Prateet Dalai was no ordinary fisherman. In the village of Vadavannur, a moonless night like this would never find the other fisherman out on the streets. It had been different long ago. In the distant past, the village of Vadavannur would play host to music and dancing in the cool evenings, when everyone would congregate outdoors to smoke and drink and dance and love and gossip and talk about the latest catch. Parades of visitors and noblemen would come to their shores to enjoy the blessings of the sea. But then the Ruhmalites came and brought death with them, killing every man, woman, and child in the village. Only those who had been out on the boats at the time were spared. Now, the men and women of Vadavannur stayed inside at night and watched the jungle carefully. If they spoke of it at all, it was to speak in hushed tones of the glories of the distant past and the ghosts of ancient kings that walked the broken stone roadway into the sultry darkness. Each year the stories of the past grew fewer, glories forgotten. They knew little of true fear any more.
Prateet Dalai was not like them. His family had lived in Second City for generations, far more urbane and sophisticated than these simple villagers. His parents were poor, and life was difficult growing up in a land decimated by the cultists of Kali-ma there in the city. Poor, but they survived. When the strangers came, they adapted. They lived through the chaos of the conquerors and the purges. The strangers went insane, slaughtering each other and anyone within reach in the streets. But then came the Dark Naga, sweeping all before them. It was too much. Prateet’s father fled to this tiny fishing village, far from the strangers and their deadly blades and the city’s madness. It was hard to adapt once again to a new craft, but it was peaceful. These villagers were frightened of ghosts and memories. But not Prateet. He had faced true fear and was never afraid. He still had family in Second City. He remembered how his father’s cousin Sadhu always smiled when he handed him a sweet roll. He hoped they were well. He hoped Sadhu smiled still.
It cost much lamp oil to mend nets at night. But a fisherman who could do so could reach the fishing grounds first and bring back the biggest catch. Prateet found the great lighthouse more than sufficient to give him light for mending his nets. So each night he would carry one of his nets into the the Lighthouse’s glow to mend for several hours before returning home to sleep. He did not venture near the strangers who guarded the lighthouse, of course. They were more trouble than they were worth. But they did not bother him or his nets.
The other fishermen were too superstitious to follow. Each night his travels would take him up to the foot of the stone steps, that overgrown, grim pathway that climbed into the mountains. The villagers said death came from that road, that there lay the ghosts of the maharajah and the Ivory Court. It was there that the people of Ivinda were slaughtered by the cultists and from there that the terrors of Kali-Ma emerged. That was a long time ago, and Prateet had seen the Dark Naga in Second City. The steps held little terror for him.
Still, the jungle was very quiet tonight, and the road was dark. Prateet was climbing the small ridge that led to the base of the steps, and the dark jungle cliffs loomed over him with the weight of time and story. Even the insects chose not to sing. I am no superstitious bumpkin, he told himself, and pushed on.
He reached the stone tiles of the base, the path up a crack leading further into darkness. Around him were shrines to appease the angry spirits and warnings to venture no further, but his path went back down into the village of Vadavannur. Prateet was no village fool…he reached the center and turned to look up the path into the mountains.
At first, it was a glimmer, but it quickly grew brighter and brighter as he watched until it became like its own silver star. As the light grew closer, Prateet’s jaw dropped as the truth was revealed. What he had thought a star was a woman, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her sari of white and gold shone like the moonlight on the crest of an ocean wave. Her slender waist was encircled with gold and jewels, and gold and jewels ornamented her wrists and ankles. A fine white veil disguised her face and hid her eyes, but he could see her ruby lips and the delicate ring and chain that ran from her nose up behind the snowy veil which covered hair of purest white. In one hand, she carried a silver lantern, the source of her light. On her back, she carried a pair of swords, though they were hard to make out in the darkness.
He was more amazed than frightened, involuntarily taking a step towards her. “Lady...” he offered, not sure what to call her. “Are you of earth or of heaven?”
Those lovely lips curled in a small, sad smile. “Bound to earth, I bear a message from heaven.” She spoke in perfect Ivindi. “I offer story and memory to your people. All I ask in exchange is help delivering that message. The samurai must not know. Please take me to your headman.”
