a stupor.

Itsuko, finding the finely-dressed patrons of the House of the Red Crane all talking amongst themselves, and not (as she would have wished) admiring her beauty, began a graceful courtly dance in the middle of the inn. The heads of all the men turned in her direction, and many of the women, but one remained aloof - a tall, skinny girl, with long black hair - Doji Tsureiko, an old childhood acquaintance of Itsuko's. Tsureiko simply ignored her old friend, carrying on her conversation while nonchalantly fanning herself. When Itsuko asked her why she would not speak to her, Tsureiko responded curtly, "I do not talk to traitors." Itsuko's studies with the Scorpion, a clan not well-liked by the Crane, branded her as vain and manipulative, exposing Itsuko's true nature for all the world to see. Itsuko pressed Tsureiko to elaborate, pretending not to know her own failings, and Tsureiko gave the poor girl a complete description of her vices and faults. Publicly humiliated, Itsuko left the House of the Red Crane.

Nao found herself on Merchants' Row with no-one to follow, so she pressed her way through the press of the cheerful crowd, navigating around stalls set up in the street to sell trinkets and fried snacks, and arrived at her favorite noodle stand. The owner, Aritomo, was busy rolling and cutting noodles for tomorrow's feast, but had (as always) a kind word for his old friend. She offered to help him with his labors, and he graciously accepted - but before she could do too much, she was interrupted by the city's Captain of the Guard, a lithe, short-haired woman named Daidoji Hitomo, who wanted to go over the plans for the festival, to make sure that the Champion's security would be assured.

Natsu, all this time, had been meditating at the grave of his mother Kazumi, near the garden. Brushing off the dirt and moss, he placed an elegant origami crane at its base - she had always loved cranes, and what an appropriate clan it was for her! His melancholy was interrupted by a bright, sparkling voice, and, rising, he saw it was Kakita Miyako, a slim, white-haired beauty whom he had been friends with since her family moved to the city. She spoke of how she had missed him this past year, and made him promise one little thing to her - if on his travels he should visit the wonderful gardens at Doji Palace, he should bring one of their flowers back to her next year, for it had always been her dream to visit the palace. Natsu swore that he would bring her a flower if he could - little did he know just how difficult such a task would prove! At this moment, I regret to say, Goro stumbled drunkely into the garden, and mumbled insinuatingly that he would be happy to give Miyako a flower - but Natsu silenced him with a cold gaze, and Miyako politely made her exit. Natsu resigned himself to dragging his brother back to the family estate to rest up before the festival.

Itsuki, always the devout shugenja, set out straight for the town's shrine. There, he found her old friends, the monk Koichi, and the small and slow boy Kei, who was in the monk's care, as he was said to be "touched by the kami." Itsuki assisted them in cleaning up the shrine for the ritual prayer that would begin the night's festivities. While he was sweeping the floor, however, he was approached by Kei, who bore a look of unusual clarity in his eyes. He spoke, and his words seemed to be a dire prophecy: “I can see that you will walk Sorrow’s Path. Before the end, you will see the end of one dream and the start of another, you will see the smile of the ocean, you will see the grave of the pine tree and the cradle of the poppy, you will bring the moon under the earth and set it back in the sky, and you will come to understand that gifts of millet are greater than gifts of jade…” And his voice trailed off, his eyes returned to normal, and he ran to the monk for protection, suddenly afraid of what he had said. Itsuki, startled by this prophecy, commited it to memory, and returned to the Shinozaki estate to contemplate it further.

