Samurai 7 Fan Fiction ❯ The Sword of the Soul ❯ No Matter the Cost ( Chapter 35 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

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Note: Last chapter was everybody BUT Kambei, so this chapter is ALL him. (I got the idea from a pair of the Doctor Who: New Adventuresnovels: Birthright, which features the Doctor's companions, but not the Doctor, and Iceberg, which features only the Doctor, without his companions.)
Talk about TENSION... from the moment I saw the scene in the trailer of Kambei kneeling at the execution block, my heart just stopped. And for those of you who've seen the whole series, when Kambei swipes a knife from one of the guards and plunges it into the tank... that look on his face THROUGH the glass is one of the most unbelievably disturbing things I ever saw in that whole series...
Topped only by his reaction when Sanae drops her bombshell. You could literally SEE the horror in his eyes.
For this chapter, I decided to draw once again from that sadly-neglected genre - computer game soundtracks. The music for this chapter is the haunting track "Catherine's Freedom" (how appropriate) from the soundtrack to the computer game RIVEN.
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© October 16th, 2005 By Michelle N Travis
Chapter Thirty-Five: No Matter the Cost
He was standing on a parapet looking down at her, his dark grey eyes wide with horror, oblivious to all of the noise of the crowd, the chattering and shouting and racket of the city.
Kneeling at the execution block, she was quietly praying, her long white hair hiding her face as she bowed her head, the axe hanging poised in the air.
The executioner looked back at Ukyo, but the young man was watching the woman with a smile, eagerly taking in the scene, almost savoring the despair that emanated from her. Then Ukyo glanced over at the executioner.
"Oh, go ahead and kill her," he said with a dismissive wave of one hand, but even in the middle of the chaos, Kambei heard him.
Nasami froze, her head coming up and her eyes sweeping the crowd.
With an incoherent cry of fury, Kambei leapt down and charged straight at the execution block, his katana leaping free of its saya into his hand faster than eyes could follow. A dozen guardsmen lunged between him and Nasami, but he cut them down with barely a thought, killing anyone who tried to stop him. Behind them came some of the assassins that Ukyo had added to his ranks, but they fared no better against him as his sword flashed in the evening sun, singing its song of death and glory. There was no restraint in his attacks anymore, no careful planning for each stroke. This was sheer effortless swordsmanship that only ever came with the absolute mastery of skill, fueled by the single thought of saving a woman he loved.
The crowd panicked and scattered in every direction, frantically trying to escape the mad samurai who was screaming in rage.
Cursing, the executioner got a firm hold on his axe.
But even as Kambei glanced up and saw the axe rise once more over her head, he ignored the reinforcements that were charging toward him, and saw her lips forming words for him alone.
"I love you," she whispered, tears streaming down her face. "Bring my sword home for me..."
"NOOOOO!" he screamed.
Ukyo laughed aloud.
Nasami closed her eyes.
The axe descended.

With a jerk, Kambei sat bolt upright with a choked cry, his heart pounding, his hand clutching his katana so tightly that his knuckles were a bloodless white.
"Great samurai! Great samurai, are you all right?"
Slowly he became aware of Honoka's almost panicking voice, calling to him over and over, and as he blinked, the last fragments of the dream cleared from his vision, and his eyes focused on the woman kneeling beside him.
"I'm... all right," he whispered, but he could barely keep from trembling. His heart was still slamming a frantic rhythm inside his chest, and in his ears he could still hear Ukyo's triumphant laughter.
Kambei staggered to his feet, stumbled outside and over to a large barrel of water that Honoka had outside her house, and plunged his head into it, trying to wake himself up. As he surfaced again, gasping, he shook out his long hair and ran his hands over his face.
"Is... is there anything I can do?" Honoka was stunned at seeing the samurai so absolutely distraught, but he shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair.
"No. It was... only a dream." But still, Kambei was terribly shaken. It had been so real...
"Were... were you dreaming about the battle in Kanna?" Honoka asked hesitantly, but Kambei shook his head again. Then the woman glanced up and saw the Shikimoribito were watching them intently, and she looked back over at the samurai. "I'll leave you alone for a little while, then. I should return to my work, if that's all right."
"Of course, go ahead," he agreed, and she turned to go. "And Lady Honoka..."
