Burning pinpoints of light swam over her eyes, her vision refusing to resolve itself. She hissed but did not cry out at the searing pain that burned her chest as she drew breath. A firm hand pressed itself against her shoulder.
“Do not rise, Kenji,” a familiar voice said softly.
“I feel as if the Thunderer has stepped on my chest,” Kenji whispered.
“A Shinjo warhorse, actually,” Korin said. “It’s amazing you are still alive. I have bound your injuries as best I can but I suspect you have broken ribs.”
She blinked several times, forcing her vision to clear. She discovered that she lay on a pallet on the floor of a rough peasant’s shack. Korin knelt beside her, smiling comfortingly despite the blood-soaked bandage that covered his own shoulder. Behind them huddled an old man, leaning heavily on a crutch.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“This is Anzai, a woodsman,” Korin said. “He found us in the forest after the battle. He offered us refuge when he saw how badly you were wounded.”
The man bowed, both keeping his eyes averted. “That was very brave, Anzai-san,” Kenji said. “If the Unicorn patrols had come and realized you were harboring a wounded Lion officer.”
“Then I would throw myself on their blades to give Korin-sama a chance to defeat them,” the man said, pride clear in his voice. “My family have been ashigaru warriors for centuries, and so was I, until I lost my leg in Otosan Uchi. It is my duty to serve the Lion.”
“You have done well, Anzai,” Kenji said.
The man’s face flushed, but his expression remained rigid. “There is a village not far to the north of here. An old Kitsu shugenja tends the temple there. I will hurry to him at once and tell him there are two wounded Lion soldiers here.”
“One Lion, one ronin,” Korin corrected.
“My apologies, my lord. I say only what I see,” Anzai said, excusing himself from the small home with a bow.
“The ashigaru knows his duty better than I do,” Kenji said, laying back on the pallet. “I should have died in that battle, Korin. I have failed Otemi.”
“No,” Korin replied firmly. “I was there. Perhaps your injuries have fogged your memory, but I saw how you coordinated the retreat. The Unicorn outnumbered your forces severely, but they paid dearly for every Lion life. It was your charge that broke through their ambush, allowed the remaining forces to escape to rejoin Otemi’s army. You sacrificed yourself so hundreds would live.”
“How did it happen?” Kenji asked. “How did the Unicorn know when and where we would approach?”
Korin frowned. “There is a spy within the Lion,” he said. “A spy with access to all the major troop movements in this war. And now I know who it is.”
“Who?” Kenji asked.
“Meiji, the new lord of the Kaeru,” Korin replied.
“Meiji?” Kenji asked. “But Otemi already does not trust Meiji. He keeps the man under close watch.”
“Perhaps,” Korin replied, “but remember that Meiji was not always a Lion, and not all of the Kaeru took the Lion name. The Machi-Kanshisha know these lands better than any, and they are everywhere. My own experiences as a ronin are somewhat limited, but there are advantages to such anonymity. Samurai pay little attention to where a wave man goes or why. Samurai do not wish to know where we are going, lest they share the fate of the masterless samurai. It would be a small matter for Meiji to communicate through his network of loyal ronin mercenaries, even behind enemy lines.”
“Why would he do it?” Kenji asked. “Why betray the Lion?”
“It was never Meiji’s choice to join the Lion, but his father’s,” Korin said, “and Kaeru Tomaru was a convenient casualty of this war. Perhaps Meiji hopes that with his Unicorn lords returned to power they will turn the same blind eye to his family’s activities that they did for centuries. It is a dangerous situation we find ourselves in, Kenji. If we accuse Meiji, the Kaeru will cry out at the slight to their family’s honor. Even those Kaeru who truly serve the Lion will withdraw their support, and the Lion will be in an even worse position here than they are now. What can we do? It seems no matter what course we take, the Lion have lost.”
Kenji reached out with one hand, grasping Korin’s wrist roughly. He looked down at her in surprise as she pressed two fingers against the inside of his arm.
“What are you doing?” he asked, confused.
“Strange, you say we have lost,” Kenji said, “but I feel blood coursing through these veins still. So there is hope.”
Korin smiled weakly. “You shame me, Kenji-san. Do you have a plan?”
“No,” Kenji admitted, “but I know who will. We must find Otemi. He can still bring victory from this.”
