The dim light of early evening filled the garden of Kyuden Doji with deep shadows. In one corner of the famous garden of the Crane Clan water trickled quietly into an ornamental pool. At its side a figure stood., dressed in a kimono of red and black, a mask of wood and silk covering his eyes, he watched the carp swim this way and that through the shallow water. Just over the surface an insect darted in lopsided circles, oblivious to the hungry shapes that prowled just beneath it. 'So it is with so many men' the figure thought to himself, 'that they are blind to the danger that lurks so close to them'.
At exactly that moment a cry was heard across the garden, "Hituro-san" and the figure turned. Behind him one of the carp snatched at the little insect, eating it whole. "Hituro-san" said the Doji courtier as he approached, "I hoped that I might find you here, are the gardens not most beautiful at this time of day?"
Bayushi Hituro, Magistrate of the Scorpion Clan, nodded his head in a little half-bow. "Yes Doji-san, they are most fine. I came to watch the cherry blossoms as they fell on the water. Is it always so beautiful here in the spring?"
"Hai, Hituro-san" I myself often come to the gardens when I have the time. It is well to remind oneself of the beauty that our artisans have created to commemorate the Kami. For centuries our Clan has laboured to make these the finest gardens in all the Empire." for a moment a bird sang from one of the cherry trees, its sweet song raised over the trickle of the water.
"Forgive me Hituro-san, I came to tell you that My Lord Sekaru-sama would see you now. He sends his apologies for keeping you waiting."
"Of course" said Hituro, "Please, lead the way."
The young courtier led the way through the darkening gardens. In the distance the rooftops of Doji Palace wove complex patterns against the blue of the sky. Close by rose a small tower at the east end of the palace, a few stories high, where Hituro hoped to meet Doji Sekaru, Magistrate of the Crane. From his place beyond some bushes a heimin gardener looked up from his place, hoeing the earth, and then quickly went back to work, the slow steady rhythm of the mattock in the soil forming a beat behind Hituro's thoughts. From all that he has seen and heard this Crane Magistrate is nothing but a fool. Polite of course, but determined to snub the Scorpion who came to visit him, bearing warnings of plots and intrigues. Yet he must save the life of this man.
The Doji led him to the gates of the tower, where two Daidoji guards, faceless behind their beaked mempos, stood motionless beside a door of polished wood. A pair of small wooden wind chimes softly rung in the evening breeze, it felt like it might rain. Inside Sekaru sat in a perfectly proportioned room, its walls painted screens behind which lamps had been placed, dulling their glow a little and bringing the images on the paper to life. On the North wall was an image of the Lord Onnotangu, as the moon half full, shining down over the sea where Lady Doji had finally vanished into the waves. To the east was the red disk of the setting sun, and the scene of a battle, an oddity in a palace of the Crane. To the south was a green circle of jade, lovingly painted, bearing on its surface the mon of the Doji. Finally, to the west, a white tiger stalked through long stalks of bamboo, its yellow eyes seeming to follow Hituro as he entered and knelt. Sekaru himself, in the blue and white of the Crane, sat in the middle of the room, where pale tatami mats surrounded a small fire, unnecessary in the already stifling evening heat.
Hituro bowed low "Sekaru-sama, I beg forgiveness for this interruption, I know that you are a busy man."
Sekaru's eyes flicked over him, delaying his response almost to the point of open insult, and then said "It is no matter, only a unwise man would turn his back on a Scorpion who comes bearing Gifts."
"Thank you Sekaru-sama" Hituro said, and thought 'pompous fool, but these insults will not deflect me from my purpose' Hituro reached inside his kimono and produced a small package delicately wrapped in fine paper, folded neatly to tie inside itself. "I bring you this Gift as apology for disturbing your time"
"There is no need for such an apology." Sekaru replied, "For I hear that you come bearing a warning of criminal activities. As a magistrate such thing is duty, not an interruption."
"Of course, but nevertheless I urge you to accept this Gift for it will do honour to your Clan and family, I think you will find it well chosen."
