Samurai 7 Fan Fiction ❯ The Sword of the Soul ❯ A Hollow Victory ( Chapter 39 )

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

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Note: There are few things so demoralizing as watching the cause you're fighting for just collapse around you while you watch.
From here on out, watching everything fall apart was almost hypnotic, hence the reason for this chapter's title. The fracturing of the characters' relationships, events spinning out of control, and an almost helplessness in the face of destiny just sucked me in like few other shows ever have.
The music for "A Hollow Victory" is "The Knife," from one of my favorite movies (and the inspiration for my CHAMPIONS character, Midnight)... THE SHADOW.
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© October 16th, 2005 By Michelle N Travis
Chapter Thirty-Nine: A Hollow Victory
Komachi and Masamune stood at the railing looking down at Kambei, 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, Kambei was quietly waiting, his long brown hair falling to one side as he bowed his head, the axe hanging poised in the air.
The executioner looked back at Ukyo, but the young man was watching the samurai with a smile, eagerly taking in the scene, almost savoring the bloodshed that was to come. Then Ukyo glanced over at the executioner and nodded.
But in that moment that the executioner looked away, Kambei's right hand moved to reveal the hairpin he had palmed from Mizuki, and he focused all of his attention on it until it began to vibrate.
The axe descended, and Komachi covered her eyes, not wanting to watch any more.
But just as the axe came down, Kambei drove the hairpin straight into the lock, the tumblers clicked into place, and in a flash, the samurai lifted the top of the stocks free while shoving his bound wrists directly in the path of the falling axe, which carved straight through his bonds and freed his wrists.
The crowd barely had time to gasp when Kambei surged to his feet and drove one fist directly into the face of the executioner, knocking him off balance and causing him to drop his axe to the ground. Komachi opened her eyes at the crowd's reaction, hardly daring to believe he had somehow escaped the axe's blade.
Two of the machine guards immediately opened fire, but Kambei dove for cover behind the stocks and snatched up the executioner's axe. With one stroke, he killed one of the guards, then flung the axe like a javelin at the second and buried it in his chest.
"I KNEW IT!" Masamune crowed in delight, laughing aloud while Komachi watched with enormous eyes.
Kambei stepped forward and took the axe in his hands once more, pointing it in direct defiance to two of the Magistrate's patrol who were clearly deciding if they felt like taking on an armed and obviously angry samurai. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, they remained where they were, and Kambei turned his attention to the top of the stairs, where Ukyo sat watching the whole scene in benign amusement.
"Not bad," he called down to the samurai, who growled, tightened his grip on the haft of the axe, and began mounting the stairs. Immediately Tessai moved to intercept him, while the Imperial Minister stepped closer to Ukyo's side and urged him to head to safety.
Then to everyone's amazement, Ukyo began to applaud.
"Oh, Kambei, nicely done!" He advanced forward so that he was standing near the top of the stairs, first taking away the megaphone that the Imperial Minister had been holding earlier, and holding it to his mouth. "I must say, seeing these feats of samurai skill is quite inspiring!"
Kambei looked up at him suspiciously, wondering what trickery the young man had in mind now.
"But hear me now, everyone here! The time has come to lay down our arms and put aside our differences! The war is over, and your days of suffering are at an end." Ukyo lowered his head humbly, as though overcome by emotion. As he went on, however, Kambei could not shake the feeling that something was very, very wrong here... that Ukyo was playing to the crowd, turning public opinion to his side while masking a much darker and more malicious intent.
His fears were confirmed when before all of Kougakyo, Ukyo announced that he was to be given a full pardon, and that all of the women were to be freed.
"Tessai!" Ukyo shouted directly in his attendant's ear, who nearly jumped out of his skin. "See to the release of the women personally! Understood?"
Tessai nodded, his expression clearly showing that he did not approve of Ukyo's actions, but unwilling to say anything in front of the crowd.
Ukyo lowered the megaphone and smirked. "Well, dear Kambei, that's the end of that." And with that, he turned to leave.
"What about Kanna Village?" Kambei shouted after him, and Ukyo looked back, lifting the megaphone once more.
"We're releasing the women. It's all over. Kanna Village is free to live in peace."
Kambei took another couple of steps toward the Emperor. "And what about Nasami?" he asked, his voice low.