The sounds of battle had faded from the sparsely forested hills outside of Sukoshi Zutsu. They had instead been replaced with the sound of many voices, chanting in unison, a rolling sound that filled the gathered Unicorn forces with unease. Shinjo Huang galloped up the hillside, reining in his steed beside his general’s with a deft movement.
“The Dragon are trapped, Shono-sama,” Huang said. “We have hounded them into the box canyon. Isuto believes this chanting is some sort of mystical ritual, meant to bolster their final defense.”
Shono laughed bitterly. “Isuto is a fool,” he replied. “Does he not listen to the words? This is no spell. The Dragon are praying to Bishamon that they will die well, and that they will be forgiven for failing the Emperor.”
“Perhaps they know they cannot win,” Huang said. “Kei seeks to sap our confidence, gain any advantage she can. They are trying to demoralize us.”
“Perhaps, she is a clever enemy,” Shono answered, “but could naming us as enemies of the Emperor truly weaken us if we did not fear it was true? Our motives in this war were hardly the purest.”
“True,” Huang said, bowing his head slightly. “While I do not wish to fail the Khan, I do not look forward to this battle. The Dragon are fanatics even at the best of times. Now we offer them no option but to fight.”
“Our options are limited,” Shono said with a sigh. “We cannot withdraw; even after the losses we have inflicted upon them, the Dragon have already proven they are capable of being quite troublesome even with limited resources. If we were to allow Kei to retreat there is no predicting what she might do next. Nor can we simply hold her here until the Khan’s victory is secured; Chagatai-sama is expecting our return.”
“Then with all due respect for your keen tactical mind, Shono-sama, perhaps I might offer a third alternative,” said a smooth voice.
Shono turned quickly, hand upon his katana. A horse approached, one bearing a thin man in black and red armor, his face covered by a thin veil. A Unicorn scout ran behind him, hurrying to catch up.
“General, there is a visitor here to see you,” the scout announced, looking somewhat embarrassed to have lost track of the other man.
“Bayushi Paneki-sama,” Shono said, bowing deeply from his saddle. “This is an unexpected honor.”
“You know me?” Paneki asked mildly.
“Only a few Scorpion are revered as heroes by my clan,” Shono answered wryly. “I make it a point to remember them.”
“What I did in Ide lands, I did for the Empire,” Paneki replied. “You owe me nothing. It is the Dragon who concern me.”
“Then speak your concerns quickly,” Huang replied, “the Dragon will not be on this earth much longer.”
“Yes,” Paneki said with a faint smile. “A most difficult situation. The Dragon are outnumbered, outmaneuvered. There is no escape for General Kei. Even surrender is not possible, for the very act of its offer would be a grave insult, to imply that a Khan would engage an enemy unworthy of his wrath& such an insult that could only be answered with death.”
“All of this I already know,” Shono replied, “but what brings you here, Paneki? I had been told the Legions would not arrive for weeks.”
“True,” Paneki said, “but I have access to information most Legionnaires do not. I believe I can resolve this matter without further bloodshed.”
“How?” Shono asked.
Paneki’s thin lips curved into a faint smile. “I will go to General Kei and inform her that her duty to the Emperor is complete. Her command has been fulfilled. The War in Kaeru Toshi will inevitably be resolved to the Emperor’s satisfaction due to events that have been set irrevocably in motion.”
“And she will believe you?” Shono asked.
“Yes,” Paneki answered. “The information I bear will convince her.”
“What information is that?” Huang asked.
“I am not at liberty to reveal that, as to do so would betray my loyalties to the Scorpion Clan,” Paneki said. “Suffice it to say that the desires of the Scorpion and the Emperor coincide in this instance, and that the Khan will not find the prize he seeks.”
“What do you know, Paneki?” Shono demanded. “Do the Scorpion intend to interfere in this war now as well?”
Paneki chuckled lightly. “I imply no threat toward your clan or your Khan,” he replied. “As I said, my interest here is in Mirumoto Kei and her remaining troops. They are allies of my clan, and I value them. On my honor as Defender of the Empire I promise I shall lead the Dragon from this place and they will trouble you no more. Of course if you do not trust me, you could always detain me. Interrogate me. Determine whether I truly bear any information that could threaten the Khan. Assuming your interrogators can obtain the information I hold while it still bears any value, you will in the meantime be forced to deal with the Dragon in a more direct manner. You will face Kei and her troops in a battle where the enemy knows there is no hope for survival. Your victory may be assured, but your losses will be extreme. There is no glory in this battle, Shinjo Shono, only murder. Let me lead the Dragon from this place, and your mission will be complete.”