"I of course would not be one to turn away something that would do honour to my Clan or Family." said Sekaru, clearly enjoying his ability to outdo the Scorpion's offers "But I have done nothing to deserve your honour or gift. If this Gift would truly bring honour to my family then you should present it to Doji Satsume-sama, as Daimyo of the Doji house, do not give it to me."
Hituro bowed a little lower so that the Magistrate would not see the smile under his mask. "No Sekaru-sama you have not yet done anything to deserve such a gift of honour from the Clan of the Scorpion, but rest assured that when you have learnt the truth of the messages I bring you will, and for that I must offer this gift to you now."
For a moment the room was deadly silent, Sekaru had no reply, but then at last he said "I will not doubt your words Scorpion, I will accept your gift."
Hituro rose from his kneeling position and passed his gift to the Magistrate, who unwrapped it quietly, putting the unfolded paper to one side lest it catch in the fire. Within was a simple folded fan, such as any courtier might use to keep himself cool. When Sekaru opened it he saw that a delicate image had been painted upon its surface, an image of the mayfly, the Sekaru, for which he had been named. Clearly it was of great age, and a priceless Gift because of the image upon it. "Now" said Hituro, interrupting his thoughts "About the message I bear."
Later that night, in the room that had been given too him, Hituro relaxed, leaning against the wall, and ate some sweet rice cakes, with bean paste at their centre. Out of the window of his room he could see the main courtyard of Doji Palace, and the eastern wing. Down by the porch he could make out a small group of people crossing the gardens with lit torches, Sekaru returning from a meeting with his master Doji Chimura, the head of the small Taburo family to which Sekaru belonged. Imperial Magistrate Chimura, a famous name, a man who commanded the respect of half the Empire, a man who had betrayed the Scorpion Clan.
Hituro had presented Sekaru with the letters that he had brought, which discussed the activities of bandits and black market traders who were apparently operating near the very heart of Crane lands. Clearly Sekaru-san had suspected some sort of Scorpion trick, but the documents themselves seemed unarguable, and so an investigation must be carried out. Sekaru, of course, had no intention of including him, but he had ways of dealing with that.
Down in the garden Hituro stood in the shadows of the trees, watching lighted windows. The evening was warm but muggy, and the plain brown kimono that he now wore seemed to want to soak up the moisture from the air and become wet. He could almost fancy he could see the shapes of Gaki and Ghosts moving through the light mists. A little distance away a screen door slid open and Sekaru stepped out of his tower, heading down across the gardens with one of his Samurai and a manservant at his heels. The Magistrate passed by a peasant gardener, finally able to leave his work and head home, and set off through the palace and into the town itself. Hituro followed, past the still trickling pools, across a small red bridge under weeping willows, and down a quiet street until Sekaru came to the doors of a tea house from which the sound of laughter echoed. Hituro noted the sign on the door as the Magistrate entered, 'The house of the Spring Blossoms', excellent.
The court of Doji Satsume was crowded with cranes in a hundred shades of blue and white, the proud mons of their families displayed across backs and sleeves. The bright sunlight of mid-day shone through the tall windows and across the polished floor of Satsume's meeting chamber. Though the Daimyo himself was in Otosan Uchi at the side of the Divine Son of Heaven the court itself still met. At the further end of the room Satsume's Karo, Chimura, and his Hatamoto sat on carved thrones inlayed with costly jade, while the courtiers themselves aired themselves with twitching fans.
"I have heard that these investigations will accuse prominent Merchants." whispered one Courtier to another, correcting, as he did so, a minor detail of the arrangement of his hair.
"I do not think that we need concern ourselves with the fates of merchants." replied another, "But I have heard mention suspicions that certain low-born Samurai of another Clan may be heavily involved."
A third Courtier, who's fan bore the mon of the Kakita family nodded at this as if to say that he understood everything to which they referred and then said "I have heard that the tea harvests in the Crab hills are not of the best quality this year."
