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.