As dusk fell, everyone was excited for the big parade. Beginning with a prayer to the kami, and the ancestors of the clan at the shrine, led by Koichi with Itsuki joining in for the first time since he began his priestly training, the parade started down Merchants' Row, dancers all moving in line, some bobbing up and down with wooden crane masks and cloaks made of white and black feathers, weaving in and out of the line of dancers. Drums beat a steady rhythm as the parade wound up the street and into the town square, where the Champion of the Crane Clan, Doji Ekiken, and his retinue awaited, sitting formally on the dry grass, clad in fine armor. As the dancers poured into the square, the drums beat faster and faster, finally breaking into a roll and then stopping. The crowd fell silent as the Champion, wearing the glorious Ancestral Armor of the Crane, rose from his seat to address Mitsuo and the rest of the Shinozaki, bowing prostrate before him. He praised the devotion of the Shinozaki family, and once again commended the courage of their founder. He clapped his hands together and looked upward, and a brilliant display of white fireworks lit up the sky. The entire crowd shouted as one, “Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!” and then dispersed to begin the night’s celebrations in earnest.

Later that evening, the Shinozaki headed back to the estate together. They were stopped upon the road, however, by Hitomo, the Captain of the Guard, with the Champion's personal guards standing behind her bearing lanterns with the symbol for "offical business." Barely maintaining her composure, Hitomo informed them that their father and daimyo had committed a terrible crime, that he would be executed in the morning and their family would be cast out as ronin, exiled from Ookami Toshi. The Shinozaki angrily headed to the barracks where their father was being imprisoned, but the guards would not let them pass. They wondered if their father could truly have committed a crime - perhaps it was a Lion plot, said Bairei, the other vassal of the Shinozaki, or a Scorpion plot, or some other plot that he could not work out now. A guard came out of the barracks bearing a journal, which he said that Matsuo told him to give to them. Itsuko read it aloud, shocked - it described how the previous year, when Lord Ekiken was unable to attend the Shino Festival, his beautiful wife Satahime attended anyway. The Shinozaki listed with mounting despair as the journal described how Satahime and Mitsuo had fallen in love, for Mitsuo had been heartbroken ever since his wife's death, and Satahime no longer loved her husband after honor had replaced love in his heart. The two of them swore to meet again this year - and evidently they had, and Lord Ekiken had caught them at it. The final entry was Mitsuo's farewell to his children, apologizing that his weakness had hurt them so, urging them to stay together no matter what happened, and urging Nao to watch over them and keep them safe.

As he heard these words, Bairei became furious. "Lies!" he shouted, as he threw the journal out of Itsuko's grasp. He drew his blade, and charged at the guards, seeking to storm the barracks and rescue his lord, but he stopped short when Nao grabbed at his armor, and Natsu quickly drew his blade and placed it at Bairei's throat. They would not allow him to throw his life away so easily, but, turning to Natsu, Bairei explained that he had nothing to live for now. He had already been a ronin once in his life, he said. He could not stand to do it again. And with those words, he turned his blade on himself, before even Natsu could react, and cut a great wound in his chest, falling to the ground in a pool of his own blood. Natsu afforded him one final honor - beheading his old companion so he would not suffer unduly.

The execution took place the following morning. All the Shinozaki watched, except Goro, who simply waited at the south gate. Who could say what was going through Goro's mind that day, whether he was eager to leave the provincial town he hated, or whether he could not stand to see that his father was as dishonorable as himself? Matsuo faced the executioner's blade with sad dignity, and when the executioner presented Matsuo's head to the crowd, there was only respectful silence. Next to the executioner's blade was Lord Ekiken's wife. When she knelt down for the final blow, Ekiken, regretting his rash decision now, offered her a small mercy: she would be allowed to take her own life like a samurai woman, if she chose. Satahime said nothing, sealing her fate. As the executioner raised his blade, Itsuki, still not truly believing that his father would do such a thing, raced to the front of the crowd, to ask Satahime one question: "Is it true?" Satahime gave a slight, imperceptable nod as the blade sliced through her neck.

Though they were still the Shinozaki in their hearts, they were fallen men now, no longer samurai, lower than even peasants. The Shinozaki had become ronin, and decided to seek their fortunes in Lonely Shore City to the south. And that is where our next chapter begins.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Shinozaki

The Shinozaki were never a large family, always too busy attending to their duties to be bothered to marry and have many children, or to adopt new members into the family. Shinozaki Mitsuo, the patriarch of the family in its last generation, tried his best to give his wife Kazumi a large family. They had three sons and a daughter before Kazumi tragically died of an unknown illness in the year 1116.

