The Ronin, Fukitso, returns in...
by Jeffrey Blair Latta
Now, outside the palace...
THE DISTANT WALL OF THE PALACE, another Zaki listened to the muted warning,
then, shielding his eyes from the sun, strained to view the cause of such
commotion. With a horrified cry, he deserted his station and clambered
down from the parapet by way of a reed ladder. Across the courtyard
he stumbled, made ridiculously awkward by his heavy armour, through the
archway, up the stairs, through the hallways until, at last, he staggered
gasping and wheezing into the presence of the Ichiba.
"Very well," said Hayai-Kuchi, to the kneeling figure.
"What then is the excuse for this alarum? I trust it shall also explain
why you would dare desert your post when you know death is the punishment
for such negligence."
"Please, Ichiba," gasped the Zaki, still red-faced from
the trek. "It was not negligence. The half-breeds have begun
to revolt. Even now they are entering the north gate."
"And why does this worry you?" asked the Ichiba, calmly.
"There are hundreds, Ichiba," exclaimed the guard.
"And they are armed. They were led by a large figure upon a great
karmah. Please, Ichiba! May I order that the palace gates be
"What!" roared Hayai-Kuchi, rising with a broad sweep
of his cloak. "And cower like samadhi before the sun? Never!
You forget in whose presence you kneel! I am Hayai-Kuchi, Ichiba
to all Dos-Yamura! And I am divine! Prepare the palace Zaki!
I feel the outlaw Fukitso has a hand in this. Hence will we ride
to meet and crush this accursed revolt once and for all. Prepare
the Zaki, I say! Away!"
"Very well," said Hayai-Kuchi, to the kneeling figure. "What then is the excuse for this alarum? I trust it shall also explain why you would dare desert your post when you know death is the punishment for such negligence."
"Please, Ichiba," gasped the Zaki, still red-faced from the trek. "It was not negligence. The half-breeds have begun to revolt. Even now they are entering the north gate."
"And why does this worry you?" asked the Ichiba, calmly.
"There are hundreds, Ichiba," exclaimed the guard. "And they are armed. They were led by a large figure upon a great karmah. Please, Ichiba! May I order that the palace gates be sealed?"
"What!" roared Hayai-Kuchi, rising with a broad sweep of his cloak. "And cower like samadhi before the sun? Never! You forget in whose presence you kneel! I am Hayai-Kuchi, Ichiba to all Dos-Yamura! And I am divine! Prepare the palace Zaki! I feel the outlaw Fukitso has a hand in this. Hence will we ride to meet and crush this accursed revolt once and for all. Prepare the Zaki, I say! Away!"
* * *
Stalls were crushed like straw huts before a hurricane, and the sandstone fronts of shops crumbled into dust under the fearsome onslaught of the peasants. And Fukitso smiled grimly as he considered the ease with which the weak peasant mind could be joined with like minds to form a force to shake the very foundations of kingdoms -- the mob.
But he also knew that the fury nurtured by his brief rallying speeches would soon be abated leaving them, once more, a cowed and useless mass of trembling humanity. Knowing this, the strange-eyed Ronin turned his attention from the havoc being wrought upon the plaza and gazed hopefully toward the palace.
"Doji's Seven Geishas!"
His oath was born not of fear but rather disbelieving satisfaction. For marching double-file along the slender "Blade of Ichiba" were fully fifty armoured Zaki. The crimson sun glanced like flame from the reflective jet of their shoulder-guards and from their visored helms which gave them the look of faceless demons. The clattering rhythm of their approach reached the edge of the plaza and crept like a shadow across the peasants stifling the din until only an expectant hush remained.
The mob simply waited while the Zaki clomped ever closer, and then gave back as the latter reached the end of the causeway. Now Fukitso could distinguish the fantastically robed figure mounted in the forefront of the troop, and he grinned at the recognition. It was Hayai-Kuchi who now rode to meet the half-breeds. At long last the Ichiba had chosen to grace them, with his ear. Well, he would soon wish that he had remained aloof and protected upon his marble throne.
Out onto the plaza marched the Zaki, dividing their files as they walked, so that, for every pair, one Zaki moved to the right and one to the left. Hayai-Kuchi reined his scaly white karmah to a position in the centre and awaited the organization of his men. Fukitso narrowly watched the proceedings from atop his own mount at the front of the peasants.
