Tsugi's Tales, Part 2: Directional Deviations

(Portions of this were previously posted in the L5R forums, but were lost in the reformat. As a note: Tsuru means Crane, Shishi means Lion. Tsuki is the same young man that is seen in the intro story.)

 

Kakita Keiko slapped irritably at a buzzing mosquito that came too close for her liking and eyed the rarely used road that they were following with supreme distain. It was barely wide enough for two riders abreast, being the sort of road that saw more foot traffic and donkey or hand-pushed carts than it did riders. The road itself was well kept enough for the sort of low level travel that was done on it, but it didn’t take a travel genius to realize that in the rainy season, the packed dirt road would be nearly impossible to traverse.

“And remind me why exactly I allowed you to drag me to this gods-forsaken hole in the middle of nowhere?”

Ikoma Tetsusai turned enough in his saddle to grace his travel companion with a patiently amused look. The Daidoji yojimbo behind them pretended to be invisible. This trip had driven Keiko to prove that she was extremely short tempered and while she would never be abusive, the two men had learned she could certainly be shrill, and the Daidoji had no intention of drawing attention to himself.

“We are *here* my fellow Magistrate, because we are following the advice of one of *your* future-seers. They told you to come to me and tell me to visit the legend I had met. I thought on it, and there are a few possible people it could mean, but only one of them that I could introduce to you that others could not.”

A moment of muttering and a blast of air swept past them suddenly, startling all of the horses, jerking hats aside, and messing up hair. The mosquitoes disappeared, and Keiko gave a relieved sigh, “You are as irritatingly cryptic as they are. I don’t suppose you care to elaborate, pesky lion?”

Tetsusai grinned and turned forward again, calmly setting his hair and hat aright as he urged his horse to continue along the trail. “Patience, noble crane, and I shall perhaps explain.”

A rude noise sounded behind him, which he chose to ignore.

“Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad’?”

Keiko gave a small laugh as she nudged her horse to move up beside his, “Obviously whomever said that had never met a Matsu.”

Tetsusai chuckled and gave her a small mocking bow from where he was seated in his saddle, replying blandly to her barb, “Or a Crane without her perfumed bathhouses.” Keiko rolled her eyes, and he continued with a grin, “Nevertheless, it is a saying. And I find it fascinatingly true. More frightening is that the flipside is also true. Enlightenment or understanding means that they expect something of you.”

Keiko tilted him an indecipherable look.

Tetsusai shrugged and continued, “Anyway, my first mission down here was to look into something that was so obscenely minor, I cannot even remember what it was. I think that my commanders simply wanted to send me to the middle of absolutely nowhere, do an easy if tediously long job, and come back.”

“But… I’ve heard about your first assignment; you came across an oni, didn’t you?”

A nod in reply, “Oh, yes. I came across it attacking a monk. Alone, neither of us would have survived, but between the two of us, we managed. The monk claimed he owed me a debt. As my sword was damaged in the fight, he said he would have it fixed. He directed me to go to the nearby village and to take a room for the night. At midnight, he said, I was to go find the forge and speak with the blacksmith. They would repair my sword. He gave me a letter to give to the blacksmith, and left.”

Keiko gave him a disbelieving look, “You didn’t do it, did you?”

Tetsusai shrugged an eloquent shrug, “Look how far out we are. It is almost a week of travel to get to the nearest town large enough to boast a smithy skilled enough to repair a weapon, and I hadn’t even begun my investigation yet. I thought, even if it was a bad repair, it would be better than no katana for my work and the travel back. After being visited by one oni I was, I assure you, very much not amused at the prospect of traveling without my primary weapon.”

Keiko gaped at him for a moment, then shook her head and waved her hand irritably in front of her face as a mosquito ventured close enough to irritate her and snap her out of her astonishment, “Alright, I suppose I can understand that, especially since you don’t travel with a yojimbo.”

"I’ve not had the honor yet, no.” He chuckled, “So, the town was close enough and I decided to take the monk up on his offer. On arriving at the town, I arranged for lodging and began to look around for the smithy. I found the smithy, but it was empty, and plainly one more meant for hobbling together things that were too precious to do without for the time it would take to send something away to get repaired properly. Eventually the town folk told me they didn’t have a smith, for he had died in a wild boar attack some months previous.”

Keiko laughed, not the court-made dulcimer laugh of the Crane but a far more real laugh that bent her forward in her saddle slightly, “So… so the monk had sent you on a wild chase?”

