Ronin had prostrated himself in the Japanese practice of dogeza before the Shogunate high official. This would be his biggest job yet and this time he was not meeting with mere intermediaries as before, but directly with those giving the orders. He was moving up in the world. Perhaps he'd found his place as a sword for hire. He feared he needed acceptance of some sort - even if it was with the corrupt. He had not realized how strong its pull until this very moment.
The men in the room praised Ronin, promising him standing and rewards. They were so pleased with his previous work they granted him this direct audience. But all the while hearing this, Ronin was out of body, his spirit in another place. A voice told him he should be excited at what he was being told. Another part had lost any interest in the world. This was the constant struggle within.
As he left the room, Osaya's chastising dream words rang in his ears. Her contempt for him as a killer was not assuaged by this "success". But he feared to give in to her, to bond with her even in absentia. To expect even an ounce of acceptance from her was not to be dared. It took the entirety of his courage to do so. Surely the gods would be angry with his taking something so precious which he could never deserve.
Having decided to take this step, Ronin put his life in further danger by stepping around to below the open window of the room he'd just left. Osaya's words had broken the spell of the official's seduction, casting him back into the world, however harsh it may be.
"Yes, yes, I know all about him. He indeed killed the merchant's son. That's what makes him so perfect."
The official and a subordinate were discussing Ronin's arrangement. "How many men will you have stationed at Machibuse pass?"
"Ten. More than enough. Then we'll post his head as a criminal, feeding the people a scoundrel to make them feel good - and distract them from us."
"How did you read him? Do you believe he'll do the job and follow the escape route through the pass?"
"He is a guilty dog stupidly berating himself - as if that means something! He's so busy punishing himself he'll never see this coming. I've been waiting for a high profile job like this to use him. Plus, we used him before so there's a level of trust. As political creatures, trust is the most valuable commodity we have, is it not, sire?" He smiled an evil grin.
Ronin gasped, almost giving himself away. Then his eyes hardened into razor sharp steel as he worked his way back to the normal exit of the mansion's compound. So I've been playing the fool all these years!
Swirling with emotion, he made his way back to his room at the inn. By the slimmest of margins his life had been saved. He dared step outside his guilt to see the picture of a fool. Even the scheming officials scoffed at his self-punishment! Dishonesty never serves a purpose. But he feared to not to hate himself. What would that say of him as a man who ruined the lives of three people, counting his own? For the first time in seven years, he ordered sake be brought to his room.
It was easier when I thought I was the worst person in the world. I know of no one who's committed a crime as heinous as mine. Ever since I returned from the bridge, though, something has been off, sensing I've been on a fool's errand. Now I know! Why do I have such a problem admitting the evil of others? Is it because there's still something in me worth fighting for? Is it to that which I must answer?
While still doubting he had any sort of future, Ronin had no intention of letting men like the official take his life. He felt outrage for the first time in a long time. Then it struck him: he'd avoided outrage because then he'd get a taste of what Osaya must have felt when he struck down her brother. The warm sake soothed him in grateful retreat. Then he fell fitfully asleep to enter a land ruled by demons as he searched for good people to trust and to guide him.
A few short decades away a man would sit in jail writing a book after a failed attempt of overthrowing the government. Betrayal for him was not a single act but a way of life. His dream was to have everyone in the nation engage in self-betrayal having lost hope himself. He knew the big lie was to believe in the goodness of the masses. "It's the inferior people around you causing your problems!" he wrote. He should know, being one of those inferior people.
His message sold well. A man openly proposing mass murder became (at one point) the most popular man in the nation's history. So much the for the goodness of "the people". That country would align itself with Japan in a quixotic quest for world domination. In the horrific ashes of the end, one country's populace were forced to march through its death camps in sobering recognition while the other were forever scarred by nuclear devastation. God help a lost soul looking for guidance.
Ronin forced himself awake from the uninhabitable dreamland of demons. He truly hoped that was not the land in which he lived as he approached the rising sun of the dawn. However terrifying his own treachery, he could no longer sit back and allow his life to be wasted. And however hopeless redemption might be, he must still fight for his life. If only he could sit and watch this dawn until he died.
The following week Ronin requested a meeting with his intended target - also a high government official. He was surprised to be received (he was received for a reason but never to be known to him as the gods were working in his favor). There Ronin explained the plot against the official, refusing any reward, leaving the two warring officials to themselves. He departed a marked man.
How delightful to bring things out into the open! What a feeling of relief and freedom. This is true power, to have no attachments to the world. I will surely be marked for assassination now for there's nothing betrayers hate more than being betrayed to the truth. But to die on this day is a thousand times better than any day before since the incident. Do I have the courage to continue down this road?
Osaya would be proud of me. This puts water on my raging fires, thank the gods! Heeding her words saved my life - in every sense. She didn't want revenge, at least not like I was thinking. She wanted me to repent and turn away from killing as her satisfaction. She is as beautiful as I ever dreamed. May the gods always serve her and damn them if they don't!
Once again a ronin samurai crouched under a country bridge crying in revealing moonlight. But these were not only tears of bitter regret as before, but ones moved by the beauty of a soul who taught him the meaning of life.