Minutes ago the rugged western mountains of the Lion had resounded with the sound of marching troops and galloping horsemen. Now all was silent as the First Legion faced an army of Dragon Samurai. All eyes were fixed on the Dragon leader who stood alone at the center of the pass.
“I am Mirumoto Junnosuke,” the bushi declared, “shireikan of the Dragon, son of Mirumoto Kazuki, who slew Bayushi Dozan at the Scorpion Clan Coup. It was I who defeated the Phoenix armies at the Battle of Ki-Rin’s Shrine. I have come seeking retribution for the Lion Clan’s massacre of the Dragonfly and the destruction of Kyuden Tonbo.”
Junnosuke’s eyes fixed on Kitsu Dejiko, standing at Toturi Tsudao’s side. Dejiko’s eyes harrowed in fury as she reached for her blade, but a glance from Tsudao stayed her hand.
“I can handle him,” Dejiko whispered. “I know him. This is personal.”
“This is not personal, Dejiko. This is war,” Tsudao replied quietly. “Do not allow your feelings to interfere, or we have lost. This is my command. I must handle this.”
Dejiko looked at Junnosuke, then turned back toward Tsudao and nodded. She dropped her hand from the hilt of her blade.
“Stand aside, Dragon,” Tsudao shouted, moving toward him. “The Legions are not your enemy. You interfere with Imperial business.”
“Do I?” Junnosuke replied. “On behalf of which Emperor? Emperor Nimuro? You defend Lion lands, allowing the Matsu and Akodo to attack my clan with impunity. Is this the vaunted impartiality of the Sword?”
“We pursue the Shadowlands Horde,” Tsudao said, “the enemy of all the Clans.”
“That rabble of wounded beasts we saw staggering across the plains?” Junnosuke scoffed. “Hardly a horde by my estimation.”
“Then add your forces to mine,” Tsudao replied. “Together we shall easily defeat them. When the Empire’s security has been restored you shall have your vengeance if your cause is just.”
“‘When.’ ‘If.’ Oh, how very generous.” Junnosuke smirked. “You will command my troops. You will offer me justice, like a dog begging for a treat. Do you think that you command me, Sword? Do you fancy yourself Empress already?” The Dragon folded his arms across his chest and regarded Tsudao calmly, waiting for her to make the first move.
When Tsudao spoke, her voice was cold with rage. “I may not be Empress, but I stand for the Empire, Mirumoto. Set aside your war and join us in our fight against these beasts . . . or die upon my blade.”
“Impudent girl,” Junnosuke whispered, reaching for his swords. ‘You know nothing of death.”
“You would dare draw on the daughter of the Emperor?” she snapped, hands shaking with fury. “The true heir to the throne?”
“Allow me to demonstrate what my men and I think of your claim, Tsudao-chan,” he said, katana and wakizashi gleaming in his hands.
The Dragon leapt to the attack, twin blades flashing in the classic Niten style. Junnosuke’s katana sliced the air before Tsudao’s face, leaving a thin line of blood across her cheek as the Sword ducked aside. The daughter of Toturi dodged backward, her own blade appearing in her hand. The Dragon bushi and the troops of the First Legion watched the duel with silent awe.
“No good will come of this fight, Junnosuke,” Tsudao snarled, wiping the blood from her cheek with the back of her hand. The Dragon was quicker than he looked. “One of us will die, and then our troops will attack one another. Legionnaire will kill Dragon, and all will suffer.”
“My clan already suffers,” Junnosuke scowled. “better to die in battle than to starve like a peasant.”
The two warriors closed once more. Junnosuke’s blades whirled in a deadly arc, but Tsudao ducked low and to one side, slicing at the Dragon’s wrist. The blade connected, laying open Junnosuke’s forearm and sending his katana clattering across the stony ground.
“Stand down,” Tsudao commanded, leveling her blade at his chest. “You have lost.”
“I carry two blades,” he said with a smile, turning to face her with only his short-bladed wakizashi. “I still have one.”
“You cannot win,” she said.
