Following the competition the young samurai decided that a hot bath was in order and quickly made their way to the bathhouse. Akio and Kengetsu were especially eager for the “hot” part of the bath as they had little rest or chance to warm up since their extended period in the freezing water. Once they were finished they decide to relax for the day although they did take the time to have tea with Hiruma Usigo again. He also informed them that Shiba Ujimitsu, the Phoenix clan Champion, had gone back home leaving Shiba Himitsu and Isawa Tomo, Master of Water, as the leaders of the Phoenix delegation.
Later that day, after the evening feast, the Shosuro Troupe was scheduled to perform the play “ Death of the First Hantei”, a play written the famous Scorpion playwright Shosuro Furuyari. The young samurai knew that the play was considered to be apocryphal, because the events which it discussed were with Ikoma histories. The Ikoma claimed that the first Hantei lived to a ripe old age, siring many children and finally dying from old age in the first temple of Shinsei. The play however was different. It opened with the War against the Shadowlands, the first defeat of Fu Leng, and the great battles and heroic deeds performed by each of the Kami. However, its ending is significant. Hantei is wounded by his brother, Fu Leng, and has been brought back to the palace at Otosan Uchi.
While Hantei lies, dying, on the soft cushions of the palace, Doji tends to his wounds, while Akodo and Bayushi stand ready to defend him with their lives.
Hantei, or at least the actor portraying him, turns to the woman who is frantically tending to his bleeding wounds. “Am I going to die? He whispers, and the hiss rivets through the audience.
“No, no brother” said Tage’s voice, as she spoke with Doji’s lines. Her face had become the very image of Doji, exactly as in the famous tapestries in the Imperial Palace. The resemblance is simply amazing/ “Your wounds are not grave. You will live.”
“Am I going to die? The young Hantei turned to a tall man wearing the characteristic eye-patch which defines the role of Akodo One-eye. “Your name will live on with honor, brother,” the man says in a stentorian voice/ “A man with honor can never die.”
_One last soft questioning, this time to the inky black shadow which seems nearly a part of the darkness. “Am I going to die?” Hantei weakly extended a hand to his brother, Bayushi.
Bayushi came to the side of the cushions, looked down beyond the elaborate mask at the face of his dying brother. “Yes, Hantei-sama”. His voice was clear, cold. Comfortless. “You are going to die, and you are going to be alone. But one day, we will come after, to be by your side again.”
With that, the actor on the cushions trembles once, and then is still. “What have you done?” murmured Doji, dropped the hand of her dead brother and rose to stand beside Akodo. “You, sister, cared for your brother’s body. Akodo cared for his honor. But I….” Bayushi turned, and the last line of the play was delivered to the audience. “I cared for his soul. The soul is the heart of a Hantei. It is the one thing that no other can have. The one thing which is the center of the Empire. The soul.”
The play was given polite applause, and the acting troupe bowed to the assemblage as Yoroshiku rose and made for her chambers. The “Teeth of the Mongoose” noticed that Shosuro Tage relaxed out of her role as Lady Doji and back into her normal visage looking as she always did.
The following day was a cold, snowy day with the winter snow storms finally arriving in force. In the morning Shinjo Iruko, the yojimbo that the daimyo Shinjo Gidayu had given Shinriko at the Setsuban Festival, asked Shosuro Shinriko if she had any idea what Akodo Akio’s item for the question game happened to be. Shosuro could tell that the Unicorn samurai-ko was quite besotted by Akio but had to tell her that no she did not know Akio’s item but she would try to find out for her. But Shinriko would have to know Shinjo Iruko’s item if she was going to be of any help. The young Unicorn was so happy for any assistance she quickly showed Shinriko her item, a green fan, without even thinking of the consequences of sharing such information with the Scorpion.
As Hikaru was walking thru the corridors she mistakenly overhead Yorishiku speaking with Mirumoto Hanzu. ”You know that I would choose you, Hanzu…” the Princess was saying, “But that my father expects me to wed a man of many abilities. I know that you are surely the bravest suitor among them, but many courtiers are not aware of your fine talents. If only they could be convinced…”
Hanzu’s words were muffled, and a bit hard to hear, but part of his reply was audible”…glad to show the strength of my steel…honor, of course”. A soft response from Yoroshiku confirmed that this was what she had hoped to hear, and then Hikaru could hear a silken rustle against the wall as Yoroshiku and her maid moved on thru the corridors. Hikaru made herself scarce and went off in search of Kengetsu to tell him what she had heard. When she found him he was quite upset at the news. Hikaru did her best to cheer him up by pointing out that now at least he knew who his biggest competition for the Princess’s affection.