The peasant woman turned back.
"Thank you for your concern."
"You're welcome, great samurai." With that, she left Kambei alone with his thoughts.
The samurai went back inside the dimly lit house and sat on the floor, drawing his knees up to his chest and resting his forehead on his knees, trying to calm his mind. Ironically, in spite of the fact he had left Nasami behind for her own safety, he desperately wished the woman were here. Resolutely, he dragged his mind back to the task at hand - finding a way to the Capital.
Upon his arrival the day before, he had tried to persuade the Guardians to guide him to the Capital, but the Shikimoribito had flatly refused. In their eyes, to move against the Capital in any way would put their trade arrangements in jeopardy, and as such, Kambei had been told in no uncertain terms that he would need to find another way. But the determined samurai was not put off that easily. Anyone willing to enter in trade agreements had to be willing on some level to negotiate.
The only trick was finding something to negotiate with.
Later that afternoon, he went searching for Honoka, hoping that she might be able to shed some insight on the Guardians' way of thinking, and what might appeal to them.
He found her working by one of the strange, twisted trees that grew from the rice the peasants cultivated underground, harvesting the sap that the Shikimoribito used as sustenance.
"Lady Honoka, I was hoping that you might be able to help me understand the Shikimoribito. You've lived among them for some time now, and are familiar with how they think. How reasonable are the Guardians willing to be, in terms of negotiation?"
"The Guardians are far too pragmatic to ever risk alienating a trading partner without some clear reward," she replied.
"I see..." Kambei mused, an idea slowly taking shape in his mind. "What if I had a bargaining chip, something to make it worth their time?"
"They're always willing to listen," she assured him, but then her face fell and she turned away. "But it's too much to ask."
Kambei looked at her questioningly, and although she didn't turn around, she could sense his gaze on her.
"You doing all this... just for my sister," she whispered.
"I stand by my promise to you," Kambei said firmly. "I will find your sister. All I ask is that you visit Gorobei's grave someday."
The peasant woman flinched, and her eyes filled with tears as she thought of the cheerful street performer who had delighted the displaced peasants with his tricks.
Suddenly Kambei's eyes went wide as a plan came to mind - one which would gain him access to the Capital, as well as to the Emperor himself, clear Nasami's name, and almost certainly gain the assistance of the Shikimoribito.
However, it was not without tremendous risk, but that Kambei was willing to take.
But worse, if Nasami ever found out, she would never forgive him.
"Lady Honoka, may I ask a favor of you?"
"Of course!"
He got to his feet and settled his katana at his side. "Tell the Guardians... the man who killed the Imperial Envoy was Shimada Kambei. They'll know what you're talking about."
Kambei turned to look at Honoka, and she shuddered at the smile on his face. "The bargaining chip will be me."

Shortly thereafter, two of the Guardians, along with Kambei, were racing through the caverns via speedboat toward the mouth of the cave, heading for the Capital.
The samurai had been correct - once the Shikimoribito learned that they were harboring a known fugitive, the chance to curry favor with the Capital was too good to pass up. Kambei, however, was grimly amused at the Guardians' confusion as to why Hyogo would have accused Nasami as the murderer of the Envoy instead.
"Do you know, samurai, why it would be that the bodyguard of Ayamoro would accuse the woman Nasami of murdering the Envoy?"
Kambei shrugged. "Rumor has it that he held something of a grudge against her, although I can't say I know all of the details why."
"Strange that you did not confess your guilt earlier, when we told you that she had been accused."
"My reasons are my own."
For a while, they rode in silence, the Guardians content to leave Kambei to his thoughts.
He found a certain ironic symmetry to the whole thing -as he had been the one to stop Nasami from saving the Envoy's life back in Kougakyo, it was only fair that he should take the blame instead of her.
Somehow, though, he doubted she would understand or accept his way of thinking.
"We'll be outside shortly," said one of the Guardians. "May I ask why you killed the Envoy?"
"What's the saying?" Kambei replied. "'Ask no questions, hear no lies'?"
"I'm merely... curious as to what you could gain by such a reckless act as attacking the Capital."