At last the Zaki were finished and Hayai-Kuchi, resplendent in his royal finery, addressed the tattered mob in an imperious bellow.
"I, your divine Ichiba, have come for the outlaw named Fukitso. Hand this man over to me and I will allow you to return to your homes, and your punishment will be lenient."
An angry but half-hearted rumble greeted this proposal, and the Zaki warily loosened their longswords.
"What!" he yelled, as a father to an impudent child. "Do my ears play me false! What madness is this? Do the peasant half-breeds dare defy their god?!"
Fukitso let forth a fierce, gusty laugh.
"Not at all, Ichiba. They dare defy only you."
"I am their god, fool!"
"By what right do you make this claim? By the cowardly murder of an innocent priestess?"
Hayai-Kuchi smiled to himself. This savage Ronin was falling right into his hands.
"By the execution of a high priestess," he shouted, and a murmur again swept the crowd; but this time it was born of fright. "By my order and my order alone was the high priestess executed, and I see no retribution from your mighty god Kondomi."
"His retribution resides in my sheath," said Fukitso.
The Ichiba chuckled at his threat, but, when he spoke again, his voice was just slightly shriller.
"Your god bows to me as all must eventually bow to their betters. Very well, savage outlaw -- traitorous half-breeds! I offer myself now!"
And here he tore open his robes exposing his chest to the sun.
"If your god is so powerful, let him strike me down! Let the very sky open wide its maw and strike me with its lightning! I have slain your priestess, Mighty Kondomi! Where is your thundering death?!"
"Why fear the vengeance of the sky when a surer death lies at your very feet?!"
Hayai-Kuchi frantically reined about his mount and his face took on a ghastly yellow hue.
Against the dark slope of the causeway stood the lithe and majestic figure of a young, Ioni girl. Her hair was in great disarray, and she wore only white tatters which flapped slightly in the evening breeze. At her side stood the wide-eyed and dishevelled form of Kyoi. The merchant held a supporting arm about the shoulders of the girl, yet, while a fierce battle still raged in her defence in the distant gateway, the conspirator's own sword was suspiciously free of blood.
"Yoi desu," continued the girl, in a voice amazingly impressive after such an ordeal. "It is I, high priestess of Kondomi!"
Now it was Fukitso's turn to grow pale as he realized the trick which had been played upon him by the dwarf, Okii. Those nearest him heard an explosive grunt.
The priestess had not been executed after all -- it was she who Fukitso had been recruited to rescue, not some nameless Ioni beauty. He had been played for a fool.
The girl spoke again.
"Foolish man! Did you truly think to slay one who is beloved of Kondomi? So you claim to have humbled a god! Knave! He merely bides his time. A god who is eternal may wait eternally for his vengeance. But now at last is he prepared! Now does he leave his glorious retribution in the hands of those before you -- his people!"
Fukitso, only partially recovered from his unexpected betrayal, glanced at the Ichiba upon whose face he anticipated fear and surrender. But Hayai-Kuchi was reacting strangely indeed. He seemed completely oblivious to the fierce rumblings swelling behind him. He had eyes only for the white figure upon the causeway, and those eyes were wide and distended with unconcealed horror. Slowly he began to mutter quietly to himself and, then, with a choked cry, he tore a sling from beneath his robes and commenced to whirl it drunkenly over his head. All the while he screamed again and again, "It isn't possible -- I killed you!"
Fully three-quarters of the palace Zaki were composed of south Bunda and, for the moment, they shifted uneasily, unsure to who they owed their allegiance; to this frail priestess of a strange religion who claimed to have risen from the dead; or to this arrogant Ichiba of a foreign land who kept their bellies full. But, in that moment of hesitation, the choice was torn irretrievably from their clasp.
Hayai-Kuchi released his humming projectile which soared in a long and curving arc toward the fragile figure upon the causeway. His aim was true and a moment more would have seen a swift end to the revolt. But, with a horrified squawk, Kyoi leaped forward in time to receive the stone's full impact in the forehead. The force of the blow carried his lifeless body clear over the wall and onto the rocks below.
