“Ho there. We seek Hamasaki-San on behalf of the Daimyō Tokatsu, for it is said that his lands abut the Canyons of Kyōkoku and that none know the land like he and his family.”

“I am the Hamasaki-san you seek, in that case,” said the older man, “and these are my lands. I am happy to serve the servants of the Daimyō Tokatsu, whatever they might require, if only I might know their purpose.”

“We seek the Ryūsei,” said Nakano Shoji. “Our sages have determined that its resting place is in the Canyons of Kyōkoku, and we seek to discover it and deliver it to its proper owner.” The rider left the latter statement purposely ambiguous, though the gleam in Hamasaki-san’s eyes was one of immediate comprehension.

“That old legend? If you’ll forgive my saying so, I have always found it to be beneath serious consideration.”

“Then surely you’ll have no objection to providing us a guide, since we will pay you for nothing.” Nakano Shoji had taken an instant dislike to the old man, but his continued politeness was necessary. The haughty courtiers of the other daimyō retainers searching the Canyons of Kyōkoku would no doubt proceed on their own, and therein lay their disadvantage.

“You may take my niece, Hamasaki Moriko,” said Hamasaki-san. “She is a burden left to me by my departed elder brother, and were it not for the familial obligation I bear him, I would long since have rid myself of the extra mouth I have to feed and the extra lip I have to endure.”

“The men of the daimyō will not accept such a guide,” said Nakano Shoji. “We demand the best that your valley has to offer.”

“Surely your daimyō did not send his best men on such a trivial errand,” said Hamasaki-san cunningly, “since I know him to be a wise and sober man who puts little stock in rumor and legend. And surely it behooves me not to send my best son to guide them, as the cost would be ruinous should the endeavor fail.”

Nakano Shoji might have struck Hamasaki-san for his insolence, but he was ostensibly a guest in those lands, and any disturbance would bring the attention of the local daimyō. The daimyōs were on good terms, but not so good as to strike a landowner whose tongue had to draw blood before it was sheathed.

“What have you to say for yourself?” Nakano Shoji demanded when Hamasaki Moriko was offered up, a sensibly-dressed but plain woman of indeterminate age.

“I know the Canyons of Kyōkoku as I know the folds of my own kimono,” Hamasaki Moriko responded, “and I bear my departed father’s sharpened kaiken dagger. Should you or your men have any dishonorable ideas, I will not hesitate to assist them in reclaiming their honor through seppuku before redeeming my own through jigai.”

Nakano Shoji looked to Hamasaki-san, his gaze sharp, as the first words out of their guide’s mouth concerned ritual disembowelment. The old man responded by throwing up his hands; “see what I have to deal with?” was the essential thrust of the gesture.

“We are off to an auspicious start, to be sure,” Nakano Shoji griped. There was no time to waste, though: the Ryūsei awaited, the prize of ten thousand lifetimes. Other retainers sought it, and it was far better for him and his men to be jewels shattered in the attempt than intact clay tiles dishonored by their failure.

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