Matsu Kenji brushed a sweaty lock of hair from her eyes and tucked it behind her ear. The training session had been going on for at least an hour, and she was nearing exhaustion. Her opponent, however, barely looked winded. Kenji frowned slightly. She was not accustomed to being so easily thwarted in combat. She shiffed her position to a defensive stance.
And then charged.
Kenji hoped her attack would be unexpected, one that would finally catch her opponent unprepared and vulnerable. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Her attack ended swiffly with two lightning-quick strikes from her opponent’s boken. The first struck her across the shins. It was very painful, even through the armor Kenji wore. She was certain that if she had been unarmored, it would have shattered the bone.
The second strike slapped Kenshi’s boken just above the hilt. The force of the blow ripped the wooden blade from her hands and sent it tumbling end over end across the dojo until it struck the delicate rice-paper wall. The training blade disappeared, leaving a crude hole in the wall, which both women regarded silently
“Well,” said Kenji’s opponent finally, removing her helmet to let her graying hair fall free onto her shoulders, “I have never seen that before.”
Try as she might, Kenji could not suppress a chuckle. She immediately knelt and bowed her head. “Forgive me, Ketsui-sama. I meant no disrespect.”
“Do not be ridiculous, Kenji,” the daimyo of the Matsu family responded with a wave of her hand. “You are young, and the young should enjoy life. When you reach my age, you will have seen things that drive joy from you. As I have.” The aged daimyo placed her boken in the rack and picked up her daisho. As she placed it in her obi, she glanced sidelong at Kenji with an inquisitive look. “I understand you met with Sume recently.”
“Hai, Ketsui-sama. He has met with Otemi-san and me several times regarding our excursion on the sea.”
“Yes,” Ketsui rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “I had meant to ask you about that… incident. Sume insists the island you found could fund the entire army for several years. It seems far-fetched to me, but Sume is not normally prone to exaggeration.” She adjusted her blades so that they could be drawn at a moment’s notice, the way true Matsu did. “And I understand you defeated an orochi7 An impressive feat.”
Kenji frowned. “I remember very little of that, my daimyo. There were complications at the time.”
“I see. Would Otemi be one of those complications?”
The young warrior paled. “I… I do not know what you mean, my lady.”
“Of course not. I will just ask you one question about my great-nephew, and I expect your honest answer.” Ketsui fixed Kenji with a very stern and serious look. “Will he make a good Matsu husband? Kenji smiled broadly and looked down at the floor, a slight blush coloring her cheeks. Affer a moment of careful thought, she replied, “I would say that he has potential, Ketsui-sama.”
Ketsui returned Kenji’s grin. It seemed strangely out of place on her aged, care-worn face. “I am glad to hear it. It is Otemi who…” her grin disappeared and her voice wavered slightly for just a moment. Clenching her jaw, she began again. “It is Otemi who will protect the Hall of Ancestors until Domotai returns or is…” she grimaced, “permanently replaced.”
Kenji squared her shoulders and straightened her form proudly. “Domotai is one of the greatest heroes of our family. Nimuro will rescue him, and they will return in triumph, the heads of the Tsuno on their spears.”
“I pray that you are correct,” Ketsui said softly
The sound of a throat clearing diverted the attention of both women to the doorway, where a severe man in exquisite clothing stood waiting. “Forgive my most inappropriate intrusion, Ketsui-sama, but I have a message delivered from Otosan Uchi. It bears the seal of the honorable Hantei Naseru, and deserves the utmost attention.”
“Of course, Fudai.” Ketsui’s expression changed to one of mild exasperation at Fudai’s obvious loyalty to one of the Winds. She accepted the scroll, bowed very slightly, and waited for the bard to leave before opening it.
“Unbelievable,” she said when she was finished. Kenji bit her lip anxiously, very curious to know what news the scroll contained, but too well mannered to ask. Ketsui looked at her student, a thoughtful gleam in her eye. “The Kaeru family, the ronin that rule the City of the Rich Frog, have petitioned Otosan Uchi for protection. It seems that with oni cropping up across the Empire, the Crab and Crane warring on each other, and the Tsuno appearing and disappearing with the wind, they no longer feel safe.”
“I suppose Naseru-sama jumped at the chance,” Kenji said. “That city holds great wealth.”
“That is the interesting part,” Ketsui said. “He claims the Seppun and the Imperial Legions are stretched to their limit. He has notified the clans that one of us must protect the city.” She strode across the room, deep in thought. “Chagatai will try to take it. It would cement his claims on the land north of Seikitsu Pass. Likewise Uso and his Dragon would covet the wealth of the city.”
Kenji placed her hand upon her blade. “Neither can be allowed to seize the city, Ketsui-sama! They would be on our very border!”
“Indeed.” Ketsui turned as a sudden thought occurred to her. “Ikoma Sume has allies among the Kaeru. He can help secure an alliance with them. Yes, that could be a definite advantage. It is possible we could even convince Kaeru Tomaru to swear fealty to the Ikoma, and the Kaeru could become a vassal family.”
“They are a small family,” said Kenji thoughtfully, “but their joining us would recoup our losses from the battle with the Tsuno.”
“Yes,” nodded Ketsui. “It is an advantage we cannot afford to pass up, and one we cannot allow our enemies to seize.” She straightened, assuming the posture of a commanding officer. “Kenji, you are hereby promoted to the rank of gunso. You will assume command of the 16th guntai immediately. They are stationed in the northern barracks. Take them to the City of the Rich Frog and assess the situation. Send a courier with a report within four hours of your arrival.”
Kenji bowed deeply. “At once, my lady.” She quickly exited the dojo and disappeared into the courtyard beyond.
The citizens of the Empire cry out for protection from the chaos that surrounds them. Who is strong enough to answer the call? Who will reap the rewards of nobility? If the Lion succeed in taking control of the City of the Rich Frog, they will gain the wealth of a prestigious holding as well as the loyalty of the Kaeru family. Should one of their enemies win, then that clan will gain a foothold in the lands of the Lion.
Now is the Season of the Lion. This will be a tale of strength.