Paths Diverged

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Paths Diverged

The road ahead was long. Longer than their previous trek along it since before they were not accompanied by an army of Imagawa and the Samurai Okabe. Erik looked at the sky, half expecting another Ancient Dragon God to fly down to greet them. Or eat them. In a land where the gods so openly showed themselves to mortals, it seemed to the Norseman that such an encounter was not only possible, but probable. He flexed his neck and rolled his shoulders back with one eye still on the sky as the thick, dark clouds roiled about angrily.

It had rained from the time they left the valley until minutes before now, and it appeared the rain had more drenching yet to do this day. Yoshiro’s voice drifted into Erik’s thoughts and he realized Yoshiro and Okabe were having an animated discussion of some type.

”...but that still doesn’t explain Imagawa’s desire for a personal audience. If what you say is true about our ‘disturbance of the peace’,” Yoshiro paused incredulously, ”...then any Daimyo in his right mind wouldn’t want an audience, only to see the perpetrators dutifully punished. I’m convinced he needs our strength to see his purposes outside of the umbrella of the law, so as not to draw unwanted unpopularity from the people from whom he’s worked so hard to garner trust.”

Okabe shook his head, “Do not forget that what Imagawa-dono says and does is the law of our lands. Enacting his purposes in a vile manner is as just as doing so in a righteous manner. The strength of our nation-state relies on both diplomacy and brutality.”

“The daimyo of Suruga is as gentle as he is crafty,” Kodai Nakano chimed in, “In my years I have not seen him so much as take the life of an insect, unless it was to defend the life of another insect on his own land. Though I have not met the daimyo myself, I certainly don’t think his intentions could be so dark.”

Erik listened to the three disect the daimyo’s possible intentions for several minutes before deciding the politics could not keep his interest anymore. If Imagawa wanted them dead, Erik would fight. If Imagawa wanted them to kill, Erik would fight. The motivations of the daimyo were merely mildly interesting, but far more interesting was a grand bolt of lightning that split the sky.

The rain came down in sheets and the army slowly trudged on towards the imperial city of Shizuoka. The ashigaru moved rather silently, some small talk occasionally drifting above the sound of the rain and footsteps. As the contingent marched over the foothills, the salty smell of the sea washed over Yoshiro. He inhaled deeply. Something about the sea cleansed him and for a moment his hands were washed of blood and his mind was clear and calm.

Distant rolling thunder brought him out of his meditative state. Though Yoshiro rarely finds himself truly nervous, he was rather anxious about this audience with Imagawa-dono. Drawing the attention of the government usually ended in disaster in his experience. His fists clenched as he ran through a thousand scenarios in his mind, ready to take flight and bring death to anyone who threatened his life or the life of his companions.

The mercenary moved his eyes across the prisoner Nagao-dono, daimyo of Echigo. The Nagao-dono hung limply across a horse, still unconscious. His hands and feet were bound beneath the animal and his body strapped to it. Yoshiro recalled the sweeping capture of the enemy without much difficulty. There was no telling exactly what this daimyo was capable on the battlefield had he not been caught off his guard. He mused idly about what exactly Imagawa had in mind when he heard Erik speaking aloud to himself in his unintelligible language.

Yoshiro trained his eyes on the outsider and breathed a small sigh. Such a strange fellow from such a strange land with a strange language. It never failed to unnerve Yoshiro to listen to Erik speak the Japanese assassin’s language so fluently. Yet somehow having the brazen Norsemen around kept him on his toes. The blond, grinning warrior did not seem to feel fear or anxiety and his presence thickened the air with fate.

The giant ookami noticed Yoshiro’s gaze and turned his head to meet it. Yoshiro glanced down at the great wolf for a moment, then bowed slightly to the otherworldly creature upon whom Erik rode. The ookami returned the gesture, turned its gaze to the city ahead, suddenly perking its ears intently.

“What is it you hear, my friend?” Erik leaned forward and patted his mount on the side.

“Clamor. Many people are talking about the army, about Okabe, about Honda. They know not of the nature of the battle or the prisoner, but they await a triumphant return.” The wolf stopped abruptly.

“And?” Erik prompted.

“Some refer to the ‘rogues’. I believe they mean you and your companions.”

Erik chuckled, obviously amused. Yoshiro furrowed his eyebrows and stared into the gray outlines of the city structures through the falling rain. Why did the coastal capital carry such a looming sense of foreboding?

Nakano watched the familiar streets drift by as his horse followed the contingent dutifully. He had traveled these streets on foot many times, but from his perspective on horseback, he felt slightly uncomfortable. Faces watched him in recognition, and conversations stopped—everything stopped to look on as the group moved down the main thoroughfare.

”...with THEM?...can’t believe it…surely not Kodai Nakano…always so helpful and friendly…” The murmurs drifted through the downpour as the crowd likened him to almost a criminal. It was not his way to spend the emotion on feelings such as betrayal. He was tempted to make an exception.

Okabe’s commanding voice rose above the clattering of armor and spattering of rain. The army moved and flowed to the shouts of the Commander and the samurai officers shouting the order further down the column. Erik, Yoshiro, and Nakano approached the Imagawa estate accompanied by the imposing Okabe with the prisoner and the army following close behind. Behind a deep moat, the great walls wrapped the estate and the buildings inside like protective arms.

The rain had subsided a bit and a thick fog was rolling in off the river as the sun sat on the horizon, ready to sink behind the mountains. Nakano could taste the humid air on his tongue and watched as the drawbridge lowered before them. Imagawa-dono was not a man of expensive tastes, Nakano noted as he followed behind Okabe. Plain, practical building construction and highly defensible armaments were carefully placed across the grounds to slow an assailing army that somehow managed to breach the moat and high walls. Impressive, Nakano thought to himself. The ingenuity was admirable.

The group dismounted and servants approached to take the horses to the stables. Okabe ushered them to a nearby building and out of the rain. “Please take some time to prepare yourselves for your dinner with Imagawa. The servants will attend to you. There will be dry clothes available.” Nakano watched as Nagao was carried away, wondering about his fate. He then turned his attention to the servants as they brought in nice formal yukatas and undergarments. Comfortable with the standard procedure often afforded by high officials, he picked up a towel and followed the steam into the adjacent bathhouse.

Despite being a man who shunned extravagant things, he still hoped there would be fine scallops served.

Paths Diverged

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