Prateet pressed his hands together and bowed. “Follow me, Lady.” Ghost of the Maharajahs or Spirit of the Wind or mortal woman, Prateet was not afraid. He was not like other men.
It's coming. This is the longest chapter/scene ever.
Whispers broke out again. The ex-Ide heard a stir among the small delegation from the Phoenix. But he ignored them as his heart started quickening in his chest. I know that voice...It can’t be... He pushed past a plump Tenmei with an apologetic bow. There.
Wait is over. This is the end of the story. I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Thanks to Kousuda's player for letting me borrow him.
The First Day of Summer Court, 1237 – Second City
There is some satisfaction in seeing them squirm, Kakita Kousuda decided, watching the court assemble. It had likely been many years since Second City had seen a Summer Court like this. Not since before the wars with the Onyx, at the very least. A pair each of the Jade and Emerald Magistrates, at least four members of the Brotherhood of Shinsei. Representatives of all of the other clans of the Empire were there; and at least twelve Daidoji along with five courtiers, two artisans, an Asahina shugenja, and a Kenshinzen representing the Crane. The invitations had been extended personally by the Warlord, but it had been years since Zogeku had seen anything of the like.
Part of him, the sane, rational, level-headed part, was surprised that there was such a huge response to the death of one yojimbo. The rational part had learned quickly since he arrived that conflict with Zogeku had been brewing for years, that the anger of the younger Zogeki towards the Empire was coming to a head, and without the timeless bonds of tradition to tie them, the Warlord’s rule was coming into question. He had summoned the Empire more to strengthen his own hand against a possible rebellion as to investigate and apologize for the death of a young samurai-ko.
The other part of him, the part of him that wanted to ride a horse into battle and start taking heads and scream battlecries to the uncaring skies, swore that no response on heaven or earth could ever be enough to avenge the death of his only daughter. He would use every tool at his disposal: wit, coin, ally, or steel, to bring Zogeku and everyone in it to its knees.
He might honey his words with sweet reason, offer calm sympathies and hopes for accommodation. He might see all sides and offer to do his best to negotiate between them. But when the Zogeku treasurer was forced to make a full accounting of every Crane koku in the hands of the Arashi samurai for a formal re-evaluation of the currency, the once-Ide could recognize a Kahn’s triumphant ride around the camp. And when the treasurer was forced to admit before the entire court that Crane koku made up over sixty percent of their currency, there was a certain satisfaction in knowing he could set the colonies ablaze.
And he would do it...for the sake of the Crane, but more for the sake of his daughter. He had been ready to burn down one Empire to avenge the death of a woman he loved. He could burn down another.
But first, the formalities. The parade of those offering their gifts to the Warlord was already long. The gifts were less personal and less reverent than those he had seen in the court of the Emperor. But to his trained eye, it was clear many of the gifts were made with purpose: showcasing the glories of the Empire vs the power of the Colonies. When his turn came, a servant carried a fine painting covered in cloth. The servant set it on its stand and retreated. Kakita Kousuda approached and bowed to the Warlord. For he too had a role to play in this.
“Honored Warlord. Almost twenty years ago, a great Winter Court was held at Kuyden Mirumoto that I had the privilege of attending. During that court, through my art I won the privilege of meeting with the Warlord of Zogeku, the man from whom your family name is drawn. Arashi. We discussed many things. He taught me just how far Will could carry me, and its costs. And he told me a tale of a man who loved the Thunder, and whom the Thunder loved in return. Five years after we parted ways, I was in Otosan Uchi at Winter Court lobbying for his cause when the lover of the Thunder Dragon was declared the Fortune of Will. The Emperor is great, and Tengoku heeds his word. I am glad that Warlord Arashi’s story was able to find a peaceful end. It is in his memory and in the memory of my daughter, who turned four that Winter Court, then, that I bring to you this painting of my own creation, a depiction of the Thunder Dragon and Yoritomo, Fortune of Will.”
Kousuda stripped away the cloth covering the painting. There was a small gasp from some of the older courtiers. On it was a painting of the Thunder Dragon, true, glorious in her power with lightening in her mane. But while the image of her lover was powerful and muscular, he was also old, with one hand shriveled and twisted. His face was handsome, but tired. He wore the traditional garments associated with the Champion of the Mantis, but did not carry the kama. Only an artist who had seen that face would paint it so well, but those who had seen it would never forget. It was the face of Yoritomo. The face of Arashi.