Goro, the eldest, was always a troublemaker, running around town with his friends and causing mischief. Hoitsu, an old and fat merchant, was a favorite target for his cruelty. Eventually his father, tired of hearing Hoitsu's angry complaints, decided that Goro would be sent off to train in the Crane military, to study the ways of the Daidoji Harriers, a fearsome elite group of rangers trained in the arts of stealth and sabotage. At the Harrier school Goro's behavior only worsened. The Harriers, by tradition, did not care about honor, as long as the job got done. He, like all his classmates, believed that he was beyond the concept of honor. With his new Harrier friends, he spent many a night gambling, drinking, and even, it is my shame to say, visiting houses of prostitution. Alas, at these dens of ill repute Goro's eyes were opened to a new kind of woman, so unlike the gentle, humble girls of his home. Night after night he visited these blossom-scented girls with lavish wardrobes and intricate hair, and he found that he could not easily resist the charms of a beautiful woman of the night. Yet despite his shameful behavior, I cannot fault his martial skill, for he was one of the top students in his class.

Natsu, the middle brother, had all the honor his older brother did not possess. Natsu was constantly looked down on as a child by the other samurai children in the village, those whose lineages were more glorious, whose parents possessed more status. He swore that he would uphold his family's honor (for he was ashamed of his brother too), and, when the time came for him to choose his path in life and serve his Clan as an adult, he chose to attend the prestigious Kakita school, to master the fine arts of the samurai and become expert at the duelist's art. Even at the Kakita Academy, however, he could not escape his rural upbringing. Poor Natsu was the constant target of derision and mockery from arrogant noble samurai, but he learned to focus past it, and to excel in the art of swordsmanship. He would show those boys up someday. In his heart he always knew that his destiny was to bring great glory to the Shinozaki name.

Their sister Itsuko was always said to have been extremely beautiful. Her mother composed a poem for her on her 9th birthday, comparing her to a peach blossom about to reach full bloom. The text of the poem is lost to time, however. In any event, it is clear that Itsuko was the most beautiful girl in the village. In her teenaged years, all the other girls would gather around her, and everyone wanted to be her friend. She always wished for more, though, and, like her brother Natsu, resented her family's low social position. In her fourteenth year, a passing diplomat from the Scorpion Clan came to visit the city. Peering through the crowds of curious onlookers, Itsuko admired the woman's exotic beauty, her fine kimono with its unusual and sensual style, her elegantly arranged hair, and the way her finely crafted mask accentuated her beautiful features. Itsuko dreamed about running away and joining the Scorpion Clan from that day onwards, reading sensationalist novels about the adventures of Scorpion courtesans and their tumultuous world of romance, intrigue, and beauty. When, as part of a treaty between the Scorpion and the Crane, the opportunity arose for her to study at the Bayushi Courtier School, she begged her father for the chance to go. He could not deny his precious flower her dearest desire, so he let her go off to the north. Although her skills in the arts of the courtier were undeniable, studying with such a manipulative family only encouraged her vanity, and the thought of returning to her provincial lifestyle was distasteful to her now.

Itsuki, the youngest brother, was a bright, pure child. He grew up most of his life without a mother, but the love of the rest of his family more than made up for that, and so did the love of the rest of the town. No one disliked Itsuki. Other children always wanted him to play with them, and adults always loved to see his smile. His closest friends in the village, apart from his family, were the monk that watched over the local shrine, and the little boy that was in the monk's care. All the other children shunned the boy, for he was different from them, and it was said that his soul had done something unforgivable in a past life to be punished so. But Itsuki befriended the boy, and even managed to get some of the other children to join in their games sometimes. Even the kami loved Itsuki, for it was clear even as a child that he was blessed with the gift of understanding spirits. When he came of age, he went off to the Asahina Shugenja School, where he would further his understanding of the spirit world. Away from home for the first time, Itsuki kept the monk's teachings and the love of his family in his heart.

