It looks like this particular story prize has been resolved in fiction at last
The Story Prize (Bloodlust by Rich Wulf)
Shouting was audible throughout the streets of Friendly Traveler Village. The peasants moving through the streets, hardy folk accustomed to life among the Crab, went quickly about their business, heads down. It was a matter of pride that these men and women lived side-by-side with those who protected the Empire from harm, but as proud as they were of their lords and masters, they feared them as well. And when a Crab displayed the temper that struck fear into the hearts of the Shadowlands, a wise peasant minded his own business.
A lone figure strode down the path that divided the village in half. A daisho rested in a casual stance on his hip, and a wide straw jingasa covered his features. Long dark hair spilled out over his shoulders in the style frequently worn by the Kakita. This man was no Crane, however. His kimono was emblazoned with a mon detailing a smiling carp. The Yasuki family mon. The image of a stylized ring of iron surrounded the symbol, signifying the man's position as a magistrate.
The man walked calmly and confidently to the front door of a large sake house, the largest in the entire village. Although such a house would be tiny compared to the massive establishments found in Ryoko Owari and Toshi Ranbo, it was easily the largest and most opulent in the small village. Friendly Traveler Village was, after all, home to the finest sake works in the entire Empire. Everyone in Rokugan knew it to be so. After all, the Yasuki told them it was. Smiling at the thought, the man threw open the front door and entered the House of the Smiling Fish.
“You dare insult my family?” a very large, considerably inebriated samurai was shouting. The man was truly gigantic, easily as large as any Hida warrior, but his colors marked him as a Crane. Amazingly enough, his mon was that of the Doji family.
“N…no, no of course not,” stammered a much smaller man. This one wore the same mon as the newcomer, that of a smiling carp. “You… you only heard a part of our conversation. You were, uh… taking it out of context. That's all! This is just a mistake.”
“A mistake!” the Doji roared. “So I'm a fool now, am I?” He swayed ever so slightly, another sign of his drinking. But there was a deadly clarity in his eyes. Drunk he may be, but still very dangerous.
“What is going on here?” the newcomer asked in a pleasant tone of voice.
The Yasuki looked up at the magistrate, relief obvious in his eyes. “Takei-sama!” he exclaimed happily. “Thank the Fortunes you're here!”
Takei raised a hand and cut the other man off. He smiled slightly, in a reproving manner. “That will be quite enough from you, Nuroka. When I want to hear some pathetic excuse for shameful behavior, I'll tell you.” Ignoring the other man's crestfallen expression, Takei turned to the drunken Crane and rolled his eyes. “Please forgive my cousin, Doji-san. He's a bit of an idiot. He can't help it, though. His mother used to drop him a lot when he was a child.”
Nuroka blinked absently. He, too, had apparently been drinking. “She did?”
“Doji-san,” Takei continued. “I'm sure that my cousin here said something very stupid and insulted you. On behalf of my family, I apologize for his idiocy.”
The Crane frowned. “I must have satisfaction.” One hand gently brushed the hilt of his katana.
“Come now, friend,” Takei continued fluidly, “do you really want to do that? I mean, I of all people certainly understand the urge to thrash Nuroka here, but what if matters escalate? He has no chance at all against you in a duel. He's a bit of a clod, after all. You would almost certainly kill him, and then what? Your lord and mine will be angry that a duel was conducted without authorization. You would likely be called home to be punished. And then you could not enjoy our fabulous sake, which is, if I may say so, quite exceptional.”
The Doji squinted and nodded absently. “It is quite good, yes. But…”
“But your honor, of course,” Takei said, holding both hands palmed up. “It would be my great pleasure to discipline my cousin for you, my Crane friend.”
“What?” both of the combatants said at the same time.
“Yes,” Takei said firmly. “As magistrate here, it is my duty. I would be greatly pleased to aid you, my friend.” He bowed to the Crane very respectfully. “Then you could stay and enjoy the rest of your bottle. It would be a shame to waste it.”
The Crane glanced back at his table where the bottle sat waiting. He licked his lips slightly. “Yes, my Yasuki friend. I think I will accept your generous offer.”
“Outstanding!” Takei said with a broad smile, holding his arms wide. “I hope I can join you later for a drink?”
“Yes,” the Crane rumbled with a great grin. “I would enjoy that. You can even buy!”
