Fiction – NEW!
A Legend of the Five Rings® tale
By Philip A. Lee
For the third time in as many days, Kakita Taminoko woke with the birds and could not return to sleep. A purple dawn greeted her out in the Toshi Ranbo estate’s gardens, just like the past two morns. On any other day she would have basked in the soft quiet of the chirping sparrows, the cool morning breeze setting cherry tree leaves trembling, and the calming, bamboo plunk of the garden’s sozu fountain. This morning, however, the purple threading into the blue of daylight brought with it a sinister cast, one that reflected Taminoko’s nightmares.
At least she convinced herself they were nightmares. She would awaken in a cold sweat with the sensation that something was wrong in the dark hours, that something terrible was about to occur right beneath her notice. She remembered not these nightmarish auguries, as she now considered them. Upon rising, her mind always remained devoid of thought, save for these darkened feelings. And this dawn would not likely bring serenity to her solitude. Everything she tried—sitting sieza on the walkway overlooking the rock garden, practicing the tea ceremony, meditation—reminded her of these dark thoughts and sapped her energy for the remainder of day. But this day, the sinister purple dawn settled disquiet in her spirit.
Taminoko gazed out to the gardens, to her favorite spot where a stand of red and purple maples created a perfect spot of shade to weather summer months. The long shadows of morning stretched the shade beneath the springy bowers so that the silhouettes of crimson and dull-red leaves seemed to reach out to her across the ground with needlelike fingers. For an instant, the shadow seemed to move, to slink across five or six furrows of sand from the nearby rock garden. She gave a start, then blinked. The shadow had not moved at all: it was merely a trick of the morning light.
Shaking her head, she rose and smoothed the front of her pale blue yukata. These dreams—she was certain they were trying to warn her of something, but what?
She turned to head back inside right as a large shape suddenly filled the space in front of her. A half-strangled yelp escaped her before she recognized the friendly form a moment too late.
“Ah, Daidoji-san,” she said, pressing fingertips over her tremulous heart, “you gave me such a fright.”
Daidoji Hatsuro, one of the estate’s sentries, bowed respectfully; his blue-lacquered daisho rattled softly in his obi bearing the Crane Clan’s mon, and the breeze swept his white-dyed hair across his shoulders. “Dozo gomen nasai, Kakita-san,” he said. An amused smile crept into the corner of his mouth and lit his crystal-blue eyes. “I did not mean to scare you.”
“Mondai nai,” she replied with a shake of her head. “The fault was mine own. I should learn to look where I am going.”
“I am just glad to see you are safe, what with all the rumors of unrest near the palace of late.” Hatsuro leaned against the railing and gazed out toward the garden, toward that spot where Taminoko thought she had witnessed the darkness reach for her. “Might I ask what has you up at this hour?” he asked.
Rumors around the palace claimed Hatsuro intended to woo her, since his late Doji wife was now two years gone and his self-imposed period of mourning was over, but Taminoko put no stock in such gossip. She assumed he was merely making friendly conversation to pass the time until his watch was up, but she had no designs on sharing the state of her disquiet with him. “You are certainly bold to inquire on the affairs of women this early in the day,” she said, following his gaze across the garden.
“I meant no offense, Kakita-san. Something troubling you may affect the security of this estate, which is my solemn, sworn duty.”
Taminoko looked away from him. “If I am out here again tomorrow morning, Daidoji-san, perhaps I will tell you then.”
“As it please you, my lady. For now, I must take my leave of you and return to my rounds.” Hatsuro bowed and offered a pleasant smile before turning to leave. “But consider this. Being awake this early is not a complete waste. It is indeed a beautiful morning.”
She watched him stroll down the walkway bordering the garden. Just before he turned the corner and disappeared from sight, his blue eyes sought her own one last time, and a darkened, lascivious smirk broke across his face. The teeth she saw between twisted, purple lips were sharpened like fangs waiting to taste her blood. Something wasn’t right. Was this what her unremembered dreams was trying to tell her?
