The ledge was broad and rocky, curving slightly downward on all sides to form a bowl shape against the mountainside. On one side, a rough, uneven path followed the cliff edge until it reached the small ledge; on the other, two paths led away, one tracing a difficult and dangerous-looking route up toward the mountain peak, the other following a sharp but smoother descent downward. Kakita Saigo stood on the ledge and let his eyes follow that path down into the vast crevasse beneath him, and wondered where in the world he was.
Behind him, echoing in the canyon’s depths, he suddenly heard hoofbeats. He turned quickly, but there was no horse. Instead, he found himself looking at a beautiful young woman, dressed in the purple and white of the Unicorn Clan – but even as he took this in, she shifted, and an aged woman in a Scorpion’s red and black stood there, an ornate black mask covering much of her face. In the uncovered portion of the old woman’s face, Saigo thought he could see hints of the younger woman’s finely shaped features, and her tightly bound hair, streaked with grey, nevertheless seemed to match the thick black tresses that had fallen past her shoulders a moment before. As he watched, she flickered, and flickered again, now the old woman, now the younger, but her eyes… her eyes did not change. They remained fixed on his face, and Saigo felt himself weighed within them.
As suddenly as her form changed, so too did her position, all at once. With no visible transition, the woman went from standing before him to kneeling at a low, lacquered table, upon which a fine tea set rested, neither of which had been there a moment before. She poured a cup and set it on the table between them. “Will you join me, samurai?” she asked in a low, musical voice.
Saigo bowed low, then knelt on the hard ground next to the table. “You honor me with your invitation,” he answered quietly.
The woman smiled, shifting in the process, a young girl’s innocent grin of pleasure to something much more knowing and calculating beneath the dark mask. “I see courtesy, at least, you know. You are, of course, Kakita Saigo, samurai of the Crane Clan. I am called Nishari.” She did not offer a family name, but given her shifting nature, Saigo could not say he was surprised.
“This is a dream,” he said slowly, lifting the tea and savoring the smell.
Nishari nodded. “It is,” she said. “Can you recall where you were?”
“Shiro sano Kakita,” Saigo replied after taking a sip of tea. “I have an appointment in the morning with the head sensei of the Kakita Dueling Academy. I plan-” he broke off, unwilling to make that statement to one outside the clan before he had announced it officially to his own superiors.
Nishari, however, merely smiled again. “You plan to withdraw from the Dueling Academy,” she finished for him.
“How do you know that?” asked Saigo, startled. “Who are you?”
Nishari frowned. “That is a long story,” she replied after a moment, “and not one that bears on this. Let me say this: I am a spirit, who once thought she understood bushido, and finally came to realize – much, much too late – that she truly understood nothing at all. I have now been given the task of learning at last what I should have known all along. If – or, rather, when – I manage to do so, I will finally earn my place in Yomi.”
Saigo stared at her. “You are… one of the ancestors?” he asked, thunderstruck. Nishari nodded, looking steadily at him. “But… the ancestors have all turned their faces from me,” he whispered. Nishari nodded again. “Why… why are you here?” he asked.
The spirit did not answer him right away, looking instead out over the cliff edge toward the distant rock wall on the far side. “You recently fought a duel against Shosuro Sora, did you not?” she finally said to him.
Saigo looked down, shame bubbling up through him. “Hai,” he replied shortly.
Blinking at the question, Saigo struggled for a moment for words. “I… ah… I was challenged to a demonstration of my school’s technique. I felt that I had no choice but to represent my sensei’s teachings to the best of my ability.”
“You knew she was better than you, though,” Nishari said. “Isn’t that right?”
Saigo nodded. “Hai.”
“And you knew too that she has a reputation for… instability? That losing meant the distinct possibility of death?”
“You were dueling her because she had demanded that any man who would marry her must first be able to defeat her in a duel, correct?”
“Did you intend to marry her if you won?”
“So why did you duel her?”