Shono glared at Paneki in silence, his crystal eye burning a faint green. Huang watched his general and oldest friend with an uncomfortable expression.
“Go,” Shono said gruffly.
“Arigato, Lord Shinjo,” Paneki said, bowing from the saddle. “You have shown the wisdom of the Kami whose name you bear this day. Your mercy will not be forgotten.”
“Just go,” Shono said.
Paneki nodded and urged his horse down the path toward the canyon below.
“The Khan won’t be pleased that we let Kei escape,” Huang said. “He wanted blood.”
“Victory will have to satisfy him,” Shono replied.
“Can we really trust the Scorpion?” Huang asked.
“We can trust his word if not his motivations,” Shono said. “The Dragon will trust him as well, I think. Let Kei’s forces leave the canyon unmolested, but escort them back to the borders of their lands. I’m sure Paneki-san will not object to us taking such a precaution.”
“You want me to lead them?” Huang asked, looking at Shono in surprise. “Where will you be?”
“I must warn the Khan of what is to come,” Shono said.
“But we do not know what is to come,” Huang replied. “You think the Khan will trust a warning from a Scorpion?”
“Perhaps not,” Shono said, “but perhaps he will listen to a madman.” Shono’s crystal eye blazed green as he kicked his horse into a gallop and hurried off across the hills.
The Present Day&
Ikoma Yasuko stood upon the walls of Kaeru Toshi, looking out at the battered landscape. Her round, perfect face was uncovered today. She held her trademark mask in one hand, resting upon the wall. The sound of footsteps behind her drew her attention, and she looked back with a smile.
“Korin-sama,” she said. “I am pleased that you have come. You have my sincere thanks for saving Matsu Kenji’s life.” She smiled sadly. “I may not rule my husband’s heart, but I know where it truly lies, and I would not wish him any more pain.”
Ikoma Korin regarded Yasuko with faint suspicion, which did not surprise her. The man had been through so much, but he had faced it like a Lion. He looked much different than when last they had met, a change that went beyond the golden armor he now wore. “My compliments on your promotion. I think many are surprised that Sume chose you as his successor, but then Sume was always the sort of man who relished surprises.”
“What happens now?” Korin asked simply.
“What happens?” Yasuko asked. “We bask in our victory.”
“Victory?” Korin snapped. “The Lion Champion is dead. Our armies were defeated at Sukoshi Zutsu.”
“A battle lost, and a war won,” Yasuko replied. “The Khan has ended his campaign for the Rich Frog. He is satisfied with the village.”
“An outcome I still do not understand,” Korin said tersely. “What did you do, Yasuko?”
“Is it important that you know?” she asked lightly, “Or is it only important that it was done?”
Korin glanced around quickly. “Fine, whatever, I don’t care,” he snapped. “There is still the matter of your treachery.”
“Then why do you not denounce me?” Yasuko asked, raising an eyebrow.
“You know that I cannot,” Korin replied. “Matsu Ketsui has named Otemi as Nimuro’s successor until his eldest son is of age to assume the Championship. You are the wife of the Lion Champion now. Tell Otemi what you have done. Do not compound your dishonor by concealing it.”
Yasuko laughed. “I am not enough of a Lion to relish the idea of tossing away my life so nobly,” she said. “No, my crimes will go unpunished but not unredeemed.”
“You call yourself a Lion?” Korin demanded.
“I am no less a Lion than you,” she said. “I want what is best for my clan, but I also wish to survive. Why do you not denounce me, Korin? Clearly you do not fear to have shame heaped upon your name. No, if you did, you would never have become a ronin to keep my secret. You remain silent because you are a clever man, far more so than even Otemi realizes& you want what is best for your clan, and deep in your heart you know that I am good for the Lion.”
“And how is letting you remain among us a good thing after all that you have done?” Korin asked.