Tetsusai tisked softly at her, “Now, now, you get ahead of my story, Tsuru-chan.” He no doubt received an evil look for calling her little crane, but he cheerfully ignored it as he continued his story, “Indeed I thought he had done so myself, but I decided to wait and see. However silly I felt, I took a nap, and then rose at midnight to go to the forge. There, to my great surprise, I found the blacksmith’s eight year old son watching a young lady pound away at the forge. She took the note and repaired my sword.”

Keiko looked revolted, “A peasant knew how to read? And a woman? How could a woman work a forge?”

He grinned, “Well, I don’t know for sure, but I’m rather certain she wasn’t human. Apparently, the old blacksmith had freed her from a wolf trap and nursed her back to health afterwards. They traded blacksmithing tips, and became friends. The woman must have had some sense of honor to her, for she insisted on repaying him for saving her. She promised him that if anything ever happened to him, she’d return to the village regularly to do some of the metal work the village needed and to train his son properly. Less than a year later, the smithy died in the boar attack. So every month on the dark moon, she’d visit the village.”

Keiko gaped at him for a long moment, “So, wait, why didn’t the villagers answer you properly when you arrived?”

“Ah?” Testusai rubbed his chin for a moment, “I’ve thought on that. It was something they apparently never spoke of, not even to each other. The next day, everyone seemed quietly angry with me, until the smithy’s son greeted me. His mother told everyone that I had been invited and was a guest. I won’t lie, the amount of anger from them was enough to make me nervous, but at that statement, the anger just melted away and they became very helpful in my later investigations. I have the feeling that they felt it was their duty to protect the woman.”

“But you are an Ikoma, and even then you were an official. How dare peasants of any sort…”

Tetsusai interrupted gently, “Kakita-san, gently, please. These are people who still hold very tightly to what some would call myths and legends. Weird things happen in the wilderness. I admit, I was angry at first myself, but after some time down here, I began to understand. This may be the Emperor’s lands, but just as surely as the Empire could send a unit down here to kill them, there are other things in these woods that would kill them on just as much of a whim. For the most part, those things could wipe out entire pockets of these distant villages before anyone from the Empire would notice. They are in the middle of the land, and it would seem to be the safest place, but there are beings out here that do not entirely respect the Clan boundaries or the Empire. They merely tolerate them. I do not doubt that the villagers feared what would happen if they angered their smithing spirit. Even if she didn’t do anything to directly harm them, the loss of even a crude smith could ruin a village this small, especially one this far away from the main trade routes. She could just as easily fulfill her promise by removing the boy and taking him somewhere else to train him.”

She gave him a dramatic sigh, signaling her continued disagreement and her recognition of the fact that it wasn’t worth the effort of teaching the stubborn lion the error of his opinions. “Alright then, how about your sword?”

“Ah?” He thumbed his sword and lifted it out of its sheath enough that she could see the slightly blued steel of the blade, “When I had it checked, I was told that nothing was wrong with it. Father says the balance of it has changed slightly, and I agree. The new balance suits me. It has, in the years since she repaired it, never nicked and it retains its edge longer than any other blade I have ever carried.”

***

The village was much as he remembered it, barely of a size to properly be called a village. Sheer distance from any town of proper size was probably the only reason that the place had boasted a metal worker of any kind. A great deal of items, none of them metal, were hobbled together in the sort of way that was nearly almost professional, but on close examination showed the very slight signs of somewhat clunky intuitive design that tended to derive from people making the best of what they had. It wasn’t necessarily that the village was poor, though it was, nor that it was neglected, which it might have been, so much as the village was simply so far away from other villages that the people made due with what they had rather than take the time to travel days in order to find proper replacements.

The peasants seemed to mostly remember him, and greeted him with all proper deference. Kieko, however… Well, they never would quite dare to be rude to her or her yojimbo, but there was a certain amount of distance that was more than simply polite. They got tea when Tetsusai sat down, and the village elder approached him instead of the more impressively expensive looking Keiko. Some of it might have been that this was a Lion controlled town, some of it may have been that they recognized him and not her, and some of it may have been her quiet distain of their surroundings. For whatever reason, by the time night settled on the village, Daidoji had begun practically projecting the quietly dangerous protecting aura that yojimbo gave in perilous situations.

Tetsutai mostly ignored it, though he subtly moved some questions and deferred some topics to Kieko as a quiet way of assuring the peasants that Keiko was to be trusted. Kieko was unfailingly polite the entire evening. By the time they sent the family whose small house they had procured for the night away, Tetsutai was highly weary of the formalities that unsettled Crane withdrew to, topped with the surprisingly equal formalities that the peasants could manage to scrape up in reaction to the guests in general and the Crane in specific.