Saigo swallowed another sip of tea. “As I said, I felt I had no choice,” he answered again, but the words sounded weak, even to him.
Nishari shook her head. “There are always choices, Kakita-san,” she said, looking out over the cliff again. Saigo found he had nothing to say to that. After another short pause Nishari looked back at him and continued, “Is that why you are withdrawing from the Academy? Do you feel your loss shames your school?”
“No,” said Saigo, surprised by the suggestion. “The duel was extremely close, and I actually exceeded what I would have expected to achieve against an opponent with a reputation such as hers. There is no shame in defeat against a superior opponent.”
“So why leave, then?” Nishari asked, her eyes weighing him again.
Saigo opened his mouth to answer, then looked down at the ground. Finally, he looked up at her again and replied, “You must already know. You know why my family’s ancestors have abandoned me. You know the choices I have made and the things I have done. Why do you torture me with this inquisition?”
Nishari smiled, sadly, as she answered, “Because you and I are very much alike, Kakita Saigo. We have both turned away from bushido in pursuit of some greater cause, and we have both fallen far from the ideals we once held so high. I ask you these questions because you need to hear yourself give the answers, to realize what it is that you have become, and what you are in danger of becoming. If you find the weight is too much to bear, however, I will shoulder it for awhile, and tell you how you have fallen.
“Your first sensei, Kakita Noyusho, was found to be trafficking in illegal opium the year before your gempukku. After his seppuku, you learned from his wife that the evidence and testimony used against him was fabricated by the Scorpion, because Noyusho had been a great proponent of the use of Crane military force, possibly against the Scorpion themselves. You knew Noyusho to have been an extremely honorable man, but you realized that his honor had not been enough to save him from the dishonorable tactics of the Scorpion. Only tactics equally as vile, you thought, could protect the Crane from their enemies, but such tactics would destroy the very nature of what the Crane are. Only someone who was willing to sacrifice their honor for the sake of the Clan could undertake that task, and the Crane themselves could never know.
“You volunteered to be that someone, and you felt instantly that your family’s ancestors turned their faces from you from that moment.”
Saigo nodded, tears on his face.
“Since that time,” Nishari continued relentlessly, “you have journeyed across the Empire, serving your lord’s commands, but you have not hesitated to use the skills you have taught yourself to achieve those ends in ways that bushido would never accept. You have murdered in cold blood, committed espionage and sabotage, blackmailed ranking samurai – all in the name of your duty and the protection of the Crane’s honor. You maintain a face of respectability and honor, but your soul is black.
“And now, your soul is Tainted as well.”
Saigo looked up at her, the tears still falling, though he made no sound.
“You gained the Taint when you traveled south of the Wall. Though it is only a seed now, you have seen what you might become, in the City of Empty Dreams. You know the power that that Taint offers, and you wonder whether you could use that power, as you have used the other skills you have learned, in the service of the Clan, until such time as you would need to be destroyed for the good of the Empire. But, then, you have always expected to be destroyed, haven’t you? There is no room in the Crane Clan, no room in the Empire itself, for someone like you. The monster that might grow out of your Taint would be no more than the truth of your soul, bent under the weight of your choices.” Nishari stared at him, old eyes and young eyes carrying the same heavy glare. “Look at yourself!” she snapped, and Saigo glanced down.
Gone were his kimono, obi, and daisho. Instead, thick chitin-like plates grew out of his skin, a dull grey-black that seemed to absorb the light falling on it. His legs had an extra bend in them, like a dog’s or horse’s legs, and ended in sharp claws that could scale a wall as easily as they tore a man’s stomach open. His hands too had razorlike talons at the tip of each finger, and sharp hairs that would grip stone or wood as he climbed it bristled from each palm. He raised one hand to stare at it, then touched his face in shock. The armor-like plates extended up his neck and across his mouth and nose, wrapping across the top of his head as well, so that only his eyes remained exposed. The overall impression was of a man wearing a dark suit and full mask, precisely like the ones Saigo wore when he had need of stealth in the night. The only things that might draw attention to him were his eyes, which Saigo knew to be glowing a dull red, like a dying coal.