The first courtier narrowed his eyes at the third by a slight touch, clearly not wishing the conversation to take this direction. "We can trust in Doji Sekaru-sama to make sure that whoever would break the laws of the Divine descendant of Amaterasu will be brought to justice. Now, if you will excuse me, I have just noticed my cousin and must speak with him upon a family matter."
With this he moved off to a different place in the line, signalling his dispute with the other courtier's views. The second courtier half smiled to himself as the third departed. This one was dangerous, Hituro thought. The mon on his sleeve was of the Doji, but the one by his heart was of the Kakita. Hituro believed that this was Kakita Okaizo, trained in the courtier school of the Doji and in the Kenjutsu school of the Kakita alike. There was talk that it would not be long before he sat on one of the two Jade thrones at the far end of the room, as Satsume-sama's Karo or his Hatamoto. Yes this one was indeed dangerous.
"And what can you tell us of these matters Bayushi-san?" Okaizo asked Hituro, turning for the first time to look at the Scorpion, who stood a little way behind the line of Cranes. "Of course I cannot speak of such matters Kakita Okaizo-sama."
Hituro replied "I was merely the bearer of my Lord's letters and know nothing of their contents. I wait here simply in case Sekaru-sama has any reply he might wish me to carry back to my Clan." He smiled at the Cranes, obviously unhappy with his reply but forced to accept it.
With a sudden tap of a drum and slap of feet upon the polished floor the personal guard of Doji Chimura made their entrance, announcing the imminent arrival of their lord. Hituro bowed to the Crane and made his exit, the official court would now begin and all conversation of real interest would be over. Outside the council chamber the small corridors were quiet, leading the way to a small door onto a courtyard. Here starlings hoped around the base of a single tree, their glossy plumage reflecting the sun. Surrounding the courtyard was a porch, made dark by the heavy shadows of the roof over it. Here the air was cool, and heavy, darker still where some doors opened onto rooms with shuttered windows. Across the floor of one of these strips of light, sneaking their way between the bamboo slats of the shutters, seemed to mark a path through the shadows.
Hituro paused for a moment to meditate upon the lights, so like the path of the Scorpion. A narrow way surrounded on either side by darkness. Always there was the danger that you might fall down into the cracks, losing sight of the motives behind your actions. Even if you kept to the way it was still as much made of darkness as it was of light. It was not easy.
Out in the gardens beyond the courtyard Hituro ignored the stares of Crane Samurai and Kakita poets and they walked the paths. At one point a Doji lady, looking at him from behind a fan and a shield of maids smiled at him coyly, no doubt finding the Scorpion Diplomat an exciting element of danger, he kept his eyes to the ground. On the far side of the gardens, separated from the busy road out through the Palace gates by a high hedge and a wall, he came to a small lawn with a stone Go board in the centre, where an old man was sitting, his powder blue robes matching the pale blue flowers under the hedge. Hituro took the opposite seat and waited for the Old Man to make his move.
The Crane placed some stones on the board and then took his first move. "Tell me, Bayushi-san, I have heard tell that there was more to those letters that you brought to our Magistrate Sekaru than is being spoken of in the common courts."
Hituro made his own move before replying. "This is of course possible Doji-sama, the content of the letters of course spoke of a number of matters that might be of interest to a Magistrate of your Clan." The old courtier made no comment, but responded with his next move, and for a little while they played in silence.
"Few are likely to care that some merchants and perhaps thugs of the traitorous Yasuki are likely to be inconvenienced by Sekaru-san's investigations." the courtier said at last, his fingers idly toying with the end of his tapered white beard as he regarded the board. "But if there are other, more sensitive matters to be investigated, of course it would be of concern to any who wished to keep the good name of our family safe."
"I understand." Hituro replied. "Of course, not every element of the Magistrate's investigations have become public knowledge, and indeed one could well suppose that there may be more to this matter than simply Koku grubbing merchants or the black marketers of other Clans." On the board before them the game had become a swirl of black and white, lines folding around themselves as each sought to hold more space than the other. Some compared the game of Go to the field of battle, but to Hituro it had little to do with boasts and charges and much more to do with the deceptions of court. The way to win was to hide what you were truly trying to achieve, so that your opponent could be of no opposition to you.