“Now,” Tetsusai set down his cup of tea and eyed Kieko, and then turned just enough to pin a similar look to the yojimbo, Jiriki, “I know that was unpleasant. I want you both to remember, I’m positive that we are not going to be dealing with a human.”

Jiriki leaned forward slightly, and Tetsusai nodded a permission at him. Jiriki was a quiet man, but a very cautious and thoughtful one. “You have mentioned that. Obviously, you feel this is a good being, or you would not have brought us here. But what do you feel this being is?”

“And,” Tetsusai gave the Daidoji a lazy grin, “by saying so, how can you protect your mistress?” Jiriki tilted him the sharp, short nod that was almost a bow. Tetsusai sighed and considered for a long moment.

“This is a spirit. Of that I am certain. She has a sharp tongue and shows little respect to people she doesn’t trust or know. When I first arrived, she was more polite to the child of the blacksmith than to me. She gave me a certain amount of politeness after she read the letter, but she never accorded me anything really resembling proper deference.”

Kieko arched an eyebrow at him, almost haughtily, “And you didn’t slap her down for it?”

Tetsusai picked up his tea cup and rolled the warm ceramic between his hands for a moment. Finally he grimaced and sighed, “Kakita-san, I’ll be honest with you. Once I stepped into the forge, I wasn’t certain I could do so. You are shugenja, I’m certain you will see an inordinate amount of kami around her. I can think of no other reason for the things I saw while I waited.”

***

Inside the forge proper it was hot enough that the yojimbo almost immediately shrugged in his armor uncomfortably. Tetsusai immediately moved his hand away from the already heating metal guard of his blades and turned to look to the interior of the forge. The air smelled acrid, and hauntingly familiar, missing only the coppery smell of blood and too sweet smell of burned skin to properly mimic battlefield massacres. The fire and metal itself were giving off their own scent; the metal further into the room glowed even before it reached the flickering tongues of flame from the forge proper. The forge had seen some significant improvements over the past few years, now clearly a place that saw regular work and careful tending. The figure backlit against the brightly burning flames, shorter and so much slimmer than a normal forge master would be to be almost a parody in comparison set down a glowing bar and began pounding it with solid, ringing strokes that filled the forge.

Keiko stepped forward impatiently, only to be pulled back by Tetsusai and Jiriki in tandem. Tetsusai jerked his chin towards the ground in front of them. An almost visibly palatable wave of heat rose up in a circled wave around the room. It was immediately obvious that it was dangerous and he was loathe to touch it or cross it without warning. It looked stronger than he recalled. Kieko gave the wave a startled look, and did not fight their restraining hands.

“Ho, the forge!” Tetsusai called out.

One final ring sounded, and the figure turned towards them for a moment. There was a grunt as items were set aside- hammer hung, and glowing metal set down exactly. The glow from the fire was bright enough that it was almost impossible to get a good look at the blacksmith until she stepped across that wave of heat and peered at them. Keiko stared in not nearly hidden horror at the almost diminutive figure of the woman standing before them. She was a touch shorter than both of them, skin pale enough to pass for any court lady, with an obviously feminine figure despite the heavy protective leather apron and cloths she wore. Her hair was pulled back with a scarf and then covered again with another bit of leather to keep even the hair from danger, but tendrils of gold-streaked dark cherry red escaped near her neck. The yojimbo shifted a little nervously, eyeing the woman with the sort of wary regard that was second nature in unusual circumstances. Bright green eyes swept over them with a brevity that was far from polite, and returned to Tetsusai. She nodded to him.

“You have the luck. This was going to be my last month visiting. Saiga’s more than ready to be on his own.” At a small wave of her hand, a young man stood forward and bowed deeply to them. He was plainly peasant stock, but he was just as plainly well on his way to filling out in the way of most blacksmiths.

Tetsusai bowed a respectful greeting to Ginyue and nodded to the young man. After pulling off the stiff leather apron and handing it to the young man, Ginyue returned the bow. Keiko squealed a softly furious sound at the total lack of proprietary respect for their station, and the woman turned a sardonic eye to Keiko briefly.

“Who is your friend? Kakita by the looks of it. Don’t touch your hair piece, or it’ll get an imprint of your finger. Silver melts fast.”

Keiko started to reach up automatically at the reference to the peice, but Tetsusai reached out and snatched her hand first, giving her a warning look. He turned back to the other woman with a polite smile.

“This is Kakita Keiko, a fellow Magistrate. Keiko-san, this is Chihi no Ginyue.” Despite her previous flippancy, Ginyue bowed solemnly to Keiko, which was returned in measure. Tetsusai continued, “It is good to see you again, Ginyue-san. My blacksmith was jealous of your work, and angry when I wouldn’t tell them who had done work on my sword.”