Ukyo raised one eyebrow at him, but didn't answer. Instead, he just smiled and began ascending the stairs toward the Capital once more...
... only to come face to face with Katsushiro.
"Oh, it's you!" Ukyo said in surprise. "And how's Kirara doing?"
From behind Katsushiro came one of Ukyo's assassins, and the young man whirled around, his hand going to his sword, keeping one eye on Ukyo and the other on the assassin. Below the platform, both Tessai and Kambei stared up at the young man, obviously wondering what he was going to do.
"Hey now, take it easy. I just made a deal with your gray-haired friend over there," Ukyo said placatingly. "You wouldn't want to ruin it..." With that, he strolled past the young samurai, followed by the Imperial Minister, and finally Tessai. Still reeling from the sight of Ukyo as Emperor, Katsushiro looked down and saw Kambei staring up at him, his expression unreadable.

Oblivious to the events going on outside, Kikuchiyo and Kirara marched Ayamoro down a long corridor, heading for the inner chambers where the women were kept.
"As if you could succeed in taking the women," Ayamoro scoffed, trying to hide his fear with bravado. "You'll never make it out of the Capital alive."
"Hey, shut up!" Kikuchiyo growled. "I don't want to hear another word out of you!"
"It's not us you should be worried about," Kirara said, her voice low. "We're not bringing you along with us because we enjoy your company, Ayamoro. You're a human shield."
Ayamoro turned to look at her over his shoulder. "You don't scare me, farm girl."
Kikuchiyo, however, glanced over at Kirara in amusement. "You're tougher than I thought, Kirara."
"You can thank Nasami-sama for that," the water priestess replied. "I learned a lot watching her."
Kikuchiyo laughed at that. "I'll say!"
Eventually the small group arrived before an enormous and well-guarded door. One of the guards lifted his spear and addressed them. "Halt! Honored Ayamoro, this is the inner chamber. No one is allowed without the Emperor's permission. I'm sorry, but that does not include you, the Guardian, or the... agh!"
"What?" Kikuchiyo asked, all innocence.
"INTRUDER!" the guard shouted, and the other guards lifted their weapons to surround them.
"What gave us away?" Kikuchiyo asked Kirara, who rolled her eyes behind the hood where the big machine samurai couldn't see her.
"Please don't hurt me, I'm their prisoner!" Ayamoro pleaded, but Kikuchiyo was eagerly spoiling for a fight and pulled his disguise away.
"All right, who wants some?"
"Stop!" came a voice from behind them, and the guards, Kirara, Kikuchiyo, and Ayamoro all turned to see Tessai coming down the corridor, followed by Kambei, Katsushiro, and four other guards.
While Kirara and Kikuchiyo were glad to see the samurai was alive and well, the guards, however, were demanding to know what was going on, and Tessai's mouth twisted as though biting back scathing words. Instead, he told the guards that Ukyo had ordered the release of the peasant women that the previous Emperor had abducted, and the guards moved aside so that he could open the large door of the inner chambers.
While Kikuchiyo and Kirara entered the chamber to look for Sanae, Kambei's voice stopped Katsushiro in his tracks.
"Katsushiro! Tell me why you've come!"
Katsushiro looked back at the older samurai. Of all the reactions he had expected from his sensei, an accusation was the last one he had expected. "I came because I wanted to help you," he said with quiet defiance.
Kambei frowned, but said nothing, so Katsushiro proceeded into the inner chambers while Kambei followed.
In the back room, Kikuchiyo and Kirara discovered Sanae, Mizuki, Koharu, and Chiaki, who were considerably startled when the big machine samurai threw open the door with a loud fanfare and the bellowed announcement of, "REJOICE! Kikuchiyo's here! You're free, you can all go home!"
"Really?" Chiaki said hesitantly.
"We.. we can return to our village?" Koharu asked in amazement. Mizuki, however, had eyes only for the samurai standing behind Kikuchiyo.
He nodded at her and smiled faintly in reassurance, and a smile lit up the teenager's face. She leaned forward and gently shook Sanae awake. "Sanae, did you hear that?"
Kirara, abruptly realizing who the woman in the bed was, dashed forward to kneel beside her, pulling off the hood of her uniform after nearly scaring the life out of Sanae. For a moment, Sanae didn't recognize Kirara, but then her eyes focused on the priestess' face.
