By Rich Wulf
The Tsuno lifted his sword, preparing to deal a killing blow to the wounded samurai.
Those who journey down Exile’s Road never return.
This thought passed through the samurai’s mind as he stood with his back to the overturned wagon, katana clutched in his left hand. His right arm hung limp and useless at his side. Blood streamed down his right cheek and his helmet had been torn away, now lost somewhere in the jagged mountain pass.
The quartet of creatures stood in a semicircle around him. Each watched him warily through flint-black eyes. They were easily half again his height, with great horns that curved outward from their temples. Each wielded a broad black sword, and was garbed in gleaming ebony armor. A fifth member of their group lay on the ground nearby, limp and unmoving, his stomach torn open by the wounded samurai’s sword.
“Well?” the samurai demanded. “Are you going to fight me?”
“We have already won,” said the leader of the creatures, its voice remarkably clear and elegant. It’s bestial snout split in a sneer as it gestured to the western horizon. Lord Sun blazed an angry red. “Can you see in the dark, samurai? Can you bleed forever? You will die here. Or perhaps you could run. . . and give us a good chase.”
The samurai glanced back over one shoulder, then returned his gaze to the four creatures. No. He could not abandon his mission. There was only one recourse. . .
With a defiant scream, the dying samurai lifted his katana in one hand and charged.
* * * * *
This is boring,” Shono grumbled, twirling his long spear absently in one hand as he led his steed down the rugged path. “It is necessary, my lord,” replied Huang, riding at his side. “You know how important the caravan’s safety is to Lord Chagatai. A scout team of Rojin’s Wanderers reported Tsuno activity in this area.”
“The Wanderers,” Shono gave a derisive snort. “Amateurs, if you ask me. Shinjo Juro spends too much time with the geisha to be a proper sensei for that rabble.”
Huang frowned. “That may be, Shono-sama, but if there is the slightest chance the threat is real – ”
“I’m not a child, Huang, I know why we’re here,” Shono said. The gangly samurai glanced back over his shoulder with a wry grin. His left eye gleamed green in the pale light of the moon. “I know better than anyone where our path leads. It’s just that sometimes I wonder at the turns we take along the way. For instance, I wonder why I had to make this trip with you and a band of swarthy Ide merchants instead of a gaggle of plump young Battle Maidens.”
“Clearly the Shiotome fear your presence would overwhelm their sense of virtue, Shono-san,” Huang said, with no apparent trace of humor.
Shono rose an eyebrow at Huang, staring at the man for a long moment. The stony-faced scout simply studied the northern horizon.
“Did one of the Battle Maidens say something to you?” Shono asked, a faint note of hope in his voice.
“A joke,” Huang said, finally grinning at his friend.
“Damn you, Shinjo Huang,” Shono laughed out loud. “You could teach the Scorpion a thing or two about ‘sincerity.”‘
“Thank you, my lord,” Huang replied, bowing his head soberly.
Shono turned suddenly, staring off toward the west with an intense gaze. “Did you hear that, Huang?” he whispered, his tone suddenly serious.
“Hear what, my lord?” Huang replied quietly. His hand rested on the hilt of his sword as he looked about cautiously. “I hear nothing.”
“This way,” Shono said, suddenly vaulting into his saddle and spurring his steed to a gallop.
Huang frowned, for he heard nothing, but followed his lord without any argument. They rode at full gallop for a full minute before Huang heard a chorus of metallic howls echo across Exile’s Road.
“Tsuno!” Huang shouted, glancing at Shono as they galloped.
Shono only nodded.
“Shinjo’s breath, how could you hear them from so far away?” Huang cried.
“How could you not hear them?” Shono replied; his crystal eye gleamed so bright it left a plume of sparkling motes in his wake. “Ride faster, Huang, before they kill whatever they’ve found!” Shono gave his steed a fierce kick and sped off down the road so swiftly it seemed as if Huang were not moving at all.
Huang did his best to follow.
* * * * *
The samurai knelt in the road. He leaned heavily upon his katana, buried blade-first in the earth. For three hours the beasts had waited. Each time he attacked, they simply retreated, too quick for his blade to strike them. Always, he returned to guard the wagon. They waited with sinister, unyielding patience. Their strange echoing cries seemed to sap his will, weakening him as much as the wound the first had inflicted.
The leader ceased its howling and paused a moment, looking at the samurai carefully.
“You are strong, human,” it said, tilting its head slightly as it regarded him. “You are worthy, but you are only human. Hurry up and die so we can see what you guard so fiercely.”
“Forgive me, my lord,” the samurai whispered. “I am sorry. . . that our enemies. . . were too cowardly to face me. . . ” The samurai rose to his feet with a grimace, swinging his sword clumsily in one hand.
The Tsuno cackled among themselves with wicked amusement. The leader stepped forward, hefting his blade in one hand. “Only a foe attacks a wounded beast, and you humans are more pitiable than beasts. Animals know their place. You haven’t the faintest inkling of the nature of the world in which you live, but arrogantly proclaim dominion over all.” The Tsuno lifted its blade high. “Shall I show you how weak you are?”
The samurai found the strength to look up, to meet his enemy’s gaze squarely.
“Why don’t you show me instead?” shouted a voice from behind them.
The pack snarled and whirled about. A second samurai sat mounted on a black horse a hundred feet away bow drawn and aimed squarely at the Tsuno leader. His left eye glowed with a pale green light.
“Ignore him,” the Tsuno leader snapped. “He shouts at the darkness. He cannot see us, let alone strike us.” The Tsuno lifted his sword, preparing to deal a killing blow to the wounded samurai.
“You would be surprised what I can see,” Shinjo Shono whispered.