“Wonderful!” Takei said again. He turned to Yasuki Nuroka, his expression growing sullen. “As for you,” he withdrew a folded fan and struck his cousin one sharply across the cheek, leaving a red welt. “You will come with me. Now.” With one last smile to the Crane, the magistrate led Nuroka outside, closing the door behind them.
Once outside, Takei's expression changed to one of exasperation. He struck Nuroka again with the fan, this time playfully on top of the head. “What is wrong with you? Are you trying to get killed?”
Nuroka rubbed his head. “It's not my fault he has such good hearing.”
Takei weighed the fan in his hand, perhaps debating another strike. “Did you pick the biggest Crane you could find on purpose?”
The other man shrugged. “I thought he was so drunk it wouldn't matter.”
The magistrate shook his head in defeat, sliding his fan back in his obi. “You really are an idiot, then. Than man is expecting you to be severely beaten. Either you can take a few bruises for show, or you can spend the rest of the week drinking down the street at the Laughing Mujina.”
Nuroka frowned. “The sake there is too watery. It might be worth the bruises.”
“Get away from me,” Takei said with a grin, shoving his cousin from the porch and sending him staggering down the street. “And tell your mother I will be there for dinner tomorrow.” He watched his friend and cousin head down the street with an ever so slight sway in his step. Nuroka was a good man and a loyal servant of the Crab. His only true flaw was that he succumbed easily to temptation. It was a terrible failing for a samurai to possess, but thus far Nuroka had avoided any major disasters. Takei hoped he could continue to do so.
The sound of sandals kicking up dirt as they ran through the streets reached Takei's ears. He turned and searched the many roads that met in this portion of town for the sound's origin. The failing light of late afternoon made him squint, but his eyes widened when he saw the boy running toward him.
“Jubei,” he called, stepping down from the sake house's raised stone porch. “Jubei, what is it?”
The boy said nothing, only stood there gasping for breath. He was terribly pale, and his eyes were wide with fear. His hands were trembling, and Takei's smile disappeared in an instant. “Another?” he asked the boy.
Takei felt anger and sorrow flare within him. “Show me.”
The house was little more than a shack that sat on the edge of Earthquake Fish Bay. There was a crude but sturdy dock right behind it, obviously built by hand. It was painful for Takei to look on something that was obviously a labor of love, the house and dock together the very picture of a simple fisherman's dream. Knowing what awaited him inside made it all the more agonizing.
Kyuru stood waiting for Takei, his face nearly as pale as the boy's. He inclined his head respectfully. “Hello, Takei-sama. We have touched nothing, as you instructed. We sent for you as soon as we found it. Him. As soon as we found him.”
“Thank you, Kyuru,” Takei said absently, looking past him toward the house. He looked at the yoriki expectantly. “Is it like the others?”
The younger man swallowed. “It is worse, Takei-sama.”
Takei clenched his fists and nodded, saying nothing. Without a word he slipped past his deputy and entered the house, ducking his head to keep from striking it on the overhang. The air inside was heavy and rank, smelling of rotting meat and copper. The magistrate wrinkled his nose in disgust, but maintained his silence. Inside the tiny house, his second deputy stood waiting with another man clad in filthy robes. Takei nodded to them both, then examined the body that lay twisted and broken in the floor.
This man, a simple fisherman, had died a terrible death. His body had been twisted and warped in ways that nature had never intended, and the expression on his cold, dead face told Takei that he had suffered enormously before the end finally came. Blood was scattered all about the interior, so much so that Takei had to take care to keep from getting it on his clothing. He could see that his men had done the same. There were places where the blood appeared to form writing, but it was nothing that the magistrate could read, nor had any of those he had contacted about the strange symbols been able to tell him anything further. Takei had had ample opportunity to seek such assistance. This was the eighth such body to be discovered over the past four months.
Takei looked to the eta that accompanied his second yoriki and nodded. The little man bowed very deeply and stepped forward to move the body as Takei directed. At his nod of approval, the eta pulled aside the tattered remnants of clothing that covered the dead man's torso. The wounds there were the same as the others. Takei would have been sickened by them, by their extent and the obvious ferocity with which they were inflicted, except that he had become disgustingly accustomed to them.
Mikoru, his second yoriki, looked to be struggling. He had only joined Takei two months ago, after the murders started. This was the second dead body he had seen in his short life. He coughed violently, struggling to keep from retching. “What manner of beast could do something like that?” he finally managed, not looking at the body.
“This is no beast,” Takei said firmly. His voice held no trace of the humor and mirth it had only a short time ago. “The creatures of the Shadowlands rarely venture to Friendly Traveler.”