Whether the merchant had intended to save the priestess thus, or whether, as many of those watching believed, he had merely zigged when he should have zagged, would never be known. But nonetheless, in future seasons men would sing his praises and young women swoon at the mention of his name -- Kyoi, the hero of the revolt.
Here was no battle of skill. For every Zaki there were fully twenty peasants made mad by seasons of mistreatment. Reed clubs fell mercilessly and incessantly upon the screaming warriors turning their bones to powder beneath their very armour, or knocking them to the stones from which a score of tramping sandals ensured that they would never rise again. As each Zaki vanished beneath the raging mob, his killers would then glance about with wild and hungry eyes and, spying yet another victim, battle against their very fellows in order to reach him ere he too suffered a similar fate.
Fukitso, however, still mounted upon his karmah, was spared the pandemonium of the throng, and the death screams of the Zaki touched his ears like rain upon the pelt of a samadhi. He had neither sympathy nor malice toward these men. They had chosen their following voluntarily, knowing full well their likely end. Thus had Fukitso. And, when in time his ancestors should summon him, he asked only that it be on the field of battle with Ginago in his hand and a corpse at his feet.
Of course, failing this, death in the arms of a woman would do equally well.
Among the titanic flood of humanity through which the dark Ronin waded like a colossus, Fukitso had eyes for but one man. And, gaining the edge of the plaza at the foot of the stair to the Temple of Kondomi, he gazed upon that man like an angry god himself.
Hayai-Kuchi had long since been forced to ground, his faithful mount having been quite literally cut from under him. His retreat had carried him beneath the temple portico where, with back to a pillar, he was at last made to take a stand. A lesser man would have long since fallen before the blood-mad onslaught of his attackers. But, the Ichiba, whatever his short-comings as a ruler, was only just short of divine in the art of sword-play. That skill now served him well as his flashing blade held back fully fifteen raging peasants or turned the bravest of such into crimson, gore-smeared cadavers.
Then, without warning, the crowd drew back, and Hayai-Kuchi, red-faced and panting with his exertions, eagerly welcomed the respite. Welcomed it until a pathway miraculously appeared in the throng, through which a great scowling savage strode -- a long, blood-caked katana clutched in his grip.
So, the spineless fools had chosen to let a single champion finish their fight. So much the better. Here at last was the cause of this unrest -- this barbaric Ronin from the East. Silence his tongue and the revolt would die a death equally as swift. And he had no doubt but that this masterless Samurai's death would be swift. Fukitso was dangerous, yes. But Hayai-Kuchi was not one to be cut down like Zaki-Iwaba or like Fukitso's unfortunate predecessor. For, while never having been a brother of the Aka-Zaki, the Ichiba was well-versed in their methods. Against his humming sword the very weight of the Silver Jaw would prove this Ronin's undoing.
Purposefully Fukitso stepped into the half-circle formed by the surrounding peasants. Upon the bloody surface of the plaza, group after group lowered their scarlet weapons to gaze wide-eyed and expectant. A hush settled over all, as tangible as the dust which hung spectre-like in the air. For many long moments did this scene hold: the scowling giant with feet braced apart and katana held two-handed in front; the tattered but confident Ichiba likewise poised, only his darting eyes to betray the concentration now at work. Let the savage make the first move. A quick parry. A return thrust, and the Ronin would feed his blood to the stones. Let him but give the slightest indication of his intent and in two moves--
Alas, Hayai-Kuchi was correct. Two moves was all that it took. But he was not destined to make them. Too late he learned the full import of Fukitso's name -- the unpredictable. The giant's white and blind-seeming eyes never moved. There was no twitch, no glance. One moment he was still as if carven from stone. The next, Ginago roared. The Ichiba's sword was torn from his grasp and soared high into the air where, for a moment, it hung as if suspended by an invisible thread. And then, almost eagerly, it fell hilt-first into the waiting hand of its captor. And Fukitso grinned.
"So, Ichiba," he rumbled. "You would have made me an outlaw. Very well. Here I am. Carry out your decree. Arrest me."