Taminoko sucked in a breath of cold air and padded after him. “Daidoji-san?” she called out after him once she rounded the corner.
“My lady?” Hatsuro turned, regarding her with softened features dappled by shadows from the trees above. His blue eyes radiated concern. Hope. Something else?
Her heart calmed; the morning was once again playing tricks with the light and twisting them with her nightmares. “Nandemonai deshita,” she said, shaking her head. “I … thought I saw something, but it was just a shadow in the trees. No need to trouble yourself.”
“I am here if you need anything.” He bowed low again. “Sayonara.”
After she turned the corner, Taminoko leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes with a heavy sigh. If only she could remember her nightmares …
Through the nearest shoji screen, she heard the sounds of others beginning to stir. Soon she and the other Crane courtiers would need to receive the day’s Scorpion Clan delegation, and she still needed to prepare. But the steadily bluing morning sky retained its foreboding cast. A chill ran down her spine as she whisked open the shoji panel and shuffled inside to change into more formal vestments.
Later that morning, the reception of the Scorpion Clan delegation went by in a barely remembered blur as Taminoko searched each and every face—both Crane and Scorpion—for hints of shadowy features creeping into their expressions. Some of the Scorpions’ ornate crimson-and-gold masks created shadows of their own, but the guests’ expressions remained as genuine as a Scorpion’s could be. They conjured no creeping shadows, no fangs, no memories of dreams.
That evening the Scorpion playwright Shosuro Nagako put on a noh drama as her way of expressing gratitude for the Crane’s gracious hospitality. Most of the play’s carefully crafted clay, wood, or paper masks held benign static expressions, but near the climax of the play, an actor in a horned oni mask entered the stage and fought with the play’s central hero.
Something about that demonic mask unsettled Taminoko. Its sneering mouth twisted with glee; its wooden fangs were shaped into ominous fangs—it reminded her of that maleficent look she’d seen on Hatsuro’s face in the garden.
While the on-stage oni and the Jade Champion fought in mortal contest near the Festering Pit of Fu Leng, Taminoko silently excused herself from the audience and rushed out of the pavilion to catch some air. No matter how far she went from the stage, she could not seem to catch her breath or slow her fluttering heart.
What were those dreams?
She found herself back in the gardens, staring at her favorite maples in the orange glow of the nearby lanterns. The night made shadows out of everything that lantern light could not reach. Not even here could she find peace.
As if emerging from the night, a blackened shape formed up beside her—human-sized with waterfalls of black hair, a face glistening with blood. She yelped—only to bite back a full scream on getting a better look at the face. A scarlet-lacquered mask edged in burnished gold decorated the eyes of Shosuro Nagako.
“It truly is a dreadful play, ne, Kakita-san?” Nagako said softly. “That could be the only reason for you to have run off so quickly in the middle of my masterpiece. You do me a great dishonor.”
“It is not that, Shosuro-san,” Taminoko replied, slowly regaining her composure. She snapped open her fan to move air over her flushed face. It did not seem to help. “I do not know what has come over me.”
Nagako moved closer as though to share two confidences between women. “I may only be a humble playwright, but I do have insight into these matters. Tell me what troubles you, and I may be able to help, even if it is only to lend you a friendly ear.”
Taminoko thought of her empty dreams, Hatsuro’s strange behavior, the creeping shadows, the face on the demon mask. She knew to be wary of any Scorpion, but no harm lay in being amicable to a guest. “I … have been seeing shadows lately,” she admitted.
Nagako cocked her head to one side. “And are these shadows of the figurative or the real variety?”
“I wish I knew,” Taminoko replied.
“And do you know how to fight these … shadows?”
Taminoko shook her head slowly. “Name a court, any court in the whole of Rokugan, and I can recite its nuances from memory. But this …”
“I see.” Nagako nodded. “I … may have something that can help. I will return as soon as I am able.”