Kakita Hikaru was not the only one to have an interesting meeting that day as Akodo Akio was approached by a courtier of the Phoenix clan, Shiba Nessen, who wished to trade items with him. It seemed that one of the Princess’s maids, the rather large, unpleasant looking Hida woman, seemed to be attracted to him and had the matching object. Akio looked doubtfully at the Phoenix but after seeing the honest horror in the mind’s face and his sincerity in owing Akio a latter favor, accepted the deal and traded items with him. The item was a small porcelain doll, modeled after the Lady Shinjo. Not long after the transaction took place Akio was approached by Shinriko, who on behalf of Shinjo Iruko, decided to see if she could get Akio to reveal his item to her. Akio agreed on the condition to do the same. She showed him the small golden ball which was her item in the game and he showed her the small porcelain doll he had recently acquired and told her the story about his recent obtaining of the item. Shinriko’s eyes sparkled at the possibilities of such an item and asked if Akio would be interested in another trade. Akio liked the golden ball a lot more then the porcelain doll, which he thought was eerie looking, and gladly accepted. Shinriko, now with the porcelain doll, decided that she would find Hida Kengetsu and offer the item in trade to possibly assist him in his endeavors at courting the Imperial Princess.
Shosuro Shinriko found Hida Kengetsu training in one of the dojos to focus himself after hearing the information from Hikaru earlier. Shinriko pulled him aside and told him that she had Hida Yauta’s gift game item. She would be willing to trade it to him in order to help him court the lady Yoroshiku. Kengetsu did not accept her terms. He said he would only trade his item with Shinriko if she helped him found out who had his item as well. Shinriko “politely” refused Kengetsu’s offer and left the dojo while wishing him luck in courting the Imperial Princess. She then immediately went and found Hida Yauta, Yoroshiku’s large nanny and maidservant, and presented her object in claim of the answer to a question. Hida Yauta “regretfully” informed Shinriko that she did not posses the Shinjo doll and instead had a green fan. Seeing this, and remembering Shinjo Iruko had the same item, Shinriko asked for a trade which Hida Yauta readily agreed to. Now possessing the green fan she went off in search of Akodo Ryuden and traded the information about the Princess’s, who Ryuden was also a suitor of, handmaiden’s item for exchange for a latter favor. She then retired to her rooms quite satisfied with her afternoon’s work.
That evening at the feast Asako Kagetsu organized an impromto haiku competition, in honor of the lady Otomo Yorishiku, to take place two hours after the conclusion of the feast. All the suitors, and those who simply wanted to either show off their poetry skills or gain favor with the Imperial Princess, quickly set about to think of appropriate haikus for the competition. Akodo Ryuden approached Akodo Akio with an uncommon look of glee and excitement on his usually reserved, impassive face. Ryuden took Akio aside and spoke to him quietly and intently:
“I need a poem, young bushi. One to woo Yoroshiku. Only this afternoon, in the garden, she spoke to me sweet words of love, and told me that she had all but chosen me”. Ryuden smiled and looked filled with pride. “However, she says that I need to prove my skills off the battlefield as well as on. I know she has arranged to convince Asako Kagetsu to hold this poetry competition to help me prove my worth so that she can marry me! I have her! Get me a poem. I don’t care how you arrange it, but make sure it’s better then any of the other poems to be read tonight. I must win this competition. The honor of our family, and the Lady’s heart, rely on it.”
Akodo Akio told Ryuden that he would do his best and quickly found a place to concentrate on a haiku. Other Akio was a gifted storyteller; his skills at haiku were not his strongest asset. The time went by quickly at the court arranged itself to hear the various prepared poems. The judges were Asako Kagetsu, Hiruma Usigo, and of course, Yoroshiku. Several people stood up and gave their haikus to the collective applause of the audience. The young samurai’s, and Ryuden’s that was prepared by Akio, were the following:
A petal serene
One blossom within the jade
A woman’s battle
Is fought with lips, eyes and tongue
Men still fall bloodied.
Selecting your words
A delicate dance on glass
The dawn opens eyes
The moon rest its head and soul
The world starts anew.