He knew this, because he had seen it in the waters of the City of Empty Dreams, waters that had shown him one possible future.
He looked back at Nishari, the previous conversation forgotten. “What did you do to me?” he demanded of her, leaping back from the table. His voice, he noticed, was a flat, rasping thing, like a rusty sword being drawn from a sheath. The strength of his new legs was such that he flew several paces back, landing on all fours in a crouch that was more insect-like than human.
“I did nothing,” answered Nishari coldly. “You have done this yourself. This is what you will become if you allow yourself to go down this path. This is the monster you have nurtured within your soul, allowed to fester and grow under Fu Leng’s corrupting touch. This is what you contemplate releasing into the world, to serve the cause of honor.” She spat the word.
“Why did you bring me here?” Saigo demanded, anger spilling out at last. “What do you want of me? Answer me!”
“The night you dueled Shosuro Sora,” Nishari answered, “I was there, in the guise of a monk. Knowing that you might die at her hands, you gave me all the koku you had with you, all that your daimyo supplied you with as part of your service to him. You did so with a prayer to the Fortunes that you might be sent some favor.” She smiled with genuine humor, though it faded quickly. “You were. You got me.”
Saigo frowned, “I do not understand.”
“I realize that,” replied Nishari. “You came to my attention that night, Kakita Saigo. I studied you, learning not only what you had done but why. As I said before, you and I are very much alike. I realized almost at once that, if I could manage to save you, I might also save myself.” She turned and pointed at the two paths that lead away from the ledge, the one that climbed toward the mountaintop and the one that dropped away into the abyss. “You are at a moment of choice, Kakita Saigo. You can continue on the path you have set for yourself, and end in truth in the shape you now dream yourself to be. Or, you can choose the harder path of redemption, turning your back on the dishonor you now embrace and finding another way.”
Nishari’s eyes glittered. “Trust me. The easier path is not the right one.”
Saigo looked away, staring down the paths. He could feel the power of these limbs, the speed and vitality they gave him. Looking down the descending path, he caught glimpses of where it might lead him. He saw himself battling the enemies of the Crane, slipping almost invisibly up behind them and then tearing their heads and limbs from their bodies. He could almost feel those men and women under his talons, taste the blood as it burned through the air – it made him smile. He looked further, taking a step toward the path. (Behind him, Nishari inhaled sharply.) More battles, and the Crane victorious again and again; a humbled Scorpion general kneeling before a Crane leader while Saigo himself lurked in the shadows behind; magistrates executing criminals and cultists at Saigo’s order…
…and then, at last, Saigo – looking just as he did now, a shadowy monster of speed and darkness – standing before the walls of Toshi Ranbo, lit from within by flames that were consuming the city, while he faced a young ronin samurai, just barely past his gempukku from the looks of it, holding a katana and resolutely confronting the monster before him. The two figures simply looked at one another for a long moment. Suddenly the other Saigo moved, quick as death itself, past the young warrior’s guard, severing the boy’s hand at the wrist so it fell to the ground, still holding the sword in its grasp. The young samurai could not even blink before the monster had sliced open the boy’s belly with one of the vicious claws the Tainted Saigo now wore. Gazing down at his own future, Saigo, still straining to see, could barely read the samurai’s lips as he gasped out his last words – or, rather, last word, for there was only one:
In the dream, Saigo stared, horrified, at the katana that had fallen from the boy’s hand, the same katana that rested at that moment near his bed in Shiro sano Kakita. He leapt back from the path, breaking the vision, landing awkwardly on limbs that were shaped as a human’s should be, in a body he recognized once again as his own.