She tilted her head, grimaced and rubbed a finger along the leather cap, as if she were rubbing at an itch. “That was your choice, Shishi-dono, though your discretion is appreciated. What brings you to this little slice of nowhere this time?”

Tetsusai chuckled, “Well, we hoped you could tell us. Kakita-san, your note, please?”

She scowled at him for a moment, then reluctantly drew out the letter, handing it over to him with a sharp motion that said in every line of her body she still was not certain and she objected to his choice. He calmly took the letter and presented it to Ginyue. One reddish eyebrow rose, and she took it gingerly.

The script of the letter was written in a traditional formal court script, of such that both Tetsusai and Kieko had squinted at it uncertainly for some time. Crane and Ikoma, both were more than familiar with the more formal styles of writing, but the letter had been written in a very old style that wasn’t used often anymore. Even familiar as they were with formal script, the archaic style and word usage had been somewhat confusing. The woman scanned over it quickly, then snorted and nodded.

“Never trust in fate, for the gods play with chance,” she sighed.

“I beg your pardon?” Kieko turned a doubtful look at her.

Ginyue laughed, “Nevermind, Lady Crane, the answer to your question is, yes, you were to come here. Not, however, for myself.” She glanced back at the young man, “Saiga-kun, would you please go wake up my companion? Tell him to bring his letter.” The youth bowed to them all and scrambled out with more haste than was quite decorous.

Ginyue waved her hands at them, “Step outside, the both of you, before your metals get hot enough to brand. I’ll cool things down in here, and be out to introduce you.”

***

The air outside of the smithy was not, by any real measure chilly, but after even those brief moments inside the smithy, all three found themselves shivering a little in the night air. Keiko began pacing almost immediately, irritated beyond measure at seemingly nothing. She looked back at the smithy a couple of times and muttered under her breath in foul tones. Both men took polite steps back and let her have her pacing space.

The red haired woman joined them outside after a few minutes, leaving the doors to the smithy open behind her. Hot air broiled out of the opening, quickly forming a cloud of rising steam in the much cooler night air. She regarded the three of them for a long moment, pausing to cast the now silent but still fuming Keiko an amused look. Ginyue, now without her leather apron and dressed unprepossessingly in plain clothing that could have been from just about anywhere, paused and stretched in a sinuous motion that made the yojimbo nervous and caught Tetsusai’s interest. When she relaxed, she gave him a quick grin that was entirely too saucy, then turned and motioned to the darkness behind them.

The yojimbo muffled a surprised curse and was instantly between Keiko and the newcomer. The somber young man stilled instantly at the yojimbo’s ire and after a pause spread his hands, palms out, far from his body and away from his sword and tanto.

Ginyue chuckled, “Gentlemen, lady. This is Suzume Tsuki.”

Hands still outstretched, the young man bowed respectfully.

Ginyue continued, “Tsuki, these are Ikoma Tetsusai, Kakita Keiko, and her yojimbo Daidoji Jiriki.”

Tsuki gave each of them a polite nod at their names, correctly identifying them without a prompt. He had none, as the three were too surprised at first to say anything, before they remembered themselves and bowed in return.

Keiko gave Ginyue a fuming look, then turned sharply to Tsuki, “And just how, pray tell, does a Sparrow make his way so far from his lands?”

A slow smile spread over the young man’s face, lightening his dark hazel eyes with silent laughter, and his head tilted in mock inquiry towards her ever so slightly, waiting.

She gaped for a moment, then flushed and waved a hand at him imperiously, “No, never mind, save your storytelling for another time. It’s cold in the night air and the day has been long. You know where we are going? Do you have travel papers?”

Tsuki smiled again, by all looks entirely polite and deferential, “Yes, Kakita-dono.”

Tetsusai this time made a startled sound, “From whom?”

Tsuki’s smile grew just a hair, and the three humans felt for an instant that somewhere, there was someone laughing hilariously at the joke that was this instant. “I have an invitation from one of the Temples. They have requested my presence.”

Keiko narrowed her eyes at him, then turned to look back at the silent petite woman observing the meeting. After a pregnant pause she straightened and nodded sharply. “I see. I suppose you are aware that it is extremely rare? You’ll be questioned.”

Tsuki bowed again, “I can only be what I appear to be, my lady. The temple master has requested me, and I can only humbly accept his invitation and appear before him.”

Tetsusai eyed the young man, then shrugged to Keiko, “I have the feeling he knows. And I’ll bet you four bottles of your favorite wine that he already knows where you'll be going.”