“It's always a possibility,” Mikoru insisted.
“I do not think so.” The magistrate shook his head. “The corpse is mutilated, yes, but nothing is missing. A ravenous beast would have devoured the flesh. That leaves the possibility that this was a sacrifice by some Shadowlands tsukai, but the murder scene bears no symbols of Fu Leng, no trappings of dark magic. As wicked an act as this is, it does not smell like the Shadowlands to me.”
“What is it, Takei-sama?”
The Yasuki glanced around the room, his trained eyes taking in every detail. “A man did this.”
The yoriko wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “What sort of man would do such a thing?” The greenish color in his face had not subsided, and he did not glance down as he spoke.
“A sick man,” Takei answered. “The Hida call it ranshin . It is not unusual for madness to strike so close to the Wall. Sometimes the horrors in these lands light a fire in a man's mind. He tries to ignore it, to bury it deep and extinguish it. But no matter how much he tries, he cannot control it. It builds and builds, until the burning is all he can feel. When that happens…” He gestured to the room around them. “He must find fuel to slake the fires… he must kill.”
Mikoru looked perplexed. “Do you mean that he cannot help himself? That whoever did this is not responsible for their actions?”
“Not responsible, perhaps” the magistrate said. “Not accountable? That is a different story. It falls to us to help this killer… and to help others by making certain he does not kill again. We will ease his pain, at the end of a sword if need be.” He rested his hand on the hilt of his blade as he continued to study the grisly scene.
Two weeks later, Takei wondered if his words had brought a curse upon him for his pride. The desk in his infrequently used office was completely covered in scrolls, each carefully describing every detail of evidence and every testimony of the murders. There was so much information, and so little that was of any use.
The first murder had been almost exactly four months ago. At the time, Takei had taken testimony from at three witnesses, peasants one and all but men that Takei believed were trustworthy. They had each identified a strange ronin woman that had been traveling through the village at the time. Takei had sent word to the next village, and the woman had been taken into custody. Before her execution, however, the second murder had taken place. Given the already tenuous circumstances around her arrest, namely the testimony of heimen, the Crab had no choice but to let her go.
Since that time, there had been three more bodies. Four, Takei corrected grimly, four more murders, all spaced out at seemingly random intervals. With each body, Takei had struggled to find some link between the victims. Each time, his theories had been shattered with the appearance of some new body that seemed completely unconnected to the previous victim's death. The most recent one, a reclusive, unmarried fisherman, had ties to almost no one in the village. His death was utterly without reason. Takei could find nothing that made him similar to any other victim, most of whom had been farmers or merchants of some sort. Indeed, the only time the fisherman would have seen other villagers would have been during trips to the shrines around it. He had been a pious man, it seemed.
Takei frowned. Why did that seem important? It seemed familiar. Why? He rummaged through the heavy scrolls for several long moments, occasionally unrolling one and looking over the contents. A former monk turned wheat farmer. A housewife. A miller. And in each case, the victim had at one point been a firmly dedicated to religion. One had even studied with the Kuni Witch Hunters for a time before being expelled for incompetence. Not all had maintained their piety, but some had. What did it mean? He couldn't be sure.
A moment of insight struck. Takei stood up so suddenly that his thighs crashed into the edge of his desk, nearly knocking it over in his haste. He barely noticed. The murders made little sense, perhaps, but he believed he knew who the next victim might be. As magistrate, he must prevent any further deaths, and as a Crab, he must protect his brothers. Brothers like Yasuki Nuroka, a barely adequate soldier who had, as a child, shown the capacity for speaking to the kami. He could have been a shugenja, but his mind simply wasn't keen enough to deal with all that he would be required to learn. Instead, he became a passable yojimbo, and drowned his dishonor with sake.
Takei ran through the streets, the glare of lamps illuminating the night only intermittently as he raced toward the sake house. He threw open the door and leapt inside, looking all about for his cousin. Many familiar faces greeted him, and some lifted their cups to call out greetings to him. Most died before they finished when they saw the look on his face. “Nuroka! Where is he?”
“He… he left almost half an hour ago,” one rare sober patron said weakly.
Takei cursed under his breath and bolted back out the door as quickly as he had arrived. Again, his course took him weaving through the village toward Nuroka's meager home. He knew that there was no reason to suspect the murderer would strike again so quickly. No two killings had been so close together save for the first two. And yet, he could not put aside his feeling… no, his certainty… that his cousin was in danger. In moments, he reached Nuroka's home. He did not hesitate for one moment, but smashed through the thin wooden door with the tetsubo he had grabbed from his office on his way out.