Not surprisingly, Hayai-Kuchi made no move to obey the giant's taunts. But Fukitso was not yet done with his jest. As the crowd stared with disbelieving eyes, the grinning titan carefully placed the long blade of the the Ichiba's sword between his own jaws. Then, still gripping Ginago, he placed a palm on either end of the bronze blade -- and began to push. His straining face and arms took on a darker hue as if draining the very colour from the trembling form of the Ichiba. Veins stood out like cables upon his arms and his neck grew thick and corded. Sweat beaded his knotted forehead, and his lips were drawn back in a ghastly snarl. And slowly, inexorably, the weak bronze blade yielded to this awesome display of primordial power.
With a contemptuous grunt, Fukitso let the deformed weapon drop to the stones at his feet like some freshly slain prey. And, spitting out the blood from his cut tongue, he turned once more to Hayai-Kuchi and pronounced sentence.
"Thus does copper yield to the jaws of a man," he growled. "Now see how a man must yield to the Jaw of Steel!"
His victim had time for but a single pitiful shriek.
But even this cry was drowned out by the roar of Ginago.
The Ichiba stood with back tightly held to a temple pillar as if seeking to melt into the very fabric of the stone. And, for an instant, it seemed as if the Silver Jaw had passed harmlessly through him as though through a spectre, raining blue sparks off the structure beyond. But then, in a shower of crimson gore, the nerveless body tumbled doll-like down the steps, followed a moment later by its white and dripping head. With a fierce and final wrench, Fukitso drew his katana from the pillar face, where a thin red scar would forever mark the end of Hayai-Kuchi, Ruler of Kari-Zak and Ichiba to all Dos-Yamura.
But, then, events took an unexpected turn as Fukitso, resheathing his katana, descended the steps of the temple, treading in the very trail left by the blood of his victim. Towering over the sprawled cadaver, he proudly surveyed his handiwork and then, stooping low, snatched from its very shoulders the samadhi pelt which he then confidently transferred to his own. A dull uncertain murmur of surprise swept through the startled masses, which Fukitso silenced with a broad wave of his arm.
"Hayai-Kuchi is dead!" he bellowed, challengingly. "Who is there who would dispute my right to take his place?"
His response was a brief and respectful stillness, which slowly, as the clouds before a mountain wind, gave way to a united, swelling cheer. During Fukitso's short time as leader of the revolt, he had become a hero in the eyes of the peasants. Now, if he chose to assume the mantle of Ichiba, all the better. He, at least, was an outsider like themselves. What matter if he should be completely ignorant of statecraft?
But there remained one within the rejoicing throng to whom this mattered a great deal.
"Wherefore this madness?" shouted Nandalia to the dwarf at her side. Both were smeared with the colour of their labours. "The simpleton hath been unbalanced by his wounds. He hath no desire to lead, and verily no skill therefore. Nay! We must stop this ere he--"
"No!" interrupted Okii, quickly. "Attempt to stop him now and the crowd will tear us apart. We must bide our time. Truly, I knew this was a danger, but a danger nonetheless worth the risk."
"Nay, I say again!" argued the woman, vehemently. "Well do I know this savage. Brutal, coarse and vacant of all potential morals. But, ambitious? Never!"
"If so out of character," said the dwarf, "how then would you explain his actions? It is hardly too much to believe he has grown drunk with the experience of power and now refuses--"
"Hold!" exclaimed Nandalia. "See how strange he doth act. He doth behave as one who hath drunk deep the kanpai. Now he doth turn and speak to the very air as if to flesh. Me thinks there be strange forces at work here. What says he?"
"You are right," agreed the dwarf. "He speaks the name of the kurocho."
Indeed, but a moment before had Fukitso turned at a sound from behind, drawing Ginago once more even as he spotted the dark robed figure bending low over his slain foe. He saw groping hands quest among the bloodied finery of the deadman. The hands plucked forth what looked like a large golden egg from the still form and, then, just as quickly secreted this treasure within the shadowed folds of the black cloak.
"So, kurocho!" growled Fukitso. "At last we meet."
Slowly the figure rose from its accomplished task and faced the grim giant.
"You are mistaken, Ronin," it said. "This is not our first such encounter."
Fukitso's eyes grew wide in surprise.
"You!" he grunted, explosively.
Previous episode: Prison Break!
Next episode: Nandalia vs Fukitso!
Fukitso and the Golden Egg is copyright Jeffrey Blair Latta. It is
reprinted here with the author's permission.