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.

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