The Scorpion took her leave, and before the lanterns were extinguished for the night, she returned to the garden as promised. Across her arms rested a red-lacquered box polished so brightly that it caught the rays of every lantern in the garden.
“For being such a gracious host and sharing your burdens,” Nagako said, “I present to you this gift, which has been in my family for generations.” She bowed deeply and held out the wooden box.
Taminoko saw no overt traps on the box itself—she would have been unwise not to inspect any gift offered by a Scorpion—so she took it and slowly cracked open the lid.
Inside the silk-lined box rested a tanto sheathed in a white-lacquered saya. About as long as her forearm, the sheath featured the gold-inlaid silhouette of a crane wading through bulrushes. With a snick, she slid the blade about two finger joints out of the sheath. The wavy hamon on the blade spoke of a master bladesmith’s hand. She had never seen such a wondrous weapon up close before.
“Where … where did you get this?” she asked, clicking the knife back into its saya.
“I believe it came into my family’s possession during the Clan War,” Nagako said. “One of your ancestors must have lost this in battle against one of my ancestors.” She shrugged. “I have no use for a Crane weapon, no matter how minor. I felt it was time to return it. And maybe it will help with your shadows.”
Even through the lacquered wood of the hilt and sheath, Taminoko felt the vibration of the blade’s ancestral power, but she refused to let this magnanimous gesture summon tears to her eyes. “Domo arigatou gozaimasu, Shosuro-san,” she said at length. “I am in your debt.”
“Your honesty is recompense enough.” Nagako bowed deeply and returned to the night.
The next day, Taminoko yet again rose before the dawn, just as she expected. She had slept with the tanto resting on a stand within easy reach of her futon, and when she tied her yukata closed, she tucked the short blade into her obi. The sense of foreboding remained, but this morning she finally felt equipped to confront it.
Clouds covered the steadily brightening sky as she slid open the shoji screen and wandered out to the gardens. There, in the quiet, unsettling breeze, she contemplated her favorite maples and the rock garden with different eyes. What was this spot trying to tell her?
The shadows of dawn fell too long across the rock garden’s sandy whorls. Something about the rocks themselves seemed odd, out of place—something she could not name. Stepping out from the raised wooden walkway, she set a stocking foot on one of the carefully placed stones, then the other as the stone shifted beneath her weight. She kept her balance but for a moment before hopping back to the wooden planks. The rock had remained stationary, but this time she noticed how her movement had subtly shifted the sand patterns around the rock. Each rock in the garden had been shifted this way, as though someone wanting to avoid detection had traversed the rocks instead of the walkway.
Suddenly she stiffened. The icy sensation of someone else’s gaze settled on her. She drew the tanto a few knuckles from its sheath and waited. The shadow from the maples reached out to her once more, straining to reach into her soul …
A silhouette from behind spilled over her shoulder. Horns like an oni. Wispy tendrils like a ghost.
In one smooth motion, Taminoko drew the tanto, spun around, and thrust the blade with all her might.
She heard gurgling and opened her eyes to see Daidoji Hatsuro clawing at the white-lacquered hilt sprouting from his chest amidst a crimson font. A mangled bouquet of handpicked chrysanthemums fluttered to the ground.
Hatsuro collapsed. The tanto sheath clattered to the walkway as Taminoko fell to his side. She tried to stanch the flow of blood with the lower half of her yukata, but there was simply too much. Color drained from his face.
“I … came … to see you …” he coughed between purpling lips, then reached up to touch her face.
His body went slack, and Hatsuro was gone.
Somewhere further beyond the gardens, a deep, bronze gong broke through the morning. Once. Twice. Thrice. Three alarms meant hostile soldiers at the gate. Now, thanks to her, the estate had one less samurai to man the defense.
The image of Hatsuro’s deadened eyes raked through Taminoko’s spirit, and at that moment of anguish she remembered her nightmare with unmistakable clarity.
LEGEND OF THE FIVE RINGS and all related marks are ™ and ® Fantasy Flight Publishing, Inc.