He bowed again and stepped back away as the Warlord’s cool, evaluating eyes followed him back to his place.
Yes. I know. And you know what I did for him. I will not let you forget.
Kousuda felt a presence at his shoulder. He turned to face Arashi Seiho. He was dressed formally in a kimono of gold and teal, his long hair neatly tied back and a serious expression in his gaijin eyes. The Arashi gave a courtly bow. “Yours is a formidable talent, to capture such a likeness, Kakita-san. You do my ancestor honor.”
His graceful manners and polite words would fool most, but not the trained gaze of an Ide. The grandson of the warlord held a heart impatient and lusting for power, for a control over his world that he had not yet achieved.
“Arashi was an impressive man. I wonder what he would think of this new kingdom your grandfathers have created in his name.” Kousuda kept his tone warm and cordial. I know you had something to do with my daughter’s death. I will have every word of it out of you soon enough.
Seiho made a gesture to the throneroom. “A shining court, with gifts for my grandfather from throughout the Empire and the lands beyond, offering him homage. I am certain the Fortune who carved a Kingdom out of a gang of pirates through the power of his will would approve.”
“If you had met him as I had, if you had understood the strength and cost of what his Will put into motion as he knew them, you would not be so quick to count this as success. But perhaps you aspire to more, Seiho-san? You are young, and wait only for your grandfather’s death when all will bring their gifts to you. Would the descendant of Will be satisfied with this?”
Seiho’s eyes looked up at the rinjin throne upon which his grandfather sat, and Kousuda could see the hunger. “Nothing is certain yet. My grandfather speaks of paths other than heredity to pass the title of Warlord between the generations. Of passing the decision to the heads of all the houses, a bunch of withered old trees, even if their roots are deep. But I am sure he will see wisdom eventually. A kingdom, like a tree, cannot grow if it looks for green shoots among the almost dead.”
“That sounds more like ambition than will to me. You should offer your prayers at the Shrine of Yoritomo, I think.”
“My prayers would never be for myself, Kakita-san. My ambitions and my will lie solely with the advancement of Zogeku.”
“And if you gain, also, such are the rewards of ambition and will. I have tasted such sweetness myself, and been warded against. Pray harder, Seiho-san, for while such things have virtue, Yoritomo-no-kami serves to remind us that they also bear a cost. Who have you sacrificed to your will?”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Kakita-san.”
The Crane who was once Unicorn let the edge of the scimitar gleam in his carefully selected words. “May Yoritomo-no-kami guide you, Seiho-san. I know he remembers what it was like to fall so terribly, terribly far.” He gave the Arashi a curt bow and walked away. I will see you beg, he thought to himself. Beg for mercy, and wish my daughter were still here to grant it.
The First Day ceremonies were wrapping up and Kakita Kousuda was turning to leave when his path was intercepted by a shorter man with green eyes and reddish hair streaked with white. At his side, a tall, lean woman stood, dressed in a fine kimono but standing as if she would prefer to be in armor. He recognized the pair at once and bowed deeply. “Morishita-san...both of you. It has been many years. I am glad to see that you are both looking so well.”
The Lord of House Morishita started to grumble something irascible, but his wife laid a hand on his shoulder and answered. “It is good to see you again, Kousuda-san. I am just sorry it is under these circumstances. How is your wife taking it? It must be difficult to have to go so quickly from grieving the loss of your daughter to standing as the Voice of the Emperor.”
Kousuda closed his eyes for a moment, recalling vividly the moment that Kyoumi found out of Arahime’s death, her wrenching sorrow….and how Hida Kozen had come to them not two days after to tell them of his retirement.
”The Void has spoken. It is time.” The older Hida’s hair was iron gray, his face still well-masked under his facepaint. Kousuda had poured them tea, for Kyoumi and Kozen. Despite the years they had known each other, each, he found, still had their mysteries, even from him. “Toshi Ranbo has fallen. The Land has been cleansed. Kanpeki is dead and Yuhmi hides in the recesses of Shinomen Mori. The Heavens have not yet returned their favor, but we must start. It will take a different voice than mine now. The Empire must be rebuilt. Do you have the words?”