Kambei smirked at the question. By offering himself, he was being led straight to the Capital, almost certainly guaranteed an audience with the Emperor, placed in a position where he could vindicate Nasami of the Envoy's murder, and be in a place where he might be able to successfully rescue Rikichi's wife and Honoka's sister.
"Nothing at all," he said quietly.
"How utterly pointless."
After nearly a full day of travel, first by boat and later by transport, the Shikimoribito and Kambei arrived at a desolate wasteland.
"This is the Capital," said one of the Guardians, and Kambei followed the Guardian's gaze upward.
Overheard loomed an enormous airship, surrounded by several Nobuseri transports.
"Perhaps it brings back memories for you. What was once the flagship of the old Imperial Fleet is now the center of trade and government for the new merchant empire."
For a long moment, Kambei stood there, lost in his memories of the Great War, but then he realized that his Guardian escorts were patiently waiting for him.
"It's time to go," said one of them, its voice almost gentle, as though the Guardian understood the memories that seeing the Capital had evoked.
As they approached, Kambei was searched, his katana taken from him, and the bindings on his wrists checked before being permitted to enter the Emperor's main audience chamber. Walking through it, Kambei was simultaneously intrigued and somewhat disdainful of how it appeared now, compared to how it had looked during the Great War. Once this chamber would have been the center of operations for the airship; now, it was filled with courtiers and ministers, sparsely furnished and elegant, but strangely... empty-feeling.
Suddenly it was no longer surprising that Nasami had chosen to give up the courtly life and instead walk the path of a samurai warrior. Even after the Great War was over, living in court would have been living in confinement, so she had escaped it once more by undertaking her musha shugyo. A place like this would have been stifling to her spirit.
Many of the other envoys and courtiers whispered behind their sleeves as Kambei and his escorts walked past, but he ignored all of them, and kept his eyes focused on the screened dais before him.
Except once.
Along the way, Kambei's eyes momentarily rested on the portly form of Ayamoro, the Magistrate of Kougakyo. However, given his rather nervous disposition, and the fact that he had not been accorded a seating position of honor, Kambei wondered exactly what had happened to warrant him being brought before the Emperor.
Then suddenly it hit him with the force of a blow, and the samurai went pale.
An Imperial Envoy had been murdered in Ayamoro's palace, and until now, no trace of the murderer had been found, even after the resulting samurai hunt.
The Shikimoribito, however, had said that Hyogo had accused Nasami of the murder of the Envoy... but Ayamoro had clearly not shared that information.
Which meant that either Ayamoro knew and was withholding it for some reason... or he never learned of it.
But the only other person that Hyogo would have told was Ukyo... Ayamoro's son.
When the murderer had remained at large, Ayamoro must have been called before the Emperor to answer for his failure... and maybe even stripped of his rank.
Which meant that Ukyo would now be in charge of Kougakyo.
And that someone who could possibly convince the Emperor that Kambei's guilt was questionable was still at large.
"No," he whispered to himself, gritting his teeth. "There has to be a way..."

When they reached the foot of the stairs, his guards forced him to a halt, and lifted their weapons in salute.
"Presenting the Divine Emperor, His Excellency, Lord Amanushi!" the Imperial Minister called out, and the screen was slowly lifted so that the Emperor was visible.
And Kambei stared in shock.
The Emperor's body was confined to a regeneration/maintenance tank, his bodily functions monitored and regulated by all manner of equipment and machinery. But despite his diminuitive size and enforced confinement, Kambei could still feel the aura of power that surrounded the man.
And with a single, heartfelt prayer that Nasami would forgive him for even thinking of it, he was fervently grateful that it was he and not the samuraiko being held at spearpoint and forced to endure that penetrating gaze.
He felt the Guardians behind him sink to their knees, and discreetly, they pulled him down as well. However, in a subtle gesture of defiance, Kambei did not kneel, but instead folded his legs beneath him and sat cross-legged instead. This did not go unnoticed by the Emperor, whose glowing eyes narrowed at the implied insult, but Kambei did not look away.
The Shikimoribito prostrated themselves respectfully. "Divine Emperor, we come before with information about the Envoy who was murdered in Kougakyo. This samurai has confessed to the crime, and so in accordance with the Capital's decree, and as an act of good faith on the part of the Shikimoribito, we are turning him over to you. We trust you will punish him as you see fit, and we hope you will remember our fealty."