Before Ryuden could even sit down from finishing his own haiku, Shiba Himitsu who has been quiet and brooding all night, stands up and delivers his own haiku. Himitsu had been drinking sake, and his face seemed angered and bitter. As Himitsu begins, Ryuden’s face turns an angry, unpleasant shade of red, and there is a furious light in his eyes:
A blighter flower
Dandelion among chrysanthemums
A weed knows a weed.
On the dais there are gasps and Yoroshiku turned white. Several of the other suitors start to cry out in protest and Asako Kaketsu stands angrily at the breach of etiquette. Nearby, the Seppun guards reach for their katanas and leap to their feet. Hiruma Usigo rises, and his old voice quickly brings order to the gathering:
“What is the meaning of this?” Usigo asked in low tones.
”The meaning?” sneered Himitsu. “The meaning you will see for yourself. Tomorrow at sunset”
Akodo Ryuden, enraged, stepped between Himitsu and the Princess’s dais. “I formally challenge you to a duel, samurai.” said the daimyo. “Your bad manners and impudent tongue have cost you your life.”
Himitsu nodded. “Tomorrow. At dawn. Then I will produce my testimony about this…” The Seppun guards tensed. “Weed.” Himitsu bowed to all assembled, fire in his eyes, and left.
Hikaru and Kengetsu noticed that Koan seemed very uncomfortable when Himitsu begun to speak and had a very nervous look on his face after Himitsu begun talking about “dawn tomorrow”. His apprentice, Uisako, drew the older shugenja’s attention and whispered urgently in his ear.
“He’s giving us away- can we stop him?” Koan shook his head ruefully, indicating that there was nothing to be done. The pair of them turned and watched Himitsu stride out of the hall. The Scorpion acting troupe, who had been waiting in the wings to put on a performance once the poetry competition had finished. The young samurai noticed that the acting troupe was down to only five out of their normal six troupe. Shortly after the play started Otomo Yoroshiku and two of her three maids retired quietly, without disturbing the performance. After the play the household retired with a strange mix of eager anticipation and dread over the next day’s events.
Kakita Nantoko, Otomo Yoroshiku’s handmaiden who had stayed behind, played her biwa by the fire. Kakita Hikaru asked if she would like some company and the pair of Crane samurai-ko played their biwas for the entertainment of the remaining samurai in the great hall for many hours. Akodo Akio on the other hand was summoned by Ryuden to his chambers to talk about the duel. Ryuden was already thoroughly hard into his sake as he was worried if Himitsu’s words about Yoroshiku were true. After all, if Ryuden was capable of winning Yoroshiku’s hand in marriage, and then it was revealed that the Princess was not of the Hantei line Ryuden would be shamed and his marriage would be useless. Ryuden was in no mood for reasonable conversation and by the end of the conversation was increasingly aggravated, irrational and angry and dismissed Akio sharply, and Akio heard him muttering that he would have Himitsu’s head either way.
Meanwhile Kengetsu had retired to his room in order to do his own part in fending off this duel between his comrade’s daimyo and the young Phoenix who had invited him to tea. He decided to write to Isawa Tomo, the Phoenix Master of Water and co-leader of the Phoenix delegation for the Winter Court, in order to have him hopefully find a way to head off the duel in the morning. He used his booming calligraphy and etiquette skills taught to him by Kakita Hikaru to form a letter to request a meeting with Isawa Tomo to hopefully find a way to resolve the issue. After carefully creating the letter he summoned Kocho and told him to deliver the letter to Isawa Tomo.
Akodo Akio, after being dismissed from Ryuden’s room, decided that he would send a story to Otomo Yoroshiku in hopes of cheering the Imperial Princess up after such a confrontational evening. He went off in search of Hikaru in hopes that she could assist him in writing the story and found her playing her biwa with Kakita Nantoko. He beckoned her over once she was finished playing her song and told her of his plan. Hikaru consented to help him and the pair of them quickly put together a legendary “feel good” story. As they finished they spotted Kocho making his way to the stairs and quickly summoned him over. They gave him the letter and told him who it was for. They also noticed that he had another letter and quickly learned about Kengetsu’s plan and letter as well. Finally the young group all returned to their rooms to rest in preparation for the next day’s events.
That sleep was ruined the next morning in the middle of the Hour of the Ox (3am) by the sound of an alarm. Akodo and Shinjo rushed out with little more then some wrapping around their wastes followed by Shosuro who was surprisingly well kept and dressed. Kakita and Hida soon followed, after taking a moment to put on their kimonos, and the entire group stared around outside of their collective rooms as guards run about shouting to one another. When they tried to stop a guard, he quickly told then to return to their rooms until someone came for them. They did as they were told and returned to their rooms to get properly dressed. Hida also put on his armor as he was not about to stroll around an alarm sounding fortress without his armor on.