Nishari was there all at once, kneeling beside him. She reached out a hand – now wrinkled with age, now smooth and unblemished – toward his face, but pulled back. “You saw,” she whispered. “You saw what your choice will cost you, didn’t you.” She shook her head, and there were tears in her eyes as well. “You are willing to sacrifice yourself for the cause you have chosen – but will you sacrifice your son as well?”
Saigo could say nothing for a long time. Instead, he shivered there on the cold, rough stone, trying to shed the image of his son dying at his own hands. After many minutes, he finally rose. The weight of his daisho, or rather, his wakizashi specifically, seemed greater than it had before, pulling on him as he got to his feet.
“What must I do?” he asked.
Nishari pointed at the steep upward path. “Begin there.”
Saigo nodded, taking a series of deep breaths, trying to find the calm he had been taught by Noyusho-sensei all those years before as the first step toward becoming a duelist. A few moments later, he let out one last sigh, and nodded. He crossed the stone toward the upward climb and set his foot upon it without hesitation.
He found himself kneeling on the floor of what looked like the audience hall of a prosperous samurai’s residence, with a low table before him and cushions underneath his knees. A raised platform a short distance away had more ornate cushions on it and another low table with a richly painted marble top. Nishari knelt next to him, and when he looked toward her, she shook her head slightly and gestured for him to remain quiet and kneeling.
Behind him, Saigo could hear people entering the room, taking seats on the wooden floor as he was, but he did not look around, taking his cue from Nishari, who remained with her gaze fixed on the table before them. The crowd behind them murmured quietly to itself, and Saigo thought he heard both his name and Nishari’s mentioned, but he could make out nothing else. He felt heat rising in his face, on display to all these people who seemed to know him, but about whom he knew nothing. Nishari’s presence was a comfort of sorts, but it was increasingly difficult to remain in his position without turning around. At the same time, however, he somehow sensed that this was a test, and he forced himself to remain calm and unmoving.
Long minutes passed. The crowd slowly quieted, until the whole room seemed to be waiting for something. Saigo could hear his own breathing, and that of Nishari beside him. He waited.
At last, a door behind the dais slid open, and a man came in. Saigo could see him dimly, out of the corner of his eye, as the figure knelt behind the table. After a short pause, the man made a small sound – a snort, Saigo thought with surprise – and said, “Why have you come before us, Nishari?” Saigo’s head jerked up at the sound, shocked to his soul.
Kakita Noyusho looked younger and healthier than Saigo remembered him, a warrior in the prime of life, long white hair tied back in a severe topknot that still allowed much of it to tumble down his back. He had sharp grey eyes, an eagle-like nose, and large hands that could nevertheless wield a blade with the delicacy of a master painter. His wife Minoko, a small, plump woman with an easy smile who had died the previous year, stood next to him. Noyusho’s expression was cold, but Saigo thought he said a slight twinkle in Minoko’s eyes as she looked down at him.
Nishari rose, ignoring Saigo’s shock, stepping up in front of the dais and bowing deeply, sinking down to press her forehead against the floor. “My lord,” she said, “I have come to seek your judgment on the samurai known as Kakita Saigo.”
Noyusho turned his gaze on Saigo. There was nothing of affection there, not as there had once been when Saigo had trained with him. At the worst, when Saigo had made mistakes or disappointed the older man, he always knew that Noyusho cared for him; now, he only looked like a raptor about to devour a mouse. “He has already received our judgment, and knows this. He may claim to be a Crane when he wakes, but he knows quite well that he has abandoned us as surely as we have abandoned him.”
“I, too, fell from the true path,” Nishari answered, still bowed. “But I was shown mercy, and offered redemption. I have come to ask the same thing for Saigo-san.”
Noyusho’s frown, if anything, deepened. “You know his crimes,” he said to Nishari, still looking at Saigo. “Deceit. Corruption. Murder. He has violated the strictures of both the Empire and of Heaven itself. He chose this path, knowing what it would mean. There can be no redemption for such a man, no mercy. His shame is everlasting, and his soul is marked by Taint. Even now, he hides the fact from the rest of the Empire, concealing the poison he carries into their very heart. No, Nishari. You cannot save him. He has damned himself.”