“The fact that you are here asking me that rather than reporting my deeds to my husband proves you know the truth,” Yasuko said. “You know in the end I aided the Lion more than I brought them harm. You know I will not betray the Lion again. How can I? If I were to do so, you know the truth, and now have all the resources of the Ikoma family to oppose me. Thus, left alive, my resources and manipulations are turned to the good of your clan. Our clan. I am the Lion’s pet Scorpion now. And the dignity of the Lion Champion remains intact. A reasonable arrangement, in the end, don’t you think?”
Korin was silent a long time. He folded his arms across his chest as he mused upon Yasuko’s words.
“To be honest, I am pleased that you find such difficulty in our alliance, Korin,” Yasuko said. “You blend honor and pragmatism in a method most befitting of an Ikoma daimyo. For this war to be over, you must set honor aside& but do not forget it. It is what makes the Lion worthy.”
“This war is not over,” Korin said. “We still have traitors in our midst, and they must be dealt with.”
Yasuko laughed lightly and moved her hand slightly on the wall, revealing a small statue of a golden frog. Korin looked at it in surprise, then at Yasuko. “I recognize that netsuke,” he said. “It was worn by Tomaru.”
“And by his son, Meiji, when he assumed the leadership of his family,” Yasuko replied. “Earlier today young Meiji was celebrating the victory of the Lion Clan in a local sake house, though many noted that his joy that we had successfully retained control of his city seemed somewhat subdued. Perhaps he was distracted by the horrors of warfare? Anything is possible. At any rate his distraction proved disastrous. He unintentionally offered insult to a brash young samurai by the name of Bayushi Hirono. In the heat of the moment, swords were drawn. Sadly Meiji underestimated Hirono’s swordsmanship.”
“Strange that I have not yet heard that the Kaeru daimyo met such an end,” Korin said.
“It happened barely an hour ago,” Yasuko replied. “Meiji had no sons. It shall fall to the Kaeru’s Lion masters to find a suitable replacement to rule the city.” Yasuko’s eyes widened in feigned surprise. “I believe that responsibility would fall to you, Korin-san.” She held out one delicate hand, offering him the golden frog.
Korin scowled at the trinket. “One day Otemi will realize what sort of a woman you are, Yasuko.”
“Perhaps he already knows,” Yasuko replied with an enigmatic smile, “and perhaps he recognizes that the brilliant light of the Lion Clan needs a shadow such as myself to prosper. As you do.”
She placed the golden frog in his hand, letting her soft fingers lightly trace his bare arm. With a final enigmatic smile she placed her mask over her beautiful features, turned, and left Korin standing alone atop the walls of Kaeru Toshi.
I have entrusted this message to my swiftest and most trusted courier. Know that shortly after you read this, I shall be by your side once more, my beloved. This missive bears grand news and dark tidings.
In the village of Sukoshi Zutsu, the Unicorn defeated a superior force of Lion bushi. The Lion Champion, Matsu Nimuro, faced me in personal combat and knew only death. It was a legendary victory, a tale that will be told in the tents of the Moto for generations to come.
Yet it was a hollow victory.
My final duel with Matsu Nimuro felt somehow wrong. He was not the man that I had been led to respect and fear. He was a brutal, senseless thing, a creature filled with raw hate and uncontrolled emotion. I do not know what path could lead a noble samurai to such a state, but I felt little satisfaction in his defeat. He was not the foe I had come to fight. Our duel only affirmed in my mind that there is little further purpose to this war. I will not continue to struggle so that others can prosper from the shed blood of my kin.
But fear not, Mio-chan. I will not forget my promises or my obligations. The arrangement that began this war will yet be fulfilled. Ryoko Owari Toshi, the City of Lies, will be returned to the Scorpion Clan’s governance. With the resources the Unicorn will require to build Sukoshi Zutsu into a worthy stronghold of the Unicorn Clan, few will question the true motivations of this action.
I have abandoned my claim on Kaeru Toshi. I suspect that the Scorpion truly manipulated us into this war out of a secret desire to ultimately control both Kaeru Toshi and Ryoko Owari, dominating the hidden smuggling networks of the Empire. If they still desire the Rich Frog, they can attempt to rule it under the Lion’s nose.
Kaukatsu will accept my small rebellion, I think. If he presses for more, he knows that he risks the Khan’s rage. I can only be pushed so far. He will not make an open enemy of me or risk revealing what he knows when the City of Lies remains such a valuable prize.
For now, Mio-chan, your secret remains safe. Our secret remains safe.
Tell my sons that their father will not know rest until they are in his arms once more.