There were two other members of the Shinozaki family, once ronin who had sworn fealty to the family when it was offered to them, for at the time Mitsuo needed someone to help defend his farmers against a rough season of bandit raids. They served their duty commendably, but never discussed their pasts, and Mitsuo never pressed them. Bairei was one, a rough, scarred man who kept to himself, but everyone knew that he was loyal to Mitsuo, for Mitsuo offered him hope when his life seemed to have none. But the other, Nao, is more important to our story. She was a strong but kind woman, marked with a distinctive scar across her face. When Kazumi died she helped Mitsuo look after his children, as if she were their mother. She had nothing but love and support for the Shinozaki family, and nothing but steel for those who would hurt them.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Chronicles of the Shinozaki Family

The Shinozaki Family was founded in the year 960 by Isawa's Reckoning, during a war between the Crane Clan and the Lion Clan. Shiro Yojin, a fortress of the Daidoji family, had come under siege by the Lion. The valiant Cranes held out for three weeks, running in supplies through secret tunnels. But the Lion general, Matsu Agito, furious that the Daidoji had not fallen, sent scouts to discover their hidden entrances, and sent his men in to clear them out.

Knowing that the Lions had discovered their secret, and they would be overwhelmed that very night, the Crane warriors decided to save as many of their clansmen as they could, and make a last stand to keep the tunnel entrance open so that the women and children could escape. A battered cadre of twelve Crane samurai and twenty-seven peasant warriors, marched through the secret tunnel at the head of a group of frightened refugees, reaching the entrance just as the Lion samurai were about to strike. The Crane heroically pushed back the Lion, creating a diversion while the women and children of Shiro Yojin fled for their lives into the nearby woods. For their valor, the Crane call this battle "The Swordsmen's Last Stand."

When the last Crane samurai fell to the ground, the handful of peasant warriors that remained looked around at the hordes of Lions arriving to capture the castle, and ran into the woods in fear. The Lions, laughing at the cowardice of peasants, marched through the tunnels and into the castle. The Cranes still inside chose not to surrender, however, and leaped from the parapets of the castle to their deaths, the torches they carried making them seem like stars falling from the sky. It is for this reason that the Lion call this battle "The Night of Falling Stars."

One peasant warrior distinguished himself that night, amidst the death and chaos. Ashamed that he had run from battle rather than face his glorious death, he decided to go back to the castle, and slay one last Lion in the name of his Crane lords. Arriving at the tunnels, he was surprised to find that one Crane samurai still lived. His legs badly injured, the Crane was sitting up by leaning on his spear. "Where are you going, peasant warrior?" asked the Crane.

"I am going back to the castle, to face death as I should have," replied the peasant, his voice filled with vengeance.

"No, brave one," said the Crane. "There has been enough death tonight, and one more death will not turn the tide. Go far away from here, and pray that your family is still alive, and that you will be reunited."

"You are right," the peasant admitted, "but I must still atone for my cowardice. I will leave here, but not alone." And then the peasant picked up the samurai, and slung him over his shoulder, armor and all. For three days the peasant carried the samurai, through the forest and over the river, until they reached a friendly city.

Daidoji Tsuka, the samurai, was grateful to the peasant who saved his life, so he asked him his name. "Shino," the peasant answered. From now on, Tsuka declared, he would be known as Eiki, which means "courage." He, and all his family, and all their kin, would become known as the Shinozaki Family, and would serve the Daidoji as honored vassals. The Shinozaki were granted stewardship of the watchtower at Ookami Toshi, along the border with the Crab Clan to the south, and henceforth their duty would be to maintain the signal lantern that would pass warning of attack on to the northern Crane defenses.

But this is not what the Shinozaki Family is known for. That is another story, a story of tragedy, of adventure, and of what it truly means to be a samurai. It is a story that has been repeated countless times, with countless exaggerations and embellishments. Now, I will tell you the true story of the Shinozaki Family.

I know it is the truth, because I was there.