The stench of blood was so thick it was choking. The interior was almost completely dark. Only a single candle illuminated the small room, and it was lying on its side near a smashed desk. Across the room, his cousin lay sprawled at a sickening angle on the ground. Hunched over him was the form of a man, sitting down on his haunches like an animal might. The figure glanced over its shoulder at the noise of his approach.
Takei shouted a battle cry and hurled himself across the room, swinging the tetsubo with all his might. His target dove to the floor, missing the strike by inches. The tetsubo crashed into the wall and opened a hole the size of a man's head.
The murderer lashed out with a vicious kick that caught Takei right beneath the armpit. He hissed in pain and threw an elbow, striking his opponent across the top of the head. He grappled with the stranger for a moment, desperate to get a glimpse of their face in the darkened shadows, to no avail. The other head came forward once, twice, and then a third time, crushing Takei's noise and opening a gash on his forehead that send blood streaming into his eyes. He rolled away, cursing.
The sound of wood splintering forced Takei to his feet. He grabbed the discarded tetsubo and stumbled through the hole that had once been a rear wall of his cousin's home. The choppy waters of Earthquake Fish Bay greeted him, and he saw the faintest glimpse of someone as they disappeared beneath the waves.
The murderer was gone.
Convene the Imperial Assembly
As members of the Imperial Assembly, you have the opportunity to shape the future of Rokugan. This sordid tale of murder and betrayal is far from over, but its outcome has not yet been written. Your votes will determine how this saga, to be continued through fiction and flavor text, will develop.
• Where will the murderer strike next?
• Toshi Ranbo, the Imperial City
• Ryoko Owari, the City of Lies
• City of the Rich Frog, the City of War.
• Friendly Traveler Village.
• Where did this murderer come from?
• A member of the Great Clans.
• A ronin, driven mad by experiences on the wall.
• A peasant, unhappy with his life under the samurai's rule.
• A member of the Imperial Families, indulging in madness and using wealth and power to conceal his activities.
• A gaijin, lost in the Empire and taking out his mad rage on its people.
• What is the terrible secret behind the murderer's identify?
• Madness . Sometimes, mankind needs no assistance to commit great evil. The murderer is an existing personality from one of the Great Clans, driven to commit these hideous crimes by a burning insanity that he struggles to conceal deep within the innermost regions of his soul.
• Possession . Something utterly beyond the murderer's control drives him to sate dark, sinister urges. An item or being that the individual cannot control consumes him with its dark power, driving him to kill again and again, no matter the toll it takes on his honor.
• Corruption. The murderer is lost to the Taint, though he may not yet realize it. The dark powers deep inside the Shadowlands reach out through their pawn, paralyzing entire villages with fear and weakening the Empire's precious unity.
And the newly released story results
by Shawn Carman
To be the largest city in all of Rokugan, Ryoko Owari bore a striking resemblance to any of a hundred seedy villages and small towns. Scale, it seemed, was the only real difference. Granted, the city's enormous size meant that its more attractive features, the resplendent temple district, the opulent noble quarter, and the infamous Teardrop Island, far exceeded the fineries one might find elsewhere. But the other areas, the merchant's quarter, the fisherman's market, the docks, the leatherworker quarter... they were only more crowded and filthier for their greater size and population density.
It was in one particularly loathsome sake house, nestled squarely in the most unpleasant part of the city, where Bayushi Shujiri sat quietly in a dark corner. A bottle of sochu sat before him, a dirty cup held halfway between the table and his mouth. His eyes had glazed over somewhat, and the cup trembled as he relived some dark and unpleasant memory. He didn't even seem to notice when the stranger sat down across the table from him. The stranger withdrew a cup from his sleeve and sat it down on the table. The porcelain rapped against the ragged wood delicately.
Shujiri blinked suddenly and looked up at the stranger. He scowled, the mask covering the right side of his face doing nothing to hide either his pale pallor or the desperate anger in his eyes. "I did not ask you to sit down. I suggest you leave. Now." He made a obvious display of moving his hand toward the hilt of his weapon.
"Easy friend," the stranger said softly. "I am not looking for trouble. In fact, you might accurately say that I'm looking to avoid it. Someone told me you were a yoriki serving the city's chief magistrate. I was clearly misinformed. Please excuse me, and I apologize for the interruption." The stranger rose to leave.