“I have already won,” he whispered. “What will you do? Will the Legions declare war upon my clan? A clan already beset with starvation and besieged by the greatest samurai and shugenja in the Empire? You’ll be seen as an opportunist and a coward, Tsudao. You will galvanize the Scorpion, Crane, Unicorn, Mantis and Crab against you. Your brothers will take your throne, and though I will die I will have won. Admit I have defeated you, and give me Dejiko’s blood.”
“Never,” Tsudao hissed. “I will not sacrifice the security of the Empire for your mindless feud.”
“You do not understand.” Junnosuke smiled. “I have already won, whatever may happen.”
The Dragon lunged with his short blade. Tsudao slapped it aside with her armored kote gauntlet, dropped her blade, seized the Dragon by the throat with her free hand and knocked him off his feet with a powerful shove. Junnosuke struck the rock wall hard, his armor cracking against the stone. He crumbled to his knees, reaching desperately for his lost wakizashi. Tsudao kicked it aside as she approached, her katana already in hand again. Seizing Junnosuke by one shoulder plate, she lifted him to his feet. He quickly reached for the tanto tucked beneath his belt, but a savage knee to his midsection dislodged the knife from his hand and left him hanging limp in pain.
“I will not kill you,” Tsudao hissed. “I will not kill a samurai for defending his clan, no matter how misguided he may be. Now order your troops to stand down.”
Junnosuke glared up at Tsudao. “No.”
“I command it,” she repeated.
“You do not command me, girl,” he replied, spitting in her face.
A wicked crunch sounded as Tsudao slammed her kote into Junnosuke’s teeth. “Surrender,” she repeated.
Junnosuke only smiled. Behind him, Tsudao could see the shocked and confused faces of the Dragon troops.
“She treats our commander with open disrespect!” shouted a young officer at the head of the Dragon ranks. “This cannot be tolerated!” The boy was already reaching for his swords, as were others near him. Several Legionnaires stepped forward, ready to defend Tsudao. Kitsu Dejiko ordered them back.
“Now you see,” Junnosuke chuckled. “It is just as your brother said. . .”
“My brother?” Tsudao said. “Which one? Naseru?”
A sudden commotion sounded from further down the pass, behind the Dragon troops. Tsudao glanced up, as did the Dragon officers. Tsudao’s eyes widened when she saw the banners of the five samurai who approached.
“Lady Tsudao,” called out the leader of the Scorpion, a tall man mounted on a fine white horse. The barest hint of a gauze mask covered his aquiline features. A great sashimono bearing the samurai’s personal mon flapped proudly from its mounting on his great lacquered saddle. The man vaulted from his saddle with a fluid movement and approached Tsudao, arms folded in his kimono. The others remained behind, blandly watching the Dragon troops from behind their masks. The leader’s expression was mild, unconcerned that the woman he approached was throttling a battered and bloody Dragon general.
“Shireikan Bayushi Paneki, commander of the Eighteenth Legion,” he introduced himself with a bow. “I have come to make my report.”
Tsudao stared at the man in disbelief. “This is. . . highly irregular, Bayushi-san,” she said, her voice tinged with suspicion.
“The world is an irregular sort of place,” he replied. “We do what we can, neh? Ah. I see you have met Lord Junnosuke.” Paneki glanced around, as if just now realizing what he had ridden into. “Do you require any assistance?” he asked calmly.
Tsudao released Junnosuke. The Dragon rolled to his feet and stared at the Scorpion carefully. “Bayushi-san,” he said, nodding at the samurai. “Your arrival is fortuitous. I would indeed appreciate your assistance.”
Paneki looked at the Dragon, then tilted his head slightly. “I was not speaking to you, samurai,” he said. “Tsudao-sama, do you need my assistance?”
“What?” Junnosuke interrupted before she could reply. “The Dragon and Scorpion are allies! Your clan owes mine a debt of honor!”
“That we do,” the Scorpion replied. “But I am here not as a Scorpion, but as a soldier of the Legion. My priorities are firmly in order. Are yours?”