A little while later Hiruma Usigo came to their rooms. He told them he had been put in charge of the investigation. And he would like them all to serve as his Yoriki, his personal assistants, in order to solve the problem. The “Teeth of the Mongoose” agreed immediately and Hiruma Usigo introduced them to his two eta who served, using their large knowledge of anatomy, as his personal information extractors, and body handlers. The eta were an old pair of male twins named Tsuyuki and Tetsuya. Wit the introductions made Usigo lead them all upstairs. They spotted Isawa Tomo at the top of the stairs talking to a guard and listened to the conversation as they approached:
“Dead, you say?” Isawa Tomo muttered. “Damn the boy and his recklessness. Has anyone testimony to prove who had done this?”
“Yes, Master.” The guard bowed respectfully as he spoke. “The guards say that the last person to enter the room was Akodo Ryuden, daimyo of the Lion.”
“Akodo Ryuden? Yes, that would make sense. Ask all the guests to remain in their quarters until we are certain there is no danger. Keep Ryuden-san in his chambers at all costs.”
Hiruma Usigo tells the young samurai that there has been a murder. He doesn’t know much about it, as he was just summoned by Asako Kagetsu and Mirumoto Daini. Hiruma Usigo led them to Shiba Himitsu’s chambers. On the way Dragon guards are all over the hallway and there were two bloodstained blankets covered bodies in the hallway. Behind them, the doors to Himitsu’s chamber had been opened; Asako Kagetsu, Mirumoto Daini and Isawa Tomo stood inside the room. Two other shugenja, one of which was Isawa Uona, investigated the room. As they entered with Hiruma Usigo he quickly told the gathered samurai he told them that “Teeth of the Mongoose” were going to assist him as Yoriki. Hiruma Usigo spent his time speaking with the daimyos and told the young samurai to inspect the room.
The murder of Shiba Himitsu was a particularly brutal one, and it is not at all a pleasant sight. The body laid sprawled across the floor, blood spattered outward from several wounds. A broken door marks the criminal’s possible entrance, as the sliding door has been torn apart, and lies in pieces, hanging form the rafters by thin shreds of balsa. Nearby, a low table on which a sakizuki set may have once rested lies overturned, the pottery smashed and sake mixed with blood on the wooden boards of the floor. Snow had drifted in the broken windows, mixing with the blood and covering one arm of the body and it rests upon the floor. Most gruesomely, Himitsu’s head had been completely removed, severed with the one expert blow and resting several feet away in a pool of blood. Himitsu’s daisho still lied, untouched, on a stand near the door everyone entered. Isawa Uona informed them as they looked at the room that the spirits of the room seem to know nothing about the murder or what occurred that night. In fact, no spirits were currently in the area had been there that night, and the fire had been completely extinguished.
Clues in the Room:
- The Letter:
A letter rested near the table where Himitsu’s daisho rested. Its is very brief, and appears to be a response to another letter which was not present. It read:
Your words are kind and I was glad to have them. It is my hope that we can become friends, and in time, even become part of your proud clan. However, there is something I must first finish. I have discovered that Y. is not what she seems to be, and my honor demands that I bring testimony before a formal court. However, without someone of your stature to stand for my words, I could not even begin to approach such a gathering.
I know it requires three such testaments to prove someone’s tale to be true, and I suggest you speak to Y.’s maidservants. One of them knows far more then she offers, and may be willing to help for the sake of honor. I know that, years ago, she was willing to speak. As for a third – I cannot say. Perhaps, if the tale is at last brought to light, another may be willing to admit his part in this foul plan.
Meet me during the hour of the Rooster, on the 12th of the Boar, outside the castle where Sazanami Lake meets the river, and I will tell you all.
Below the words was a symbol, sealed with a chop that the samurai recognized as the one used by the ronin Niban on several of his personal belongings back at the Village of the Nightingale.
- The Balcony:
The balsa wood of the light window casing In Himitsu’s room had been torn from the wall, and the balcony doors lied on the floor, some broken parts hanging from the ruis on their frame. It was clear that the door was knocked off its hinges by either a very large person (like Ryuden) or someone very strong.