"No," Shujiri said suddenly. "Wait. I am a yoriki, yes." He looked around strangely, as if unfamiliar with his surroundings. "What... what is it I can do for you?"
"I need information," the stranger said. "From one detective to another."
Shujiri frowned. "It is inappropriate for a yoriki to discuss his superior's investigations."
"Of course, of course," the stranger said. "But then, there are some that might say finding a yoriki in a place such as this would be equally inappropriate. Perhaps even more so."
Shujiri looked down at the table, finally resting the cup of shochu on its surface. He did not speak for several long moments. "I made an arrest here my first day as a yoriki," he finally said. "In the two years since that time, I have yet to find a more despicable, wretched place than this. I thought perhaps here..." he trailed off.
"That you could forget," the stranger nodded. "I understand. I can even help you, if you like." He withdrew a small bag of coins and set it on the table. A single coin feel free from the bag and rested on the table. A Crab mon was etched into the metal. "You were thinking of seeking a post elsewhere?"
The young yoriki looked up at the stranger with a suspicious glare. "That's none of your concern," he said harshly.
The stranger held up his hands apologetically. "Forgive me. But if you were, hypothetically speaking, this would help." He gestured to the bag. "Or if it is simply the oblivion of drink you crave, you can buy a great deal for this."
The Scorpion stared hungrily at the bag of coins, his indecision obvious.
The stranger reached into his robe one last time and withdrew a bottle, placing it alongside the first on the table. Shujiri drew back in surprise at the sight of it. "That is Friendly Traveler Sake," he said. "The finest in the Empire."
"A gift," the stranger said, reclining.
"What is it you want to know?" the Scorpion finally asked.
The stranger folded his hands into his sleeves. "I need to know everything about the murders."
Shujiri snorted. "Which ones? This is Ryoko Owari."
"You know which ones I mean."
The Scorpion licked his lips nervously and quickly downed the cup of sochu. "What you're asking me about is the exact thing I want to forget," he said quietly. "I wish I had never seen it. I wish I could take it away." He looked up at the stranger hopefully. "Will it ever go away? Will it ever disappear when I close my eyes?"
For the first time, the stranger smiled. Despite his handsome features, there was a terrible emptiness in his eyes when he smiled. "No," Yasuki Takei said truthfully. "No, it will never go away."
It was over an hour later when Takei emerged from the sake house. Shujiri was still within, consumed with the weight of his memories and hopelessly lost to the alcohol. It would be some time before he would be of use to anyone, Takei was certain. He had seen his share of drunkenness in Friendly Traveler Village. As the village's magistrate, it was his duty to deal with the disorderly and unseemly. Shujiri was neither of those, of course, but he was still a problem. His sensibilities were far too delicate for the manner of work that a magistrate must perform, especially one stationed in Ryoko Owari Toshi. Knowing the Scorpion, they had placed him in such a position to test his mettle. Or perhaps they hoped to use him as a pawn to convince their enemies of their weaknesses.
The Crab scowled. He had never thought particularly ill of the Scorpion, though many among his clan did. Having spent two weeks in Ryoko Owari, however... perhaps he had been naive to think well of the so-called Clan of Secrets. So many of his kinsmen couldn't all be mistaken, after all. Truthfully, though, Shijuri reminded Takei too much of his own yoriki back in Friendly Traveler Village. They were young and well intentioned, if a bit inexperienced. He hoped they would be able to deal with whatever problems arose in his absence.
"You there," a stern voice interrupted his inner musings. "Hold it right there."
Takei winced inwardly, but showed no emotion whatsoever as he complied with the command. He turned slowly, his hands held away from his sides. A rather large Scorpion was standing in the center of the street, two others standing behind him. The man's intense demeanor and the wide berth others gave him indicated to Takei this was a man who did not brook humor well. "Show me your papers," the magistrate commanded.
Takei nodded wordlessly and withdrew a scroll from his obi, holding it out for the magistrate to take at his leisure. The man gestured and one of the other Scorpion stepped forward to take it. The woman moved with a grace and speed that surprised Takei. The magistrate took the papers and glanced over them carefully, then looked back up at Takei in irritation. "What is this? Where are your papers?"
"Those are my papers, sama," Takei said plaintively.
"I have little tolerance for jokes," the magistrate said sternly. "These papers were signed by some minor magistrate in Friendly Traveler Village. They do not authorize you for travel through the Scorpion lands."