"Is it really you, priestess? But... why?"
"It's time to go home, Sanae," Kirara said warmly. "Rikichi's waiting for you."
Behind Kirara, however, Kambei frowned. He had not had time to warn the farm girl or any of the others about what he had learned of Sanae's feelings for the Emperor, and so everyone's shock was understandable when Sanae refused to leave.
Kikuchiyo turned to Katsushiro. "Do you know what's going on?"
The young samurai shook his head. "No."
Kambei sighed. "Lady Sanae is carrying the late Emperor's child."
"WHAT? A BABY?" Kikuchiyo shouted in astonishment, and Kirara and Katsushiro both looked on consternation. Sanae, however, turned her head away to hide bitter tears.
"Actually..." Mizuki began, and something in her tone caught Kambei's attention.
"What happened?" he asked, his voice low. He feared he knew what the girl was going to say, based on Sanae's pallor and obvious weakness, but hoped that somehow he was wrong.
"The baby..." Mizuki began again, but Sanae's voice cut hers off.
"... is dead. My child is dead, and I killed him."
"That's not true!" Mizuki protested. "You couldn't have done anything! The old Emperor died, and you fell ill from grief! It's not your fault-"
"You needn't explain!" Kambei hissed, closing his eyes as though trying to shut out Mizuki's words. Inside, however, he was berating himself for not having been able to act sooner, to somehow protect Sanae's unborn child as well as herself, even knowing full well there was nothing he could have done.
Sanae was quietly weeping, still refusing to leave, when suddenly something in Kirara snapped. For just a moment, she thought she understood how Nasami had felt that day in the rain when Kirara had blindly refused to understand or accept what was going on around her. It had taken the samuraiko's will to open her eyes and make her act, and Kirara drew on that memory to give her strength now.
"Sanae... you will return home with us! I won't leave you!"
And just as Nasami's commanding tone had shocked her out of her illusions that day, Kirara's voice stunned Sanae out of her grief long enough to stare at the water priestess in surprise. And abruptly, Kirara smiled.

Up in the Capital's main audience chamber, Ukyo threw himself onto his throne and faced his court. "I cannot believe my predecessor went to all that trouble with the Nobuseri, when the peasants are so easily convinced that the Capital is a true friend of the people!"
The Imperial Minister and the rest of the court bowed in respect. "The peasantry is on your side," the Minister stated. "Without exception, they have embraced your reign. Thanks to your release of the women, and your praise of Kanna, they hold you in the highest respect."
"Oh, do you really think so?" Ukyo asked, pleased. "Then perhaps we should go visit them all!"
"What?" the Imperial Minister said, confused. "I don't understand..."
"The peasants have never seen the Capital," Ukyo explained as though to a child. "That is why they fear us. Therefore, we shall bring it to them. We shall make peace with the farmers on their turf, and they'll have no reason to be afraid any more." He paused, remembering what he had learned from Kambei while the samurai had been imprisoned.
"Is the samuraiko Nasami still in Kanna Village?"
Kambei's eyes went wide for just a moment.
"I'll take that as a yes."
"And the final stop on our list... Kanna Village."
"Yes, my lord," the Minister replied, bowing lower.
Ukyo swung one foot back and forth thoughtfully, aware that behind him, one of his assassins was lurking in the shadows. He raised his voice slightly, so that his words would carry clearly.
"If Kanna Village hadn't hired those samurai, we wouldn't be so close to a glorious revolution right now. The time has come to repay the favor."
"As you wish," the Minister answered.
"However, considering that Kanna Village is harboring a known criminal, there's a slim chance we may have a tragic... accident."
Many of the ministers looked up in surprise, and behind Ukyo, the assassin smiled to himself.
"A known criminal, my lord?" the Imperial Minister asked, raising his head to look up at Ukyo.
"Indeed. The farmers of Kanna Village have been trained in warfare, something expressly forbidden by imperial rule. That is why we have the class system that exists today - farmers grow rice, merchants handle trade, samurai make war, and so forth. And only one group could have taught the farmers of Kanna the art of war. Can you guess?"
"Samurai, my lord," the Minister answered, still confused.