His wife was dressed in the white of mourning, her face composed and still. He knew how she had screamed and wept and pleaded and raged over the previous two days, hidden in the privacy of their own chambers. But now she had emerged at the Voice’s request, balancing her emotions on the point of a knife. “I have the words, Kozen-sama, if the Emperor pleases.” Kyoumi said simply. “I have known the words for a long time. But words of renewal sound shallow to those who have suffered great loss. Now…” she paused for a moment, letting the pain seep into her voice just enough. “Now I understand how to say them.”
The Ishinken looked at her for a very long time, his eyes dark and intense as the void between the stars. After the interminable silence, he dipped his head slightly. “You do.”
“Kozen-sama knew what was best,” Kousuda answered. “I am certain that...”
Suddenly there was a commotion from the back of the throne room, and the Ide could hear excited shouts in several tongues coming from the streets outside. Two of the guards hurried from near the Warlord to join their fellows at the door, and most of the visitors to the Summer Court broke off their conversations to see what was happening. As the Morishitas turned away, Kousuda raised his fan.
One of the guards returned from the back to the dias and bowed deeply to the Warlord. “Arashi-sama!” The Warlord frowned and nodded, so the guard continued. “The Ivindi natives have entered your district. They claim that a messenger of the heavens has come with a message for your Court. They will not quiet themselves or leave until you have agreed to allow this messenger to come and be presented to you.”
Whispers and speculation hummed through the court. During his time here, Kousuda had learned that, overall, the Rinjin treated the Ivindi natives with respect, and while the Ivindi still held the status of heimen, even marriages between the Ivindi and their Rinjin rulers were not uncommon. Therefore it did not surprise him when the Warlord answered, with measured tone. “Tell them that I will accept the presentation of this ‘messenger’, though the mercy of my response will depend entirely on their actions and the actions their messenger.”
The guard bowed deeply again and left.
About ten minutes later, the great doors were opened and the guards announced simply, “The messenger has arrived.”
Four well-dressed Ivindi villagers entered, two flanking each side of the Messenger. A hush fell over the courtroom as the guests of the warlord stopped to stare.
The messenger was a beautiful woman dressed in strange, Ivindi garments of white and gold: a fitted top that left her belly exposed, and a long, flowing skirt that draped over one shoulder, held in place with decorative broaches somewhat similar to those of the rinjin courtiers. Her ankles sparkled with jewels, and rings on several of her fingers connected with chains to the glittering bracelets on her wrists. A golden and begemmed belt encircled her slender waist, and Kousuda noticed immediately with surprise that that belt held a peace-bound wakizashi. He raised an eyebrow. A white veil held in place with a circlet of gold hid the woman’s face completely. On her back, the messenger carried a pair of peace-bound katana, and over her shoulder, a wood and cloth prayer satchel. Her hands were folded in front of her.
Although he could not see her face, Kakita Kousuda felt an odd feeling of familiarity, increased as he felt her turn to glance in his direction as she passed. But she did not stop to speak to him, instead accepting the questioning gaze of all as she approached the Warlord’s throne.
The four Ivindi with her threw themselves down before the Warlord in humble supplication.
The Messenger stopped amongst them, and more slowly, performed the proper bow of a samurai to the lord of a foreign land, just as he had when he presented his gift.
Arashi Seiho, standing by his grandfather, cast an appreciative gaze over her form.
The Warlord acknowledged the bow seriously with a nod of his head.
The Messenger straightened and raised her left hand to lift away the veil that had hidden her face.
A gasp rippled through the courtroom. Curly white hair spilled about the woman’s shoulders. Arashi Seiho choked and grew pale. Kakita Kousuda sidled along the edge of the court to where he could see her face.
She spoke. “Lord Arashi, Warlord of Zogeku. I have been welcomed by your court before, and so I come again. For my gift, I offer this.” She offered up a small, folded piece of red fabric. “This is the blindfold of Shiba Tsukimi, Champion of the Phoenix Clan, and chosen of Shiba, granted to me that I might give to you to prove to you my message is true. I present this to you.”