Takei looked confused. "I do not understand. The many Crab and Scorpion way stations I passed on my journey here did not take issue with my papers."
"Then they were fools."
"But I traveled through Kyuden Bayushi," Takei insisted. "I do not believe the Bayushi to be fools." One of the two subordinates glanced sidelong at the magistrate, perhaps questioning his statement. The visible portions of the magistrate's face reddened, which probably was not beneficial to Takei's long term well-being in the city.
There was some noise from the small crowd watching the exchange as someone else moved into the street. It was a Unicorn, and more importantly one with an Imperial mon emblazoned upon his armor. "What is going on here, Ryoji-san?"
"Nothing that concerns you, Nobane," the magistrate answered sharply.
The Unicorn's eyes narrowed. "I think you forget yourself, magistrate. If I choose to make it my concern, there is little you can do in response."
The anger blazing in Bayushi Ryoji's eyes was truly impressive, but Takei was too focused on fading into the background to enjoy it. If this played out as well as he hoped, he might be able to fade without becoming further embroiled in an enterprise that would doubtless cause him complications, if not cause his career to come to an untimely end. Carefully, discreetly, he took a single step backwards.
"That's quite far enough," Nobane said firmly. "You will accompany me." Takei's heart sank at the words.
"You have no right," Ryoji insisted.
"How unfortunate that you think so," Nobane replied. "You may have your superior discuss it with me, if you like. Or you may take it up with governor Osema. I am finished speaking with you." He pointed to Takei almost dismissively. "Come with me."
Swallowing anxiously, Takei followed as the Unicorn turned and left the way he came. He was sure to give the Scorpion a wide berth as he passed.
The two men wound through the streets of the Fisherman's Quarter, gradually making their way back toward the Noble Quarter. Takei watched carefully, but the one time he began to step into the alleys and disappear, Nobane simply said "That wouldn't be a wise decision," and continued walking. And so Takei surrendered and followed him. What would happen, would happen.
"Did you get your papers back from Ryoji?" the Unicorn asked.
"I did not."
He nodded. "We shall see what we can do about that. You are a Yasuki, correct?"
Takei frowned. "Yes. How could you tell?"
"Your accent, although it appears you were trying to emulate something along the lines of a Kaiu dialect." He glanced over his shoulder. "I take it you haven't traveled a great deal."
"No," Takei admitted, "not really."
"I assume you wrote those travel papers yourself, then?"
Takei cursed irritably under his breath. "Yes."
"You really aren't very good at all this."
"Who are you?" the Yasuki magistrate demanded. "If you dragged me away from the Scorpion just so you could enjoy humiliating me yourself, spare me your arrogance. I have importance business here, so either charge me or let me go."
The Unicorn stopped and turned to regard Takei carefully. There was no malice in his stare. "I am Horiuchi Nobane, commander of the Eighth Imperial Legion. My men are stationed near the city, and I had to retrieve some of my more... weak-willed junior officers from a night of indulgence in this fetid cesspool. I intervened in your particular conflict because Ryoji is a tyrannical buffoon who enjoys harassing my men any time they come into the city. Humiliating him was purely for my amusement, not your benefit." He paused for a moment. "And now I would know what you are doing here. Consider it repayment for my benevolent patronage."
Takei sighed heavily, suddenly aware of how tired he was. "This is not a pleasant tale, nor one fit to be overheard, particularly in a city of Scorpion." He glanced around. "Is there somewhere we can discuss the matter privately?"
"My command tent," Nobane replied. "Do you have a horse?"
Despite his situation, Takei finally felt somewhat relaxed as he entered the Legion encampment. If there was anywhere he could feel safe, surely it was among the Emperor's elite servants. And if he was not safe here, then there was no point in feeling anxious because there was nothing he could do about it anyway.
"So," Nobane said, settling down at a writing desk and withdrawing a scroll. "Please enlighten me." Takei hesitated for a moment, regarding the scroll suspiciously, but Nobane laughed. "A supply list," he explained. "Your secrets will not be recorded, I assure you."
Takei nodded slowly, unsure where to begin. "Seven months ago, I was called to investigate a murder in Friendly Traveler Village. There had been violence there before, but nothing like this. It was mutilation, savage and brutal. I had never seen anything like it, although unfortunately I would see it soon again. There were eight other murders over the course of the next five months. The last one was my cousin. I arrived in time to see his murderer, but I could not see his face. We fought, and he escaped."
Nobane nodded thoughtfully. "Go on."