"Of course, but let me assure you that there is nothing in these investigations that I think would inconvenience your Lord". Hituro glanced up across the stone table. "I do not think that your family should worry itself over the process of this investigation. I know that you are always warned not to trust in the assurances of the Scorpion, but in this case let me assure you that I speak honestly when I say that my Lord's letter contains nothing that would lead Sekaru-san to investigate the affairs of his own Clan."
"I think you for your assurance." the old man replied, "And of course I do not doubt what you have told me. My heart rests easier now that I know this to be the case." he smiled, but Hituro knew that there was no way that the courtier believed what he had said. Well and good, when one would not believe the truth, you believed the lie instead, and that was exactly what he had intended. He looked down at the board. "I fear that you have the match of me Doji-sama" he said "I must concede this game, but I thank you for the lesson." Hituro stood and bowed to his opponent. "Domo arigato."
The old man nodded in return, "Do itashimashite", as Hituro left.
In his rooms Hituro considered the progress of his mission. For a few days now he had observed Sekaru's investigations into the Yasuki smugglers as best he could. In truth he had no interest in smugglers and crabs but he was sure that he too was being watched in turn and it was important that people think that the investigations were of great importance to him. He knew that the investigations he had set in motion were stirring up a nest of hornets that Sekaru was entirely unaware of. Even though he had come no closer to finding out the true crimes that were being committed right under his nose, there were those that were convinced that the Scorpion Clan had given them every secret to their activities.
In the half light of the summer evening outside the window a nightingale sang as it sat on the branch of a tree by the palace wall. On the walls a shadow moved, silently creeping its way onto the walkway that surrounded the third floor. From below someone looking up might just have caught the hint of movement against the deep blue of the night sky, but nothing more than a cat might make, perhaps. Gaining the balcony the shadow crept towards a single lighted window, more silent than a cloud across the moon, as formless as a bad dream that haunts the waking man for just a moment after his eyes open. Within the window there is a flickering candle, a figure pouring over the words of a scroll, a brush laid carelessly across an ink stone, the shadow's target.
Hituro only had a moment to react when the figure appeared in the window and began to move. He didn't even register at first that it had thrown something, only threw himself backwards on instinct. An instant later a blade buried itself in the wood of the floor and the assassin was leaping into the room. There was no time for thought, only action, and in a moment Hituro's blade was in his hand, draw from saya which lay ready on the table. If he had not expected that an attack on his life might come he could have met his Ancestors at that moment. The figure came at him with a weapon that whirled through the air, perhaps nunchukau. Were his own clan somehow involved in trying to kill him?
No matter, such thoughts were for later. For a few blows he staggered backwards, struggling to set his stance against the furious attack. The candle was knocked from the table and guttered, making the light treacherous, and the assassin's weapon seemed always to be striking from left and right without pause. Somehow he found his stance, knocked the blows back and struck towards the arms that held the weapon, forcing the assassin back.
Now he was on the offensive, and he struck with all his training. His blade darted to the left, but it was not there, it struck to the right, but it was not there either, the assassin even tried to block the thrust to his stomach, but Hituro's blade was not there at all, it was already striking into his heart and cutting him down. As the man fell Hituro noticed for the first time the pain in his arm and shoulder where the weapon had struck him, and on the left of his chest, where perhaps a rib had been cracked. Straightening he flicked the blood from his katana and returned it to its saya, there would be time enough to consider his injuries later. For three nights he had expected this attack, now that it had come he had to act with speed. The dead man's spirit would have to wait.