***

Kieko, Tsuki noticed, was in a much better mood and had a much better personality whenever she was in a town large enough to boast proper bathhouses, or at the very least a proper bath of any sorts. She was almost calmly sweet when she wasn’t being inundated with bugs and having to eat the Daidoji’s cooking – or worse, her own. Both had appreciated the addition that his cooking had made, but it was plain fare and she far more appreciated the more complex and textured meals available to her in the cities.

Testusai had left fairly early on, having done his duty to connect Kieko and Siaga as the cryptic seers message had requested. His absence left behind a certain bereft feeling to the group as even the sometimes rough teasing between the Lion and the Crane managed to give Keiko a safe venting target that allowed her to redirect her discomfort. Without him, Kieko had no verbal sparring partner that she was comfortable with – the Daidoji had been her yojimbo for so long that he was nearly a friend, and thus not an appropriate target for her venting, and she was not comfortable venting too strongly at the weirdling Sparrow.

Obviously, the woman in the village hadn’t been human. And he’d called her sister often as she often had called him little brother. Yet, the two looked nothing alike, and if she were pressed to describe the relations between the two, she would not be entirely hesitant to state she thought them lovers. She’d asked the Sparrow once and he’d blandly responded - too blandly - that they were indeed related, on his mother’s side.

He’d proved up to the Suzume family legend of being good storytellers and conversationalists. She was positive he didn’t care a whit for perfume mixtures or flower arrangements, though he’d managed to show a reasonable amount of competence in them during the conversations. It had taken her attention away from the uncomfortably long countryside journey, and the lack of any basic civilized amenities.

Jiriki wasn’t entirely certain what to think about the Sparrow. Tsuki was the sort of easily likable young man who could make himself friends with anyone, and perhaps especially with those in the general fighting ranks. He’d been leery of the ease with which he’d become comfortable with the Sparrow, but had eventually come to the decision that he was the rare sort of person who honestly took enjoyment from labor and the life that he lead, no matter how seemingly difficult. There had only been one moment of truly uncertain wariness.

Keiko had been in a mood, and had suddenly, inexplicably become annoyed with Tsuki’s personable conversation. She’d bristled and snapped at him, “What does it matter to you, anyway? You are Sparrow, the meek cousins of the Crane who take all their honor in tending other’s fields and keeping nothing of greatness for yourself. Why aren’t you back home in your fields, guarding and tending the lands as is your Honor?”

Tsuki had grown very still, the sort of sudden stillness that had Jiriki settling his hands quietly near his blades and readying himself. It was a brief moment of clarity, where he realized just the sort of determination that had allowed the minor clans to unite and defend themselves against fighting in the past.

The Sparrow had finally tilted his head slightly, almost but not quite the same sort of tilt that the bird might have made, and the fire caught light oddly in his eyes as he regarded Keiko. His attention was fully on the woman, and he had almost entirely disregarded Jiriki, and the Daidoji wasn’t entirely certain that the Sparrow was allowing folly to guide his actions. The total lack of regard turned towards him had chilled him in ways that it should never had been able to do and defied all of his training.

Then Tsuki had smiled slightly, a small quirked thing that managed to be insincere and still release Jiriki from his tightened battle ready curl. Tsuki nodded his head faintly in an almost bow, mocking the point that Kaiko had raised.

“This is a dilemma I, myself, have considered. There are some dangers that require a wider regard and defense than are usually guarded against by my humble family. I also find myself dealing with the regard of a god, who while relatively minor still manages to demand my attention. He has argued this with me on this issue over many days. Content yourself, my lady, with the fact that something greater than you or I moves us both. When the time comes, my presence will become understood.”

And the odd light in his eyes had intensified briefly. Jiriki found himself sweating a touch, and had to forcibly remind himself that Keiko was a shugenja who would know if someone were trying to cast a spell against her. She just stared at him as Tsuki blinked slowly and looked back to the fire, silently pulling away the pot with their stewing soup and pouring out servings for the three of them.

Later, Tsuki had stepped away from camp for a moment. Keiko looked at her yojimbo from across the fire for a silent, tense moment as he watched Tsuki walk away. When he’d turned his attention back to her, her expression was flat with wary surprise.

“He has some sort of power with the Kami. He didn’t pull it, but they drew themselves into him. He didn’t cast or anything, I think it was unintentional, but be aware that he can.”

He nodded slowly and slid his hands absently over the saya of his blades, wondering for a very brief moment if he would recognize an intent to attack from the agreeable, normally calm Sparrow in time enough to do anything.

Neither Kieko nor Jiriki realized or really understood that Tsuki had mentioned being guided by a god, or if they did, it never occurred to them to ask.

###

 

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