Whispers broke out again. The ex-Ide heard a stir among the small delegation from the Phoenix. But he ignored them as his heart started quickening in his chest. I know that voice...It can’t be... He pushed past a plump Tenmei with an apologetic bow. There.
It’s her. It is really her. She is alive!
He recognized her, but he could see others did not; she had changed so much. Her hair was longer and curlier than he remembered, and she had lost weight and muscle. More surprisingly, her ears were pierced and she wore long, dangling earrings, and a fine gold nose ring pierced her left nostril and was attached by a fine chain up above her ear. He was used to interacting with gaijin, but even he found the nose ring barbaric. She wore a large collar and neckace of ivory, emeralds, jade, and pearl: more jewels than he had seen on the wife of the Emperor. Barbaric or not…his daughter was alive. She was beautiful.
The Warlord inclined his head in acceptance of the gift and a tacit acknowledgement that she might speak.
Kakita Arahime turned to face the court. “I come with a message. But first, I must declare myself.” She tilted her head up proudly, as though her strange garb was the finest court kimono. “My name is Kakita Arahime, Daughter of Kakita Kyoumi and Kakita Kousuda, Graduate of the Kakita Academy and Yojimbo to the Ambassador of the Crane, Doji Mushari.” Her gray eyes flicked across the hall to land a glance on the Crane ambassador, who, though he kept his On well, seemed almost on the verge of tears with joy at seeing her.
More murmurs. Fans were quickly raised. Many of those present were only here because of the events set into motion at the death of his daughter. To see her here, alive, changed everything. To one side, slightly behind and to the right of Arashi Seiho, Kousuda saw a tall, muscular bushi start backing quietly away from the throne. A look of calculation weighed on the face of the grandson of the Warlord’s face. He made a signal to the guards to secure the doors, preventing anyone from entering or leaving. The muscular bushi stopped.
Arahime turned back towards the Warlord. “Lord Arashi. While I travelled with Ambassador Mushari off the coast of the Unknown Lands, a bushi known to you used secret correspondences from within your family to draw me out, playing against the false statements that had been made to shame me. He then struck from behind to throw me overboard. I am certain that he intended to murder me, leaving me to drown, or killed by the crocodiles that infested those waters. But I did not drown. Through the blessings of the Heavens, and the goodness of the native inhabitants of this land, I have lived to return. In my journey here, I was fortunate to meet Shiba Tsukimi, Champion of the Phoenix, and was asked to carry a message for her. That brings me back to this place.”
The Warlord gestured with his hand. “You may deliver your message, Kakita Arahime.”
The young woman turned back to face the assembled court. “This is the message I bear. Shiba Tsukimi is dead. She was in self-imposed exile at the Ivory Palace where once the Maharaja held their seat. I was with her until the very end. For these past years, she has walked the Path of Man, waiting for the time when the Phoenix clan would be redeemed.”
The tiny Phoenix delegation, led by the Phoenix Ambassador, Asako Sozen, watched her, frozen, scanning every inch for any sign of deception. One of the two Emerald Magistrates present was also Phoenix, a Shiba by his mons, as was one of the Jade magistrates, an Isawa. “We must see the blindfold,” Sozen answered her, his face impassive.
One of the Warlord’s aides carried the blindfold Arahime had presented over to the Phoenix ambassador, who studied it carefully. He passed it back to have it presented to the others when he answered Arahime. “Go on.”
“Before the end, as Shiba Tsukimi receded into oneness with the blade Ofushikai, I saw the strength of Shiba made manifest through her. And through her, he gave me this message. He told me that he loves and cares for his people, but that the influence of Tengoku must be diminished within Ningen-do if Jigoku’s power is to be reduced. He said the Phoenix would be forgiven, that he would take upon himself the remaining price for his children’s sins.” She paused. “He will listen to the prayers of the Phoenix.”
There was silence through the whole court. Either the young Crane spoke truly, or it was the most brazen story they had ever heard.
Arahime walked down the length of the court to stand before the pair of Emerald Magistrates that had been sent by the Emerald Champion, Kakita Karasu, to attend this court. One was a Lion, the other, Kousuda had seen, was Phoenix. Shiba. Arahime bowed deeply to the Emerald magistrates and held up to the Shiba magistrate the satchel she carried.