"I heard a report of a similar killing in Ryoko Owari within a month's time. I attempted to gain permission to track the murderer down, but I was denied."
The Unicorn raised an eyebrow. "You are here without the consent of your lord?"
Takei nodded. "Yes, though I saw that my duties and responsibilities were seen to in my absence. This is a personal matter now. I must end this."
"How many more?"
"Five since the killer fled Friendly Traveler," Takei said. "At least, as near as I can tell. The Scorpion are not particularly forthcoming with their internal problems, but I know what I am looking for. Perhaps I cannot forge convincing documents or assume a deceptive accent, but I am an excellent magistrate."
Nobane said nothing for several moments, continuing to pen his supply list. "I believe you must be," he finally said. "Do you have any suspects?"
"I began with a rather large list of travelers who have crossed the Crab border in the past seven months. I managed to obtain at least a partial list of similar names from the Scorpion here in the city, and have been comparing the two for nearly two weeks now."
"Impressive," Nobane nodded. "How did you get such a list from the Scorpion, and why would you trust the information it contains?"
"Bribery," Takei said with a wry smile. "It's the common language of Yasuki and Scorpion. Besides, our sake is quite difficult to get in this part of the Empire. The Scorpion have no reason to lie to me; they had nothing to gain."
"You found something, then?"
"I did," Takei nodded. "It may be nothing, but I cannot be certain. Tomorrow will tell the tale, I hope."
"What can I do to be of aid to you?" Nobane asked.
Takei grunted. "Some travel papers would be nice, if you have them." He thought for a moment. "And are there any Toritaka among your Legion? I may need their expertise."
Nobane looked at Takei curiously.
It was late the following night when Takei heard a muffled scream from down the hallway. He leapt up from his place of concealment in the inn's common room and raced into the hallway, drawing his weapon and cursing inwardly. He did not think he had gone to sleep, but he might have. Either that, or his prey was stealthier than he had anticipated, and had slipped past him toward the target. Either way, it likely spelled the end for an innocent man.
Takei had just enough time to appreciate a sense of familiarity as he ripped open the screen and entered the room of Doji Takasu, a Crane merchant patron who had once been an adherent of Daikoku before abandoning his spiritual leanings to embrace commercial interests in his clan's name.
Takasu was laying on the floor, clawing weakly at the wall in what might have been an attempt to rise. The sheer amount of blood already on the floor told Takei that the Crane's abdomen had suffered a terrible wound. He would be dead in moments, long before Takei could get help. He had more pressing concerns.
A familiar figure stood in the room's center, bloodied steel in its hand. The same thick, voluminous cloak covered every feature. There was a hiss of recognition from within the hood, and the figure turned to leap out the second story window, just as it had in Friendly Traveler Village months ago. Takei's breath caught in his throat as he waited to see if his hunch had proven correct.
The figure struck the wall and should have crashed through the relatively thin wood to escape into the streets below. Instead, there was a loud thud, and the figure bounced away from the wall to land squarely on its back in the center of the room.
"It's over, Sarasa," Takei said. He held is blade before him, prepared to kill in an instant. "Surrender yourself and salvage some vestige of honor."
The figure rose from the floor. The hood fell away to reveal a young woman's face. There was a splatter of blood on her left cheek, and her eyes were like those of a cornered predator. "You know?"
Takei nodded. "There are records of Akodo Sarasa traveling through the Scorpion lands and into the Crab provinces, but no record of your departure. And you have been reported missing for months now. You have all the training needed to avoid detection, and the armor you wear underneath your robe makes you appear to be larger, more masculine. Few would suspect you."
"The window," she hissed. "What have you done?"
"Spirit wards," Takei explained. "It was instinct, pure and simple. I know about your father."
"Do not speak of him," Sarasa said angrily, her voice rising.
"Dishonored in battle for unseemly brutality," Takei continued. "He was killed by bandits when you were still very young. There were reports of his presence at the Battle of Oblivion's Gate, but nothing since then. He fought for the Steel Chrysanthemum, didn't he? And he died again, defying the Emperor. But that wasn't the end for him either, was it? You were a fool to sate your bloodlust in the Yasuki lands, Sarasa. The Crab know more about demons like your father than you ever will."
"You don't understand," Sarasa insisted. "I cannot stop him! The dreams... every night! So much blood..."
"Why?" Takei asked, his tone cold. "Why those who turned their backs on the Fortunes?" His features twisted in anger. "Why my cousin?"