"I thank you for your efforts, Guardian." The Emperor's voice, deep and mechanical, echoed around the chamber, and the Guardians bowed lower.
"Yes, Lord, and we thank you for your grace."
With a start, the former Magistrate got to his feet and moved toward the aisle so that the Emperor could better see him.
"This samurai is accused of murder in your home. What do you know of him?"
"Forgive me, Your Grace," stammered Ayamoro, "but I do not recognize this man."
The rear doors of the chamber opened once more, and several people stepped through.
"Presenting the Okata!" the Imperial Minister announced, and the Emperor glanced over at the woman in front.
"Ah, Sanae... come forward."
At hearing her name, Kambei turned to look over his shoulder at the woman, wondering if this was Rikichi's wife. Dressed in an elaborate headdress and kimono, her face painted in the usual court fashion, she was attractive, but moved as though tired and distracted. Trailing behind her was a younger woman, not much older than a teenager, dressed as a servant or attendant. She hovered at the older woman's elbow, keeping careful watch on her.
"You asked to see me, my lord?" The woman referred to as the Okata sank into a polite bow not far from where Kambei sat, her voice soft and respectful.
"Was my summons inconvenient?" The Emperor's voice was oddly gentle.
"I was just outside enjoying the beautiful day we're having."
"Sanae, I have called you here because I wish for your insight on this matter. The samurai before us claims to have murdered an Imperial Envoy."
"I see," she murmured, turning her eyes to meet Kambei's for the first time. The samurai was shaken at the weariness and emptiness he saw there. It was not that Sanae was not intelligent, far from it. But the vibrant spark that so often lit Nasami's eyes, or Kirara's or even Komachi's, was missing from Sanae's violet depths. If that light had ever been there, it had surely been extinguished somehow.
As though aware of the intensity of Kambei's gaze, the Emperor growled, "Turn your face toward me, samurai. Look well. This is not some corpse you see, but a living being. Thanks to the endless wars of your kind, this is what I have become."
Kambei took the chance to openly gaze at the Emperor instead.
"You may address me directly. What is your name?"
Kambei straightened up slightly, but never took his eyes from the Emperor's. "I am Shimada Kambei."
"Shimada Kambei?" The Emperor laughed, but then stopped abruptly as his eyes narrowed in disdain. "You are a fool."
The samurai's mouth thinned angrily, but he remained silent.
"I do not believe you are capable of killing a helpless messenger... imposter!"
Several of the gathered courtiers gasped in surprise, and immediately the whispers began.
"Is this true, samurai?" the Guardian behind Kambei asked him.
"I've said I killed him... what more do you want?" Kambei asked softly, never looking away from the Emperor.
"I want my time not to be wasted," the Emperor snapped. "What is the point of this charade?"
Kambei's voice turned almost silky with challenge. "Why don't you guess?"
"Bite your tongue, samurai filth!" Ayamoro shouted angrily, rising to his feet, but the Emperor's voice cut across his.
"Silence! I did not give you permission to speak!"
Ayamoro cowered and resumed his seat once more. "I beg your pardon."
"Kambei Shimada," the Emperor began, and Kambei's hands clenched into fists. The insult of placing one's given name before one's family name was a grave one, especially when the speaker knew better, and it was clear that the Emperor knew it... just as he knew that Kambei was in absolutely no position to do anything about it. "Can you tell us the true killer's identity, or is this some ill-conceived joke?"
Now was the moment of truth. Kambei knew full well that what he was about to do was at the very least going to land him in prison, and at the worst... get him executed. Confessing to the murder of an Imperial Envoy was bad enough... but this...
"You do not answer? Perhaps a jail cell will loosen your tongue. Take him away."
"Shikimoribito, you are excused!" the Imperial Minister declared, and the two Guardians bowed once more and rose to their feet. But as they stepped back from Kambei, and two of the guards advanced, Kambei's entire body tensed.
"I won't let you have her," he whispered to the Emperor. "I'll kill all of you first."
And in an instant, he made his choice.
Leaping straight up, he tucked his legs as close in to his body as he could, and brought his chained hands from behind him to before him. Two lightning-fast strikes immobilized the approaching guards, and Kambei snatched a dagger from the belt of the nearest before charging up the stairs toward the Emperor's tank.