Outside, against the building wall, was a gardener's spade, and a loose white jacket, a heimin's gear. Hituro gave them both a hard stare before glancing up at the balcony above. He was going to have to deal with the body later. Hituro hurried away from Doji palace and through the gardens, all the way to the eastern gate, which led to the small street on which the House of the Spring Blossoms lay. The Daidoji standing by the gate watched him from behind beaked mempos as he passed, making his hand stray towards his saya as he passed, but neither of them moved nor said a word. Outside in the town he hurried to the Tea House and entered, the sound of music and voices made loud by Sake spilling out as the door was opened. He stood in the doorway for a moment, his dark Scorpion robes seeming even darker in the doorway's uncertain light, till he caught the eye of a certain Geisha girl. She nodded and the message was passed.
As Hituro hurried to return to the Doji Palace ground the Geisha girl, Yuka, stepped behind a screen painted with the image of a heron stepping through long spears of grass. She pulled open the drawer of a small carved cabinet and removed from the padded drawer a small bamboo vial, carefully stoppered with cork, which vanished in an instant under her robes. making her way through the corridors of the House of the Spring Blossoms. After a little while she came to a screen door and went in. In the chamber beyond Doji Sekaru was enjoying the company of one of the other Geisha, Kumi, who was giggling as she strummed her instrument for the Magistrate.
"What, is it time to go already?" asked Sekaru, for indeed it was late and by this time he was usually about to start his last bottle of Sake before heading home.
"No no, san" giggled Yuka, "Plenty more time today for rest, I have brought you more Sake, your bottle is empty." she held up the brightly coloured Sake bottle she held. Sekaru peered into the bottle on the table and then finished the contents with a single gulp. "You're right, it is!"
Yuka replaced the bottle with the one she carried and smiled to herself as Sekaru immediately poured himself a cup full. She was sure that one he tasted the drug she had added to it that he would not be leaving the Tea House until she said he would. Still smiling she sat down near to him, carefully folding her robe to give him an artful view, "Now Sekaru-san, lets have no more talk of leaving us in a hurry, there is so plenty of time for duty later."
Not far from the Tea House Hituro hurried back towards Sekaru's tower, taking care not to be seen by the guards who had seen him leave, nor by those who patrolled the Doji gardens with bright torches. Sometimes he wished that he could do as other Samurai did, heroic actions on the field of battle, noble deeds in the courts of the mighty, but this was not the way of the Scorpion. Long ago they had sworn to protect the Empire from what might threats unseen, even if it might cost them their honour, and so they did.
At the front of the tower belonging to the Taburo family Doji Sekaru's two Daidoji samurai stood guard as usual. Hituro knew that there was no way that they would allow him to enter when their master was absent. Instead he headed to the rear of the building where his first visit had shown him that a smaller stair, and an entrance for servants, was left unguarded. No honourable enemy would approach this way, he thought, but an honourable enemy was no enemy at all. Staying in the shadows he entered the building, moving quietly up the polished wooded stairs, his shadow falling here and there on painted screens, till he came to Sekaru's sleeping chamber.
Here he entered, noting the fact that there were no open windows into this important room, and spent a moment at the bed, arranging the mats so that it might seem that a person was sleeping there. Then he moved to the door and carefully checked the fastenings on it for strength, forcing a few through so that they lay on the outside of the door. From the corner of the room a statue of an honoured Doji ancestor, in the heavy armour of war, looked down on him, his porcelain eyes seeming to glare from behind the bushy moustaches of his mempo. Hituro realised that the statue was the mounting for Sekaru's own armour. 'Forgive me honoured ancestor' he thought to himself 'But I come tonight to save a life and not to take it'.
Back in the corridor he waited in darkness, as the moments of the night passed by. At every creak of the cedar of the walls or the stone of foundations he became even more alert, as he did when a gust of wind outside sighed through the windows or sounded the wind chimes over the front door below. Finally there was a creak that was not simply the settling of the house, and a shadow moving at the other end of the hallway.