“I am not worthy to present this to the Phoenix, Magistrate-sama, but I have been given this message to bear. Within are the wishes of Shiba Tsukimi, Champion of the Line of Shiba, for the future leadership of her clan. I have not read what her wishes are, but I entrust to the Emperor and the Emerald Champion the proper distribution of Shiba-no-Kami’s will.”
The Phoenix magistrate looked puzzled, but serious as he accepted the satchel. The Lion Emerald magistrate examined the seal. “The seal is untouched. It could be true, Ryobe-san.” She turned back to look at Arahime for more information, but Arahime bowed again and withdrew.
The Kakita then turned towards the small group of monks from the Brotherhood of Shinsei, and again bowed deeply before them, far deeper than might seem to befit monks of their station. She removed from her back the orange-saya’ed blade and held it up, presenting it to the highest ranking member of the group. “Shiba said I was to deliver this to you, that I was to entrust to the Brotherhood of Shinsei the future of his Clan. This is the Celestial Sword of the Phoenix, Keitaku. Ofushikai, the Sword of the Phoenix, Shiba took with him to the Celestial Heavens. But Shiba Tsukimi took this from the Shrine of Shiba Midoru when the Elemental Masters committed their heresy. It is to be returned now to the Brotherhood, to be given to the future Champion.”
The older monk, dressed in saffron robes, shaved bald, his skin as dark as walnut, bowed as he accepted the blade. “Your words are sincere,” he answered, “Even if your story stretches the bounds of my understanding. We thank you for bringing this to us.” The older monk then turned, holding out the blade to a younger monk, perhaps in his mid-forties, lean and healthy with dark, intelligent eyes. “Brother Ishi?”
The younger monk, Brother Ishi, bowed, his dark eyes evaluating the sword and the young woman who had carried it.
“Hai, brother Juzo?”
“You hold the memories of a man named Isawa Shunryu, a man who would know more about these matters than any other. Does the Crane girl speak truthfully?”
Brother Ishi spoke softly, though all ears in the court strained to hear. “Shiba-no-kami has left Ningen-do. Shiba Tsukimi was at the Ivory Palace, walking the Path of Man. She is now gone to us, her spirit joined with Shiba in Ofushikai in Tengoku. And this,” he held out his hand to touch the blade, “Is the Celestial Sword of the Phoenix, Keitaku.”
At his touch, a bright silver light flashed around the blade, creating the form of a brilliant phoenix of white fire. The light shone for a moment, then disappeared when the young monk withdrew his hand. Kousuda could still see the image blazing behind his eyelids every time he blinked.
His daughter bowed again to the monks and finally turned back towards the Warlord. Kousuda could feel the presence at his shoulder of Doji Sawao, the Kenshinzen the Crane had brought with the delegation to deal with any ‘differences of interpretation’ that might arise during their investigation. The tall, lean man had a gaunt face and a dour, unsmiling expression. He leaned in close. “Watch that one.” He gestured with his chin towards the bushi Kousuda had noticed earlier trying to make his way towards the doors.
Arahime approached the Warlord again, bowing. “Thank you for allowing me to deliver this message. And thanks to these Ivindi who have enabled me to bring it before you.”
The Ivindi who had entered straightened. One of them, the most finely dressed, answered, “These were not the messages we had hoped for, Apsara. But you have repaid us well in granting what would otherwise have been lost. We will take our leave. Vishnu protect you.” The four Ivindi bowed deeply, and, walking backwards, moved towards the entrance and disappeared beyond the main doors of the Court. The guards allowed them to pass.
The Warlord raised an eyebrow, though he held his face otherwise impassive. “There was one other issue, I believe,” he said in a dark tone.
Arahime straightened and tilted her chin up. “There is. I accuse Purashi of the Arashi family of attempted murder, and will have the truth from his lips of who ordered him to do so, and I uphold the sincerity of my claim with this blade. She pivoted slightly to face the bushi that had been trying to slip out. “You are no longer on a ship, and can no longer strike by deception, at night. You insulted my school before. Now face it in the harsh light of day. I challenge you. I know Arashi Seiho spread lies and deception about me in the court. Did he put you up to this?”
