land of the crane: kakeru

The three heroes set out from the city of Kurosawa equipped with a cart, a horse, a koku[1] of rice, a few hundred cranes[2], and little else. Kakeru, a young shinkan of 16 years, sat in the front of the cart, holding the reins of Yagi, his horse.

As the only son of the daimyō's chief advisor, Kakeru was not surprised to have been chosen. His father had given him a very long speech about the honor he would bring to the clan, to his ancestors, to his mother, and to his six very silly sisters by embarking on this journey. He had sat patiently, smiled beatifically, and nodded. Honor was great, but he was excited to get out and see the world.

As he flicked the reins to direct Yagi, he looked over to his right. Floating next to him was the spirit of his grandfather[3], Hiroshi, who was delivering a lecture on the proper way to greet those of higher station, lower station, the same station, and those whose station one was unaware of. Kakeru sighed and looked back over to his left. In the sky above him, he could see the albatross spirit, Wataridori, making slow circles around the cart.

Sitting behind him were his two companions: Fukasu, his cousin on his father's side, lay with her large black wings curled up around her to ward off the cool morning air; Musashi, their childhood friend, sat in seiza, diligently watching the road in front of them for any sign of trouble.

They rode this way for a day, saying little, each wondering what kind of adventures they were in for. By sundown, the city and the safety of the daimyō's castle were twenty miles behind them, so they pulled off the road into a small clearing surrounded by red maple trees. Kakeru prepared a small campfire, set Yagi to graze, and prayed to the spirits of his ancestors to give them guidance and protection.

"How long will it be until we reach the monastery?" Musashi asked. The Temple of Thunder and Lightning was supposed to be the first stop on their journey. As the premier monastery in the Kurosawa lands, it had the privilege of sending an emissary with the party.

"Two days, at the rate we're traveling," Kakeru replied. Everyone sighed; being outside of the castle for the first time was exciting, but also nerve-wracking. "I'll take first watch," the young shinkan offered.

Fukasu had already rolled over and pulled her wings in around her. "Good night, Kakeru-kun. Sleep tight, Musashi-kun," she said sleepily.

"Good night, Fu-chan," the shinkan and the samurai replied in unison.

Musashi looked at Kakeru, "Are you sure you want to take first watch?"

"I'll be fine. I have Hiroshi-san to keep me company." He looked over at the spirit of his grandfather who had his eyes closed and his chin resting on his chest. He smiled at Musashi as Hiroshi began to snore.

Musashi was unable to see Kakeru's spirit guardians, so he shrugged and lay down next to Fukasu. "Watch well, Kakeru-kun," he said as he closed his eyes.

Kakeru settled into seiza and looked around. He couldn't see much with the fire going, so he contented himself to listen: the spring crickets chirped rhythmically, and the spirits of the wind rustled the leaves of the trees. After three hours of staring out into the darkness, Kakeru began to get bored - this was not shaping up to be the exciting kind of adventure he had been expecting.

He yawned, and at that exact moment, a crossbow bolt flew from behind a tree and pierced his shoulder. Suddenly, Kakeru no longer had any reason to be bored.

[1] A koku is a quantity of rice sufficient to feed one person for one year.

[2] The "crane" referred to here is the standard unit of currency in Tsurukoku: a square of rice paper stamped with the Emperor's seal, a flying crane.

[3] Hiroshi is actually Kakeru's great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather, but it is customary in Tsurukoku to refer to any ancestor as "grandfather" or "grandmother."