- Murder’s Entrance
Whoever killed Himitsu came in through the door and left through the window. Therefore, the guards patrolling the hallways must have known the killer. Anyone not allowed on the second floor would have been challenged before they got to Himitsu’s rooms. Second, if the murderer had came in from the window, Himitsu could have easily gotten to his katana. By coming in thru the doorway the assailant cut Himitsu off from his weapons.
- The better fighter:
The patter of blood on the floor indicates that there had been intense fighting. If the assailant had been a superior trained bushi (like Akodo Ryuden), there should have been much less struggle.
- The neighbor:
An elderly courtier from the Dragonfly Clan, a woman named Tonbo Jehenko, was lodged to the room to the left adjacent to Himitsu’s. When questioned by the young Yoriki she tells them that Himitsu had three visitors that night. First, Ryuden came to meet with him. They were both drunk and angry and there was a lot of shouting. Ryuden left after tossing over the sakizuki table (or at least that how it sounded to Jehenko). Ryuden also had a guard with him, Mirumoto Innasi. Second came the ronin Koan shortly afterwards. That visit was much quieter and Jehenko went to sleep. She did not know how long Koan stayed, or what they discussed. She did not remember Koan leaving and believed he was alone. Lastly, very early in the morning, Jehenko hear more shouting in the room next door, and a crash, as if the balcony door had been splintered. She peered though a tiny hole in the wall adjoining the two rooms and saw a man fighting a small woman whom she didn’t recognize. Then, after they shifted out of and back into her sight, Jehenko clearly say Ryuden, choking Himitsu. After that she was too terrified to look anymore. She hid in fear and after fifteen minutes, rose from her bed and went to find help.
- House Guards:
Mirumoto Innasi was on duty for the first part of the night. He told them that the last person to visit Akodo Ryuden was Akodo Akio and shortly after he left, Ryuden went to visit Himitsu. Innasi claims that Ryuden was drunk and angry, and that the talk almost came to blows, but Himitsu refused to be provoked. After Ryuden went back to his room Innasi did not see him again. He was relieved of duty by Mirumoto Budo at the beginning of the Hour of the Rat (Midnight). Innasi also says that while off duty and getting some food, he say Ryuden walking down the corridor toward his rooms. He remembers this clearly because Ryuden seemed completely sober in comparison to his earlier drunken state. This was approximately at the Hour of the Ox (2am). Akodo Budo says he didn’t see Ryuden at all last night and he assumed he had stayed in his rooms and couldn’t possibly have been in the corridor at 2am unless he went out the window, across the balcony and around the outside of the palace. Budo thinks that Ryuden was far too drunk for such acrobatics.
- Guards on the Walls
One of the guards on the wall, Mirumoto Hensuko, claims she saw a man climb out of Himitsu’s window, drop to the gound and vnish into the shadows. She doesn’t know the man but says she would be able to indentify him on sight. Hensuko is considered the best archer on the wall, although she didn’t have time for a shot.
Lastly they questioned Ryuden. Their was a pair of guards at Ryuden’s quarters but allowed the Yoriki access once they explained their mission. Ryuden sat on the balcony with a bowl of steaming rice going unnoticed on his table. His eyes were hollowed and darkened. He tell them that he did not do this terrible thing and was willing to give Himitsu an honorable death. He then tells them all he remembers:
He went to his room after the poetry competition and then spoke with Akodo Akio. Afterwards he decided to visit Himitsu and see if could not talk the boy out of the duel. Ryuden has absolute confidence in his ability to have defeated Himitsu and wanted to avoid conflict between the Lion and the Phoenix. Himitsu did not agree and after some shouting, they both had been a bit tipsy, Ryuden left “disgusted by the impudent boy’s desire to kill himself on my blade”. After that he went to bed and slept soundly.
The young Yoriki questioned him about Innasi’s testimony that he had seen him after that fact. Ryuden changes his story to say that he did leave one more time that night. He went to visit Yoroshiku but one her maids, Kakita Nantoko, met him in the corridor and told him that the Princess was already asleep. Nantoko also told him that the Princess was expecting him to win the duel and save her honor. She persuaded him with platitudes and flattering words to finally return to his chambers. He goes on to say:
“I wanted to reassure the Princess that I would do everything possible to save her honor, even if it meant killing that dog of a Phoenix. Yoroshiku is the niece of the Emperor. Any stain on her honor is a stain on the Emperor’s name. I would gladly die before I allowed any dishonor to be placed at the feet of the Hantei family. I would gladly have died to protect her”
Hida Kengetsu assured him that he would make sure to clean his name of any allegation….