Seiho jumped in with an explanation. “I was the one that had the doors locked so no one could leave! I prevented him from escaping! Would I have done that if I had colluded with him? Yes, in my envy and fear that your beauty would not be mine, I may have claimed things I should not have. But Purashi’s plans were his own. I had nothing to do with it!”
Kousuda could see a ripple of fans being raise among some of the younger rinjin of the court. Oh…did he turn on his own to save his own skin? I wonder what his followers think of that.
Arahime’s gray eyes passed coolly over Seiho to land on the bushi that Kousuda had seen trying to leave earlier. Purashi seemed to be weighing his options thoughtfully for a second, then, for his part, stepped forward boldly into the middle of the room, and shouted, his voice carrying through the whole chamber.
“Lies! Every word that has come from this woman’s mouth has been lies. Who knows how long or who she has worked with to make this deception happen? Clearly this has been a plot to subvert the Phoenix, now when they are at their weakest. Probably by the Crane, but maybe the Kolat or even some Ivindi conspiracy. Now all she needs is someone to take the blame for it. She picked me because I insulted her school once long ago. She wants to challenge me? I say that this heresy must not fester any longer. I accept your duel…right here. Right now. To the death. If your words were true, you wouldn’t be afraid to defend them. But since they’re false, I’m not going to give you time to spread your lies.”
Doji Sawao scowled and said softly, “I was afraid of that. He noticed the injury…he knows she’s hurt. Probably tired and worn just by trying to get through the doors, not to mention she’s wearing that strange costume. He wants to duel her now, half-starved and wounded, before she can rest or have a shugenja take a look at her.”
Kousuda cursed himself for not noticing earlier. Now that Sawao had pointed it out, he could see that, though she masked it very well, her left shoulder moved oddly. He was not trained as Sawao was in looking for such weaknesses. Sawao took a half-step forward to intervene.
“As you wish,” Arahime answered boldly. She turned to the Crane delegation, and to Doji Mushari in particular, for permission.
Oh, Wildflower…this is not the time to be brash… Kousuda hurried towards Mushari, to try to stop him from granting permission. Sawao followed.
For his part, Purashi turned to the Warlord for his own permission. The Warlord scowled, about to refuse, but he scanned the crowd. Kousuda could see a discontented muttering among the younger members of his court, in particular, and even among some of the Rokugani who were having difficulty believing the Crane girl’s incredible tale. He nodded once.
Kousuda closed on Mushari. “You cannot give permission for this. Not now,” he whispered behind his fan. “She’s hurt. Who knows what she has been through? She needs time to rest, to see a healer, before she is ready for a duel.”
The tired eyes of Doji Mushari scanned the crowd and settled on the Warlord. He sighed. “He gives permission because he knows if he does not, once word spreads in the streets that he favors the people of Rokugan over the people of Zogeku, he might have open rebellion on his hands. Who knows who the Ivindi will support in such a clash?” He sighed. “If I do not give permission, then word will spread out from here along with Pushari’s accusations. There will be doubt on the truth of those documents and the message she carries. Even the slightest doubt among the samurai will taint the efforts of the Phoenix to try to restructure their clan. Arahime must prove what she says is true beyond all shadow of doubt, and she must do so before the lies are spread about her, and more importantly, about Shiba’s will. I must grant permission. And she must win.”
Mushari lowered his fan and signaled his agreement to the duel. “May Kakita bless your blade, Arahime-san.”
Kakita Arahime bowed to Doji Mushari. Her eyes locked with her father’s one last time. He could see in the stormy gray a hundred, perhaps a thousand stories that needed to be told, and prayed with all his heart that she would live so he could hear them. “Men will lie to you. Your eyes will deceive you. Steel never lies, nor deceives, nor hides bitter reality. In the sword, you can find truth.” She quoted Kakita’s The Sword. “I knew this would come. Yu’genta, please forgive me.”
The Warlord stepped forward. “Keep all the doors to the Palace sealed. No one is to enter or leave until after the duel is complete. Prepare the sacred circle.”