"Exactly!" Ukyo announced. "Which was why I sent the ronin to each of the villages - not only to take care of the Nobuseri, but to remind the farmers what their role is. But Kanna Village is different. Their peasants can now fight for themselves, and such a thing must not be allowed. Kanna will be made an example of, and those responsible shall be dealt with. After all, inciting insurrection is a cardinal offense, don't you agree?"
"Yes, my lord," the Minister said softly, bowing once more.
"Any peasant who has experienced war will never be able to return to peace. I lived among them for so long, I understand how they think. Now that they have enjoyed the feel of political revolution, they will continue to crave it. And that makes them a danger to the Capital."
The assassin smiled once more, and faded back into the shadows.

Outside the Capital, Komachi and Masamune watched the enormous airship take off, but then Komachi's attention was caught by the group of people leaving the Magistrate's palace - Kambei, Kirara, and all the others.
"SISTER!" she shouted joyfully, dashing through the crowd and barreling past people to meet Kirara halfway, who swung her little sister around.
"I'm so glad you're not dead!" Komachi said gleefully, her words tumbling out in a rush. "I watched everything from here! I saw Kambei do his amazing escape trick and I heard the new Emperor tell that ugly man to set all the women free and I guess we were wrong about Ukyo I mean the new Emperor because he's really great huh don't you think so sis huh?"
"Um, uh-huh," Kirara said hesitantly when Komachi finally stopped talking.
"Do you really believe that garbage?" Katsushiro said in disgust, stepping up beside Kirara, and Komachi looked over at him in confusion.
"Huh? What garbage?"
"Those promises from our new Emperor. I don't care what Ukyo said, I still don't trust him. I can't bring myself to believe it's all over."
"Oh, enough with the negative stuff already!" Kikuchiyo shouted in frustration, coming over to lean into Katsushiro's face. "Everyone's safe! You're a hero! Just wait 'til we get back and tell Nasami and the rest what they missed!"
At the mention of the samuraiko's name, however, Katsushiro saw the same unreadable expression on Kambei's face he had seen there earlier just after the halted execution, and he knew that in his heart, there was at least one person that disagreed with the big machine samurai.
Meanwhile Komachi's attention was caught by Sanae, who was supported by Mizuki, Chiaki, and Koharu, and she dashed over to her. "Sanae, Sanae, it's you, you're alive! Whoa, pretty kimono! Oh, man, did you get rich?"
Sanae stared down at the little bundle of energy, barely recognizing the girl who she had last seen when barely a toddler. "Little... Komachi?"
"The one and only!" Komachi answered proudly. "And this is my sidekick, Kiku!"
Kikuchiyo clenched his fists and growled at her, blowing off steam. "Your sidekick? What are you talking about, you little twerp, I'm a samurai warrior!" But Komachi just laughed up at him, knowing full well that he was just teasing her.
Sanae crouched down beside her, her eyes eagerly taking in the child's laughing expression. "Is Rikichi here with you?"
Suddenly Komachi stopped laughing, and everyone looked uncomfortable. Thankfully, everyone was spared having to answer by a sudden shouting and commotion, and several people ran past, carrying baskets and bowls and anything else they could carry.
"Rice! The Capital's giving away free rice!"
The samurai all turned to look down the street, where they saw three of the Magistrate's guards setting up a table beside several bales of rice, and one was announcing how with Ukyo's ascension, the Emperor was giving away rice as a mark of his generosity. Kambei's eyes met Katsushiro's and Kikuchiyo's, and the three of them frowned, wondering just what the Emperor's true intentions were... for all of them.

A little while later, the group gathered at Masamune's workshop to catch their breath and make plans.
"Now then, what's our next move going to be?" Masamune glanced over to where Sanae sat, flanked by Mizuki and the other girls. "We've got a pretty big crowd."
"We'll go to Firefly House," Kambei replied thoughtfully. "We can stay there for the night, and then head for Kanna Village in the morning."
Mizuki looked up from where she stood beside Sanae. "My sister's there?"
"No, we'll meet her on the way. Oh, yes..." Kambei reached into the folds of his robes and drew forth the long hairpin he had palmed from the girl's hair in his jail cell, and out of habit, brushed his fingers against the long plait of hair that he kept with him. "I borrowed this."
With a gasp, Mizuki's hand went to her hair and felt for the hairpin, having never noticed it was gone in all the excitement and the chaos. For a moment, her eyes were sad as she approached Kambei and took it from him. "This... used to belong to my mother."