“I have come to defend my clan,” Junnosuke said, taking his swords from where they had fallen. Tsudao watched him carefully, never sheathing her own weapon.
Paneki peered about curiously. “Are we in Dragon lands? This seems to be Lion territory. If you are such a noble defender, then why are you here? Is it because you hope to dissuade the Lion from becoming further involved in your war? Your group seems well armed for a diplomatic envoy. Or have you come here for more personal reasons? Do your troops know why you are here?” Paneki spoke just loudly enough that his voice carried to the Dragon officers. Junnosuke’s scowl faltered for the barest moment.
“I am in command of these troops, Paneki-san,” Junnosuke snapped. “You are usurping my authority! Legionnaire or no, these are not the actions of an ally of the Dragon.”
Paneki nodded and calmly drew a scroll from his robes. It bore an unmistakable seal, a coiled dragon clutching twin swords – the chop of the daimyo of the Mirumoto. Junnosuke recognized it instantly, his expression stunned. “I believe this would be an appropriate time for me to make my report,” Paneki said. “I have recently visited Lord Uso, the esteemed daimyo of the Mirumoto. I have arranged fro twenty thousand koku of Scorpion rice to be transported through the City of the Rich Frog to the impoverished Dragon provinces. During my visit, the subject of your past indiscretions also arose, Junnosuke. Certain parties disclosed to your lord details regarding your dismissal from the legions six years ago that had been heretofore unrevealed. The specifics are all contained within this scroll, Junnosuke-san, as are the repercussions of your deceit.” Paneki offered the scroll to the Dragon.
Junnosuke eyed the sealed document as if it were a coiled snake. “How?” he asked.
“The how is unimportant,” Paneki said coldly. “All that matters is that your game is done… ronin.”
Junnosuke gasped, snatching the scroll from the Scorpion’s hand.
“Ronin?” Tsudao asked, surprised.
Paneki nodded, and looked at the Dragon with an expression of faint pity. “Lord Junnosuke is a Dragon no longer. Lord Uso-sama has given me leave to take command of Junnosuke’s former troops, and to put them to use in any way you require, my lady. All the details are contained herein.” Paneki drew from his robes another scroll with the same seal. Tsudao accepted it, breaking the seal and examining it carefully.
“Treachery!” Junnosuke shouted at the Scorpion. “How could you possibly – ”
“I suggest you leave, Junnosuke-san,” Tsudao interrupted sternly, “Your death would serve no purpose now, but perhaps your life might. I will only offer it once.”
Junnosuke’s gaze met the Sword’s. Impotent fury burned in his eyes, but his hands did not reach for his blades. “Another time, daughter of Toturi,” he said, turning and walking away slowly. Some of the Dragon officers and troops followed in his wake; not many, but more than Tsudao was comfortable to see leaving behind the rogue Dragon.
“My thanks, Paneki-san,” Tsudao said, sheathing her blade and bowing to the Scorpion. “I do not know how or why you helped me this day, but you have done the Empire a great justice.”
“Scorpion repay their debts,” he said, bowing more deeply than she.
Tsudao looked at him curiously. His handsome face was serene, unreadable.
“You should have killed him,” Paneki said, close to her ear, his voice so quiet only Tsudao could hear.
“If I killed every samurai who acted foolish there would be few of us left,” she answered.
“Ideals are fine for a commander,” he said simply, “but all commanders need an advisor who is not so impeded.” There was no trace of humor in his dark eyes. “If you need him killed, simply give me the command and I shall do it discreetly.”
The look in his eyes was not entirely human, like a wild animal tamed and waiting to be released. Tsudao found it difficult to look away.
“No,” she replied finally. “Save your killing for the tsuno, Bayushi Paneki.”
“At your command, my lady,” Bayushi Paneki replied. His face broke suddenly in an easy smile. He once again bowed deeply to the daughter of Toturi, and walked away to organize his new troops.
“A strange man,” Kitsu Dejiko said, joining Tsudao as she watched the Scorpion leave. “Be careful, my lady. A Scorpion does not offer favors for free.”
“Then let us hope his price is worth what he has to offer,” Tsudao replied.