A Mantis' Heart

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The wooden doors slid aside roughly, brushing the dirt road outside of the Seven Heavens sake house. Bright sunlight and the humid smell of the sea washed in. A man was thrown into the sake house, landing face down in the entryway. The wooden doors were closed, clattering against each other, letting only the small light from several candles in.

The man, covered in dirt and bruises, looked up warily. His eyes scanned quickly, adjusting to the darkness of the room. His kimono hung on his shoulders, and his small frame did little to hide even his bones. His gaunt face looked out and, in a flash of recognition, the man fell to his hands and knees. “Please,” he cried out to the dark room, “I didn't-”

“I'm not here to talk about guilt or innocence, Oseki,” a voice said. Linen montsuki brushed over the aged wood of the sake house, their sound like thunder to the prostrated man. He head his oncoming doom as the steps came near him, and wept. The sound stopped, and the voice came again. “Shinsei said you must bow to offer aid to a fallen man.”

Oseki looked up to find a hand outstretched to him. His eyes traveled up to see the man in front of him. He wore clothing that would cost Oseki five lifetimes' worth of earning, its splendor almost radiating in the candle light. The faces of golden insects leered at him from patterns on the kimono and hakama, almost dancing in the flickering candle light. The man's face was thin, his face shaven smooth and his hair hidden under a tall, black cap. Warily, Oseki reached out. The other man pulled Oseki up. “There, much better don't you think?”

Oseki nodded, stepping onto the wooden floor of the sake house. The other man maintained a firm grip on his arm and led him to a table. Oseki sat down almost in a heap, the other man sitting across from him in a neat and practiced seiza.

“Do you know my name, Oseki?” the man asked. “Oyabun,” Oseki replied, “I can't-” The other man shook his head slowly. “I didn't ask for my title, Oseki. What is my name?” “Mifune,” the name tumbled from Oseki's mouth. The fear was crippling. “There you are, Oseki. My name is Mifune and I am glad to finally meet you.” Mifune smiled, his teeth white in the glow of candle light. “Now, Oseki, do you know why you are here?” Oseki rubbed his arms, wincing as his calloused hands brushed over fresh bruises. “I-I b-broke the rules, Mifune-sama. I t-took out of my share.” “You did at that, Oseki. You did at that.” From within the folds of his kimono, Mifune produced a long kiseru pipe. Oseki said nothing as Mifune calmly lit the pipe, and its smoke wafted lazily around them. “What happened?” “We, I mean, that is, the other fishermen and I, we were outside the Reef of Tears. We came across another sengokobune under a strange mon. It looked like a-a-that is to say a bird. We could see men and f-freight on it. We d-did... We...” “You attacked the ship,” said Mifune. “From accounts I have heard, you performed well. Lord Osano-wo had even favored you with a storm. The crew was dealt with, but there was a problem wasn't there?” “A s-samurai. She wore b-blue and s-she cut Captain Hongai down. She ch-challenged us and we-” “Killed her. She died as a samurai should, executing the will of her lord. I understand that first mate Rosegin even gave her a funeral pyre aboard ship. Noble, I think.” Oseki nodded. “We returned to shore. Boss's share was taken out, and the rest split between us. We held to the compact, Oyabun.” Now that he was discussing the aftermath, Oseki's voice regained a measure of calm. “That's not true, Oseki,” Mifune said calmly. “There was something else, wasn't there?” Oseki looked away. “Samurai carry swords, Oseki. Two of them. Did you know that?” Mifune's voice was light, like a teacher explaining something to a student. “They are passed from parent to child. For some clans, like the birds that you fought, their swords can be truly ancient. They're so important, Oseki, that they even have names.” Mifune reached behind him, and pulled forth a sheathed sword. It was smaller than a katana, and the scabbard was bedecked in gems of dazzling variety and hue all organized in the shape of a coiling dragon made of lightning. The tsuba was intricately worked gold, bronze, and silver showing sengokobune sailing on the sea of Amaterasu. “This one is mine. She is named after the deadliest thing I know. I call her Shinjitsu.” Oseki looked at Mifune.
“Truth,” he said. Mifune smiled, his teeth almost shimmering in the wan light of the room.
“The samurai's name was Doji Ouseki. Strange, isn't it, that your name and hers would be so close. You held her swords, and tried to sell them to the merchant Ganjin on the island. Ganjin paid you well, and took the swords to me. A katana and a wakizashi, the honor and the soul of Doji Ouseki sold for mere koku. If word had reached the Crane of this... The entire clan would suffer.” Oseki grew pale, and began gulping air. “Such disrespect could even be a justified blood vendetta. Could you imagine that, a whole family of samurai utterly dedicating themselves to destroying you and everything you hold dear?” Oseki began sweating, beads running down his face as if they too were trying to escape some incoming doom. “The birds are called the Crane Clan, Oseki, and they have fought, and won, against the greatest armies of Rokugan for centuries. Only fools would call down their wrath. Only fools.” Mifune drew his sword, his Truth. The steel shone in diamond patterns in the sunlight, the wooden slats of the room breaking up the light of the sun. Oseki bowed, calling out in anguish.

“Do not take my life, Oyabun! I have family, three children and my wife. I can't leave them! Please!” “Your life has always been to do with as your lord pleases, Oseki,” Mifune said. His voice was hard now, and none of the pleasantness it previously held could be heard. “If lord Date wished, you would be dead without another thought. That is your lot.” “Please, oyabun!” “I'm not going to kill you, Oseki.” Mifune said simply. Oseki looked up, his tear-stained face staring uncomprehendingly at Mifune. “You made a mistake, and fortunately for you only three people on the island know of it. You have a family to take care of, and I doubt the fishermen would take your loss well. Even over something like this, it is not worth your life.” Oseki smiled, the rush of life came back into him. “However,” Mifune began and Oseki's crestfallen expression would have broken even the hardest of hearts. “There must be consequences for this. Give me your hand, Oseki.”

The peasant warily stuck out his hand, trembling as he did so. Mifune frowned, then with his free hand grabbed Oseki's wrist and forced it onto the table. Then, he held out his sword. “Prove to me your loyalty and your understanding, Oseki. Your smallest finger, at the knuckle. Take it off.” Oseki stared at Mifune, but the Mantis held his gaze. “It is this, or your life and the life of your family. The choice is yours.” Oseki gulped, then grasped the hilt of the sword. It was heavier than any blades he was used to. His eyes flashed back to his oyabun, who remained staring unblinking into him. He screwed his eyes shut, and laid the steel on his pinky finger. Gritting his teeth, he brought the sword high, and in a flash it came down. His pinky finger flew lay on the table, blood leaking from its stump on his hand. “Your life, your soul, for the Mantis,” intoned Mifune as he let Oseki's hand go.

Oseki cradled his hand and wept. “Go see the healer Inoue. We are done here,” Mifune ordered. Oseki stood and bowed low, then fled the room. Yoritomo Mifune was left in the darkness, the light playing around but never quite landing on him.