land of the crane: takayama and tsumago, part 7

The bolt of black, cracking energy leapt from Takayama Keiko's hand and sailed through the air toward Musashi. The young samurai was too stunned to move, so he watched in horror as the tainted magic arced toward him. He gasped as it narrowly missed his face and then shivered when it slammed into the wall behind him.

Kakeru vaulted the table, scattering teacups, bowls, and chopsticks as he dashed toward Keiko. He slammed down on the tatami on the other side of the table, and used his considerable momentum to smash his fist into her face. Her nose crumpled from the force of his blow, and she tumbled backward, landing unceremoniously on the back of her head.

The young shinkan remained on guard for a moment, though the blood gushing from her nose and her glassy eyes indicated that she was no longer an immediate threat.

"What in Yomi?" Takashi exclaimed, "Are all women evil, magic-using witches?" He looked sidelong at Fukasu, who frowned.

Well, at least I didn't set the house on fire this time, she thought to herself.

Kakeru looked up to see Takayama and his son watching from the hallway; the kuramoto was slumped against the wall, his son was crouched beside him, and each had a look of horror on his face. The young shinkan hurried over to the elder Takayama, and, as he knelt down beside him, realized that the kuramoto appeared to be paralyzed. "Takayama-san?"

"What did she do to him?" Takayama Ichiro implored, "He's cold, and he's not moving."

Kakeru reached out to touch the man's shoulder, and recoiled in horror, for his flesh was nearly as cold as that of a corpse. Paralysis, frigid flesh...it must be hadazawari gaki, the ghoul's touch. The kuramoto's breathing was short and shallow, but he was still alive, for which Kakeru was thankful. "Hang on, Takayama-san," he said as he placed his hand back on the man's shoulder, "the effects of the tainted magic will fade quickly."

Musashi remained sitting in seiza, shocked by what had just occurred. How could I have just sat there? He replayed the scene in his mind a dozen times in the space of a minute. I should have been able to react to that! Why did I just sit there? Damn it!

Finally, the magic keeping Takayama broke, and the kuramoto was free to speak again. "My wife," he stammered, "a witch." A tear rolled down his cheek, and he gasped, "How could I have been so blind."

"She deceived us all, father," Ichiro said bitterly, "It's all Tsumago-san's doing."

"Ichiro!" the kuramoto bellowed, "You are not to take any action against Tsumago-san."

"He brought dishonor on our family!" Ichiro yelled as he rose to his feet.

"No, Ichiro!" the elder Takayama yelled, "Your mother, my wife, brought dishonor on our family!" The animated exchange caused the kuramoto to fall into another fit of coughing, and Kakeru waved the young man off.

Fukasu watched the younger Takayama's eyes blaze with anger as be bowed curtly. He turned and stormed off, without so much as a second glance toward his mother's unconscious body. There's something very strange about him, Fukasu thought.

"Perhaps we should take a look at your wife's belongings," Kakeru said quietly, "while your servants prepare a fire."

Takayama nodded between coughs, and, as Kakeru helped him to his feet, said, "Once you are done, burn whatever you find. I have no more need of it."

While Takayama Keiko's funeral pyre was being constructed, Musashi insured that she would never cast another spell again. The rest of the party searched her room, and found a collection of love notes from Tsumago, scrolls containing the secrets of kidō, and a diary.

"Hey," Fukasu said quietly as she flipped through the notes, "Did any of you notice something odd about Ichiro-san?"

"Other than the fact that he's crazy?" Takashi replied as he paged through the diary.

"Actually, yeah, there's something bothering me about him, but I can't put my finger on it," Kakeru replied as he gingerly examined the scrolls. "Did you find anything?" he asked the others.

"No," Fukasu replied, tossing her stack of letters on the floor, "It's all pretty lovey-dovey."

"These are as well," said Kyoji, as he dropped the stack of letters he had been riling through on top of Fukasu's.

"Well," Takashi interjected, "How does, 'My poor, innocent Akira-chan. How horrified he would be if he knew what I was up to. All the more reason to love him. He's not like that impotent old fool I had the misfortune to marry. Soon, I will be rid of him, though, and my Akira-chan and I can be together forever. Let's see how he likes a bout of kekkaku.[1]'"

"Kekkaku," said Fukasu as she wrinkled her nose, "So that's why Takayama-san is sick?"

"I think so."

"We should go tell him what's going on," said Kyoji.

After explaining to Takayama that his wife had been planning to kill him (an explanation that, considering the circumstances, he took fairly well), the group added the evidence of the affair to the funeral pyre.

The senior Takayama stood behind his son as the fire was lit. The amber flames illuminated the men, and everyone in the party could see the tears in the elder man's eyes, and the hard, bitter stare of the younger man.

What is it about him? Fukasu wondered as she looked at the younger Takayama. She shifted her gaze to his father, and then quickly back to the son. She looked intently at Ichiro's eyes, and then at his father's. Oh no, she thought, as she finally figured out what had been bothering her about the young man. Oh, no, it couldn't be.

She turned to Kakeru, and, by the look on his face, she knew that he had just come to the same realization. Her heart sank, and she turned to whisper her observation to her friends. Kyoji grimaced, Takashi silently cursed, and Musashi simply shook his head in dismay. The five heroes looked at Takayama Ichiro in shocked silence, for each could now see that he looked far more like Tsumago Akira, than like the man who called himself his father.

"I think we should go," Kakeru whispered to the others. "We've done enough damage here."

***

After defeating Takayama Keiko, the group quietly loaded up the sake for the offering and rode to Tsumago, where they filled the kuramoto in on the recent events. He took the news that his love was not only dead, but a practitioner or tainted magic, considerably less well than Takayama. After handing over the sake for the offering, he quietly retired to his room and did not reemerge.

The party availed themselves of Tsumago's hospitality for the evening, and the next morning piled into the cart. On the 17th day of Utsuki, the five heroes resumed their pilgrimage to Hizuru, the great spiritual guardian of Tsurukoku.

Rice paddies gave way to fields of wild grasses and flowers as the group neared the northern border of Kurosawa's lands. They followed the winding road through the fields and into a grove of trees. Kakeru was contemplating how long it would take him to drink through the sake they had just picked up when he saw something that caused him to pull hard on Yagi's reins. The cart skidded to an abrupt halt.

A lone samurai, who was easily ten years older than anyone in the cart, was striding down the road toward them. He sneered when he saw the young pilgrims. "You there! Move aside and let me pass," he gestured to the side of the road, "for I am Nakamura Uzumaki!"

[1] Kekkaku is the Tsurukokan term for tuberculosis.