Sarasa regarded him with an angry glare, a hollow light filling her eyes. When she spoke, her voice was not her own. "The bandits who murdered me... their leader was a shugenja who left the temple. He and those like him are blasphemers! Traitors to the one true path! And Agasha Tamori, also a shugenja... if he had not been so weak, the Chrysanthemum would have been victorious! Traitors to the Empire, blasphemers, all of them!"
"Your father was a petty butcher," Takei growled. "Now you are a mindless killing spirit. Do not speak of blasphemy to me." He smiled grimly. "You are the last of your line. You have no siblings, no children. Your father's legacy will end with you."
"You dare?" she screamed. She leapt across the room in one fluid motion, bringing her blade across with such force that Takei's katana was nearly torn from his grip by the sheer force of the blow. She was far stronger than he expected, drawing on her father's supernatural aid. "I will kill you!"
Takei rolled underneath a second attack and lashed out at Sarasa's legs, but she was too quick. She was faster, more experienced, and much stronger than he. He parried another strike desperately, trying to avoid being pinned in the corner. Sarasa attacked again, and Takei kicked her viciously in the midsection while she was recovering from the force of her swing.
Air rushed out of Sarasa's lungs with an audible gasp, and Takei followed the attack with a crushing pommel strike to the face in an attempt to drive her back far enough so that he could manage a killing blow. She rolled back with the blow, however, and his attack was too short to reach her, only cutting through some of the loose cloth of her cloak. He followed up with several quick strikes, but she retreated faster than he could advance.
And then, all at once, she was on top of him. He felt cold steel bite into his leg, but he only had a moment to appreciate the exquisite agony of it. A series of open handed strikes snapped his head back, and he thought he felt something break. Rough hands grabbed him around the chest and heaved him off the ground. For a moment, he thought she wanted to crush him to death with her bare hands.
Sarasa crouched as if to heave him forward, and Takei realized what she meant to do. At the last moment, he grabbed a fistful of hair in one hand and cloth in the other and held on tightly. The possessed woman's prodigious strength worked against her, as she was pulled along after him.
Takei struck the wall with bone-shattering force. The wood splintered beneath his weight, sending shards flying in all directions. The spirit ward ribbons fluttered into the night air, their power broken along with the wall. Two forms rolled out onto the roof, hopelessly entangled in a mass of tattered clothing and limbs.
The inclined roof creaked beneath them, but held. Takei realized he was hurt, and badly. Sarasa was struggling to her feet. She would escape again, leaving him broken and unable to pursue her. Her murderous nature would litter the Empire with innocent corpses.
He would not allow it.
With the last bit of his strength, Takei willed his broken body in an awkward, flailing leap that brought his entire weight to bear on Sarasa. She grunted in surprise from the impact and struggled to shrug him off, but he was little more than dead weight. The two of them tumbled forward off the roof and into the crisp night air.
It was almost fifteen feet from the roof to the cobblestone path beneath, and Takei brought every ounce of his weight down upon his opponent. There was a terrible wet snap when they collided. Takei waited a precious few seconds, but there was no wave of pain from a fresh break, and Sarasa did not move.
Takei slumped to the ground, bleeding from a dozen wounds. He would die here, on the filthy road in Ryoko Owari. It was not what he had wanted for his life, but he accepted it. His superiors would not understand, but he knew that he had proven himself to his ancestors tonight. He would die with honor, at least, even if no one else knew it.
"Easy, friend," a voice came through the haze. "Rest now."
"N... Nobane," Takei sputtered, his lips flecked with blood. "You weren't... supposed... to interfere. My duty..."
"And I haven't," the officer assured Takei. "Your task is done, my friend. Everyone will know of your valor. I will tell the world."
"Thank you," Takei managed.
And then there was only darkness.
I for one was glad to see more fiction involving magistrates and how they honorably did their duty . The fact that the Yasuki were involved was a bonus , it seemed like this was a nod to Yasuki Taka and his mission to infiltrate the Kolat
Seeing Nobane develloped further as a character was great too , though I may be biased in that respect
It seems the Akodo are being cast as the Lion's disreputable familly these days , with some of its members turning out to be Bloodspeakers or incomptetent. That's rather surprising where once they led the Clan and were supposed to embody the virtues of bushido . But Lion characters from other famillies have been corrupted recently too , and there is something oddly fitting in finding that some of those who belong to the traditionally most honorable familly in Rokugan are actually dishonorable