In the darkness of his hiding place Hituro held his breath as the figure moved down the passage. Silhouetted for a moment in front a window that let in the pale light of Lord Mood he could make out the drawn wakizashi in the figure's hands. One sound or movement and he was sure that the assassin would be upon him. The figure crept up the hallway till he reached the door of Sekaru's chambers, and then he entered. Hituro waited a moment, counting under his breath the stealthy footsteps across the room, the glance up at the armour, the rise and strike of the blade into the sleeping form, and he leapt forward, pulling the door too and fastening the makeshift catches. He knew that the door would only impede the assassin a moment, but it would be enough, for he was already running down the stairs towards the front door, shouting "Murder! Assassins! Ninja!" like any scared heimin would do. As he had hoped the guards at the door responded immediately, the front door was flung open and one of them began to run up the stairs, while the other, he guessed, remained outside to scan the walls, shouting commands to the other, As the Samurai ran past it was easy for Hituro to lose himself in a side room, in all probability he would forget about the servant that had cried out, such things didn't bother many Samurai.
Hituro hurried down the back stairs, trusting that the Geisha from the Tea House would have helped the drunk Sekaru arrive in time for his own abbortive murder attempt. On the rooftops of Doji Palace the assassin tried to escape, leaping from the window of Sekaru's room and onto the roof ridge to escape the Daidoji bodyguard behind him, but the guard below had drawn his bow and brought the assassin down. From the safety of the edge of the gardens, standing beside a worn statue of the fortune Benten, Hituro watched the man's fall without compassion. He had obeyed the will of his master and paid the price.
Outside his front door Doji Sekaru, suddenly shocked into sobriety by the sight of the dead man and the guards surrounding his tower demanded an explanation in a voice loud enough to carry across the courtyard. As he advanced one of his men pushed aside the assassin's black coverings with the butt of his yari and let out an exclamation, "My Lord, he wears the colours of Chimura-sama!" Hituro smiled to himself behind his mask at this. Now the fate of the Taburo family Daimyo was sealed. Sekaru himself could see that the man who had come in an attempt to kill him was a retainer of his own Lord. If this were to become public knowledge the scandal would be unimaginable. With his attempt to cover up his illicit dealings failed Chimura would have only one recourse that would be acceptable to his Clan, Seppuku. This would be the price for his hasty action and his decision to work against the interests of the Scorpion Clan.
Quickly Hituro hurried away into the quiet darkness of the garden, leaving the impending storm behind him. It would not do to be caught observing when the guards came to search for any further conspirators, when night could so easily hide him. It seemed to him that all the details of his plan had come together in perfection, as perfect as the gardens around him, but it was not quite so. When he returned to his own chamber, ready to deal with the body of his attacker, to cry out and call the guards, it was gone. He examined the floor for traces of blood, wary not to touch it, but even the tatami mats had been scrubbed clean. If it were not for the candle upset upon the table and the pain from his bruised ribs, Hituro would almost have begun to doubt whether the attack had happened at all.
Dawn brought official word that the Imperial Magistrate Doji Chimura had taken his own life over a matter of honour. To ask what had compelled him to act in this way it was, of course, impolite, for the stain of dishonour was removed completely by the sacred act. Though none but him could know it Hituro's duty here was now complete, though it would seem suspicious perhaps too leave too quickly. Instead he went for a walk in the gardens, fresh from a heavy morning dew. Drops of water gathered on the ends of the plum blossoms, glittering in the sunlight like stars reflected in a river. Hituro made his way to the doors of Doji Sekaru's tower, ready to commiserate with him on the matter of his Daimyo's death, but at the door he was stopped by one of the Daidoji guards, behind him the door was open, and Hituro could see a Shugenja sprinkling purifying water over the floor.
"I am most sorry Bayushi-sama, you cannot come in, my Master is not here today."
"Perhaps you can give him a message? Tell him that I wished to speak with him?"
"Again I am most sorry Bayushi-sama, but my Master has gone to join his Ancestors in Jigoku. He performed the ceremony of Seppuku last night."
The Daidoji let no emotion tinge his voice, but Hituro's was full of sincerity as he replied, "I am most sorry, he was an honourable man." To himself he could hardly restrain the smile behind his silken mask. To men dead with one simple bundle of letters and a few words, it was indeed foolish to accept the Gifts of the Scorpion.