“No.” Noyusho’s voice was a whipcrack. “Our judgment stands.”
Nishari lifted her head slightly, anger appearing on her face for the first time since Saigo had seen her. “Why agree to this meeting, if you will not hear my words?” she demanded, meeting Noyusho’s eyes at last.
Noyusho looked at Nishari for only a moment before turning his gaze – disappointed, and furious, and saddened, and pained – on Saigo once more. “Because,” Noyusho said flatly, “every man should be given at least one chance to look into the face of his greatest failure.”
Nishari glanced desperately at Saigo. He could see the fear on her face, the confusion. She seemed not to have expected this level of resistance, had not planned on it. He could see that she did not know what to do.
Fortunately, he did.
Saigo rose, stepping up next to Nishari and kneeling down next to her, lowering his head to the floor as she had. “My lord,” he said, “I do accept your judgment. I will cleanse my dishonor as a samurai should. I request the right to perform the three cuts.”
There was a long silence. It weighed far heavier than the waiting before Noyusho’s appearance had, but Saigo bore it. He could feel his wakizashi at his side, almost a living thing, and he knew this was the right course. His katana carried his soul, but his wakizashi carried his honor. He would restore that honor at last.
“You think you dream, Saigo, but in this place, such things have real force,” Noyusho said in a level tone. “You will not awake from your dream and go on as though nothing happened. You cannot undo this. Do not think to escape your shame so easily.”
Saigo replied at once, “I understand that. I accept my death and your judgment. Again, I ask that I be allowed to perform the three cuts.”
The pause was shorter this time. “Very well,” Noyusho said, and they were at once outdoors, in a small rock garden. Saigo knelt beneath a small torii arch. He wore a plain white kimono, and his wakizashi lay on the ground before him. Noyusho, Minoko and Nishari stood nearby, watching him. Noyusho’s face was expressionless, but Minoko looked worried and Nishari torn between hope and fear. Beyond them, Saigo could see more faces, and was stunned to recognize his grandparents, two uncles, an older cousin, and more among them; these were his family, his ancestors, watching over him at last. They crowded the small garden, somehow far more than the space should have held, and their eyes were all on him.
Saigo smiled and spoke words he had not known were within him.
“What we sacrifice
In pursuit of true honor
Honor will return.”
The blade, so heavy before, was light in his hands. The point slid into his belly easily, sinking halfway to the hilt. He drew it sideways, fire burning in its wake, pain that seared through his soul and made him want to laugh with joy. Beneath his ribs, he turned the blade, twisting through his flesh, agony spilling through him. It cleansed. The blade pushed down, then turned again. He could hardly see, now; darkness flickered across his eyes, leaving only flashes of light between: blood, spilling across the ground; Nishari’s face, pale and dry; Minoko’s eyes, brimming with tears; Noyusho, lifting his chin in a gesture of respect. The blade sliced through muscle, skin, blood, and shame, and parted them all. The darkness took him, and he welcomed it.
When he opened his eyes, he lay on his bed in Shiro sano Kakita, looking up at the ceiling. He turned on his side, and stared. Nishari stood there, glowing from within, her form still shifting between youth and age. On the floor next to her, the monstrous figure of Saigo’s Tainted future self lay, its hands wrapped around a wakizashi still buried in its stomach. The thing’s coal-red eyes were dim. As he watched, both it and Nishari began to fade.
“Well done,” Nishari whispered. Her voice echoed weakly in the room. “You have taken the first step on the harder path. Your ancestors have agreed to once again watch over you.”
Her eyes fixed on his. “As I have. Remember, Kakita Saigo. Bushido is our guide. Together, we will find our way.” She bowed to him, and vanished. The body beside her disappeared as well.
Saigo sat on his bed for a moment, staring at the far wall without seeing it. Then he rose, and began to ready himself for the new day.