Focusing his thoughts, just as he had on the Nobuseri ship when he had shattered the door with the mere force of his soul channeled through his sword, Kambei drove the dagger straight into the tank, inches from the Emperor's face. Life support fluid began to drip ominously from the gash, and Kambei continued to lean into his attack, forcing the dagger farther and farther in.
Cries of horror and outrage went up all over the chamber, but the courtiers were paralyzed with fear, afraid that if they acted, Kambei would kill the Emperor outright.
From behind recessed panels came several other guards, all carrying guns, which they immediately pointed at Kambei.
"Don't just stand there!" Ayamoro shrieked. "Shoot him! Shoot the criminal!"
Kambei whirled around, not taking his hand off the dagger. "Go ahead, fire!" he taunted, and the guards froze. "You'll kill your beloved Emperor!"
"Don't listen! He's bluffing!" Ayamoro shouted.
"Do you want to risk it?" Kambei challenged, driving the dagger in even further. "Think very hard about where the bullets you fire at me will come to rest!"
The guards didn't dare move, and for a moment, it seemed as though time itself had stopped.
"This is blasphemy," Ayamoro whimpered, aghast.
"Let's be reasonable here!" the Imperial Minister called from his place at the base of the stairs, his voice pleading.
"I'll spare his life on one condition," Kambei called out. "Let the women go!"
The girl next to Sanae gave a joyful gasp, but Sanae herself seemed oddly distant.
Kambei glanced down at the two women kneeling on the floor. "Are you the Sanae from Kanna Village, wife of Rikichi?"
Sanae's only answer was to rise to her feet and slowly move forward, never taking her eyes from Kambei and the Emperor, each step measured and careful.
Kambei looked away from her for a moment to meet the eyes of the younger girl. "And the rest of the women?"
"They're in their chambers!" the girl called back.
The whole court seemed to hold its collective breath as Sanae walked forward and began to climb the steps, and even the Emperor appeared to be wondering what Sanae would do when she reached the top of the stairs.
"Apologies, Amanushi-dono," Kambei murmured quietly as he watched Sanae approach. "You will act as our shield."
"Coward," the Emperor spat at him, and Kambei turned to him with narrowed eyes.
But his attention was shattered when Sanae knelt beside him, and grabbed the back of his robes, her eyes lifted to his in a pleading expression.
"I will not leave with you."
Kambei froze in horror, convinced he could not have heard what he thought he did.
But he had.
"My Amanushi needs me, and I cannot leave his side!"
Time stopped for Kambei, a single thought in his mind.
Absolutely dumbfounded, he stared down at the woman who was on her knees, begging him to spare the life of the man who had abducted her. He felt as though his mind were about to shatter into a thousand pieces, so stunned was he at Sanae's plea. Kambei had believed that Sanae had wished to escape her captors, and to return to her husband, but as he looked down at her, he realized that Sanae would rather die than leave the Emperor behind.
And in that endless moment, Kambei realized he had made a terrible mistake... one that would cost him his life.
"Please, I beg you, have mercy!" she whispered, as the girl who was with her mounted the stairs behind her.
"Sanae, what are you saying?" she asked in disbelief.
"I love him," Sanae begged. "I adore my Emperor with all my heart."
And as Kambei stared down into her eyes, he knew with a sinking feeling that she was telling the absolute truth. This woman truly loved the Emperor... and try as he might, even to save the woman he cared for more than life itself, he could not destroy that love.
In the tank behind him, the Emperor began to laugh. "Perhaps now would be the time to mention this woman is carrying my child."
Kambei's eyes flashed to his, and the Emperor stared back at him implacably.
"Your move, samurai."
It would be so easy to drag Sanae off, regardless of her wishes... use the Emperor as a human shield and escape to safety. They could be out of the Capital and away, and the Capital's guards helpless. The women would be free, Nasami would be safe... but he couldn't make himself do it.
To protect his own love, he would not sacrifice another's. And the only thing that made that thought even remotely bearable was that if she were in his position, Nasami would do the exact same thing.
Nasami... forgive me...
He let go of the dagger and bowed his head.
The Emperor chuckled once more as his guards closed in. "Well, now... isn't this amusing..."
To be continued...