Kambei bowed slightly at the disrespect he had shown. "Then I humbly apologize. Without it, however, none of us would be alive now."
Abruptly Mizuki laughed. "Well, maybe..." She winked and tilted her head to one side. "But I don't know, great samurai... this does make you a thief!"
"I guess it does," he replied with a smile. For a moment, however, his eyes became shadowed as he remembered a teasing laughter from a time not too long ago, right here in this very workshop.
“It would be wise for you not to over-exert yourself.”
“Fine, then I'll continue to lounge around on that bed like that spoiled brat Ukyo and you can wait on me hand and foot while I convalesce.”
“Nasami-dono, you should show sensei more respect.”
“What would you rather I say? 'Great samurai, you're beautiful… so beautiful that I'm in love.'”
Shaken at how unintentionally prophetic the samuraiko's words had turned out to be, he turned away, reluctant for anyone to see the memories in his eyes. And he wondered when and if he would see Nasami again... and what would happen between them.
"Time to change, everyone," Kirara announced from the doorway of Masamune's workshop, where she and Komachi both held bundles of clothes for the other women to change into.
"Yeah, we got you something real comfy, Sanae!"
Sanae looked profoundly uncomfortable, and the girls who had served as her attendants caught the pained look in her eyes and fidgeted themselves. Komachi stared at the group, wondering what she had said wrong, but then wrote it off in her mind as just adults being weird as usual.

A portly figure made its hesitant way through Kougakyo's streets, darting from one shadow to the next, half covered by a Guardian's uniform. Moving with extreme nervousness, the figure made a dash for a stairway that led to another alleyway when abruptly someone appeared at the top of the stairs, startling the figure and sending it tumbling back down the stairs with a yelp to land flat on its face.
Right next to three other assailants.
"Hey, Moro..." one said in grim amusement, plucking the faceplate away from the uniform to reveal the terrified face of Ayamoro as he cowered against a wall.
"W-w-wait! What do you want from me?" Ayamoro pleaded as the assassin at the top of the stairs slowly descended, his hooked weapon held casually in one hand.
Ayamoro tried to scramble away, but the four assailants gave him no room to move. "D-did Ukyo order this?"
But just as one of them struck, there was a flash of red, a momentary humming sound, and then a loud clang.
Ayamoro opened his eyes to see Kyuzo kneeling before him, one of his katanas held in both hands where he had deflected away the assassin's attack.
In a blur, Kyuzo was on his feet, decimating three assassins and then disarming the fourth, sending his hook flying. With the point of the katana poised just under the assassin's chin, Kyuzo rose to his feet and forced the assassin to stand as well.
"Kyuzo... it's me!" the assassin whispered, trying desperately to figure out why his former comrade was threatening to kill him.
"You will not harm him," Kyuzo said softly, leaning forward slightly so that the katana's edge nearly nicked the assassin's skin. "Nor Shimada Kambei."
"Why not? They deserve it..." the assassin stammered. "And so does that samuraiko."
Kyuzo's eyes narrowed. "What samuraiko?"
"Some woman called Nasami... The one they call Sasuraitsuru... the Emperor sent a group after her as well."
"I don't know!"
Kyuzo's frown deepened. "What are their orders?"
The assassin took a step backward, but Kyuzo took one forward to keep the katana to his throat. "Something about a 'tragic accident'..."
The red-clad samurai's eyes flashed and the assassin backed up again, but Kyuzo advanced once more. "You will not touch her... no one will."
"Killing me won't stop them," the assassin said defiantly.
Kyuzo withdrew the sword and turned away. "Sorry you feel that way."
And in an instant, he had whirled around once more and sliced open the assassin from groin to throat, sending him to the ground in a bloody heap. With a well-practiced motion, he flicked the blood away and sheathed the sword across his back, then sprinted away down the alley.
In his mind, he was rapidly assessing what the assassin had told him. The Capital had only just departed on Ukyo's so-called "goodwill tour." Several other villages lay between Kougakyo and Kanna Village, so it would take him some time to get there. An assassin team, however, could make much better time on foot. The most expedient way across the desert, unfortunately, was through the Village of Respite, which was also most likely Kambei's destination.
All he could do now was hope that he reached the Village of Respite before the assassin teams did...
... or neither Kambei nor Nasami would survive.
To be continued...