A pair of shugenja, the plump Tenmei Kousuda had circumvented earlier and a brown haired Morishita, prepared a sacred circle of salt in the open courtyard nearby. More lanterns were lit, flooding the courtyard with brightness. Extra guards were posted on the doors and prevented egress by all. Purashi, his face fierce with determination, stripped down to his hakama, exposing the powerfully muscular chest and rippling biceps of a Mantis-trained bushi. Arahime moved more slowly. She loosened and unwound the top part of the sari, then drew it up between her legs similar to a loosely-tied mawashi such as sumo wrestlers wear. The last twist encircled her waist like an obi, and it was into this that she slid her daisho. Her fitted top covered her to the measure of decency, but little beyond. She stripped off some of the jewels and the small, embroidered shoes she wore, setting them into her father’s hands. She accepted a drink of water, and then it was time.
Arahime stepped into the ring. Purashi did likewise.
“I have never dueled a half-naked barbarian woman before,” Purashi joked as he entered the sacred circle.
“How unfortunate for you. I, on the other hand, have dueled several ignorant braggarts,” Arahime answered drily.
The master sensei of the Arashi dojo stepped forward to adjudicate the duel. “According to the sacred custom of both the Empire and Zogeku, we stand in contest to prove in steel the truth in the words of Kakita Arahime and the guilt of Arashi Purashi in this matter. May the heavens profess their justice.”
Arashi Purashi adopted the wide, squat stance of the Mantis, with a low center of gravity and plenty of power. Arahime turned to the side, presenting a narrow target, her hand resting lightly on her blade. The scent of hibiscus was almost overwhelming in the heat-drenched evening.
Their eyes locked across the ring. “You’re weak. Everyone can see that. How long since you trained properly, Arahime? A year? Not with those fancy clothes.”
Arahime’s tone was calm, even serene, as she answered, “I only have to hit...once.” The words of the Crane Thunder, Kousuda thought. How did the original Kakita feel as he heard those words from his daughter?
“If you seek a perfect cut, I'll hit you with a dozen perfectly acceptable ones." Purashi’s thumb inched his blade loose in the saya. Arahime did not answer, her hands in place, letting the moment stretch out between them. Kousuda held his breath.
Everything moved so quickly from there that Kousuda could not really see what had happened. His daughter had drawn and stepped forward to one side in a low sweep out, then twisted the blade up to intercept Purashi’s powerful strike which cut downwards towards her from the much taller man. He struck her, though her sword and her footwork deflected much of the power of the blow from her neck to her left arm. A gush of blood streamed down, leaving a gaping wound, but she was still standing.
From there, her style became completely defensive, backing away and avoiding the rinjin’s strikes. Kousuda’s heart was in his throat, knowing that, twice-injured as she was, if she continued to fight on the defense she would quickly reach exhaustion. A second blow would surely kill her. Her face was pale and tense, and she looked as if she could collapse from weariness at any moment.
Strangely, the Kenshinzen beside him seemed perfectly relaxed after that first blow, watching the duel go on calmly, and only tensing slightly when Purashi’s blade fell a little near the smaller woman. But before Kousuda could ask why, a shrill shout erupted from the rinjin opposite the Crane on the other side of the dueling ring. A flood of blood, which had previously been unseen because it was soaking through Purashi’s dark green hakama, came gushing down the man’s leg. He stumbled in the sudden pool formed of his own blood, but managed to recover.
In that second, Arahime whirled, coming back with another low strike. She had slowed enough that this one, Kousuda could actually see. The sword tip penetrated the back of Purashi’s other knee, tearing through the hakama. As the rinjin fell, two arterial sprays erupted from the seemingly two small cuts made by the blade of Kakita Masarugi, one to each femoral artery. Arahime stumbled back, her blade drawn and guarding the fallen man closely, but Purashi did not arise.
He had bled out in less than a minute.
As the healers rushed forward to tend the girl’s wounds, as the gasps of the younger rinjin turned into excuses and flight, as the Phoenix swarmed around the Emerald magistrate, eager to find out when their future would be revealed to them, and the other Crane courtiers began quickly leveraging this new victory into advantage for the clan...Kousuda’s eyes were for none of them.
His eyes were for his daughter, alone.
Arahime was back. Everything had changed.
And he would never allow her to be abandoned again.