The Tsuno leader fell quietly in a heap. Shono’s arrow thudded into the side of the wagon, having passed cleanly through the creature’s head.
The other Tsuno stood stunned. In that moment, another fell to Shono’s bow. Two remained.
“Attack!” one yelled.
Both Tsuno fell to all fours, charging toward Shono at blinding speed. Shono knew he would never draw another arrow in time. He threw his bow aside and drew his spear from his saddle as the first Tsuno collided with his horse. Shono dropped into a roll as the animal fell, tumbling across the jagged earth. He glanced up in time to see the beast lunging at him, sword raised. With a single swift movement, Shono rolled under the creature’s reach and braced his spear against his boot. The Tsuno yelped as it landed on Shono, spear piercing its midsection.
The remaining Tsuno howled in rage as it planted one foot upon the body of its fallen brother, pinning Shono beneath its weight. Shono grunted in pain, arms pinned, and looked up at the beast’s blade. The Tsuno paused, staring down at the much smaller human.
“Your eye. . . ” the Tsuno said, peering at him curiously. “Where did you find that crystal?”
“Everyone asks me that,” Shono chuckled.
The Tsuno scowled and leaned heavily on the fallen Tsuno’s corpse. Shono felt his ribs begin to bend. “Where did you find it?” the Tsuno demanded again.
“Shono-sama!” Shinjo Huang cried, his steed galloping around the bend in the pass. Huang charged at the Tsuno, blade flashing. The beast snarled as Huang’s katana cut deep into its shoulder. The Tsuno took several steps backward, its own massive blade slicing the air in Huang’s path. Huang’s steed reared, terrified by the enormous monster.
For several quiet moments, Huang and the Tsuno watched one another, both waiting for the other to make a move. The Tsuno acted first. Seizing the body of its nearest fallen brother, it and raced away through the pass.
“What was that all about?” Huang asked, watching the Tsuno escape down Exile’s road. The weight of the massive corpse barely slowed it.
“I really do not care,” Shono said with a grunt. He heaved himself free of the other Tsuno’s corpse and rose with a pained grimace. “I’m just glad he’s gone.”
“The Tsuno never leave their dead behind,” said the wounded samurai, kneeling beside his dead horse and overturned wagon. “We must leave before they return. . . ”
“Can you ride?” Shono asked, hurrying to the man’s side.
The man collapsed face-first on the ground.
“I guess he can ride,” Shono said. “Give me a hand with him, Huang.”
“I don’t think we should leave the cart behind,” Huang said, watching the path for any signs of more Tsuno as he dismounted.
Shono looked up at his friend. “What are you talking about?” Shono asked. “It’s just a cart. That Tsuno may return with others. We should regroup with the caravan as quickly as possible.”
“Whatever was in that cart was important enough for this samurai to risk his life,” Huang said.
Shono shrugged. “He’s probably just an exile. That cart was all he had left.”
“Perhaps. . . ” Huang said noncommittally. He knelt by the side of the road and picked up the samurai’s broken helmet. He turned it in both hands, revealing the crimson mask to Shono.
“Scorpion.” Shono whistled. “I’ll search the wagon.”
* * * * *
Shono paused at the opening of the tent. The Scorpion was awake now, sitting propped up on a heap of pillows. His hair was long in the style of the Scorpion, but his features were more squat and craggy than usual for one of his clan. For a moment, Shono thought he looked almost like his cousin, Sanraku. The Scorpion simply sat and stared in awe at his right hand, watching his fingers clench into a fist then open once more.
“It is amazing,” the man said, giving no indication that he had noticed Shono’s entrance. He rose swiftly, smoothing his long black robes with one hand. “The finest healers of my clan could not have mended my arm so quickly. Please give my gratitude to your shugenja, Unicorn.”
“It is good to see that you are awake once more,” Shono said, “but my name is not Unicorn. Call me Shono.” Shono extended his right hand toward the Scorpion with a smirk.
“Daimyo of the Shinjo house,” the Scorpion said. He clasped hands with Shinjo without hesitation, not even expressing a moment’s distaste at the gaijin custom. “I guessed your identity from your appearance and demeanor, but considered it rude to use your name before you had given it to me. It is a pleasure to meet you, Shono-sama.”
Shono frowned thoughtfully, then bowed. The Scorpion returned the gesture. “And your name?” Shono asked.
“I am Bayushi Shixiang,” he said.
“A strange name, for a Scorpion,” Shono replied.
“My mother was a member of the White Guard,” Shixiang said. “She met my father during the Scorpion’s exile, and returned at his side. I carry the name of my grandfather, a great raider who once rode beside the father of Moto Gaheris.”
“An impressive lineage,” Shono replied with a faint smile. “I wonder if your Bayushi kin are as impressed.”
“Should they not be?” he asked. “Their grandfathers are spies, assassins, and politicians. What ancestry do they have that can possibly compare to the glory of the White Guard, or the friendship of the Khan?”
“Hmm,” Shono said. “I’ll wager statements like that make you popular at home.”
“I have always felt that honor is not a matter of popularity,” Shixiang replied.
“True enough,” Shono said. “Now that I know who you are perhaps you could tell me how you ended up on Exile’s Road?”
North,” Shixiang said. “It is the home of a man named Hojyn.”
Shono grunted. “For a Scorpion, I must admit you’re fairly – forthcoming with answers to my questions.”
“You saved my life,” Shixiang said. “Were you my enemy, you could have left me to die and taken what you wanted from my cart.”
“True enough,” Shono answered.
“While we are on the subject, what of the chest that was in my cart?” Shixiang asked.
“It’s safe,” Shono said.
Shixiang gave a long sigh of relief.
“What’s inside of it, if you don’t mind my asking?” Shono asked.
“I did not presume to unlock it,” Shixiang replied. “Though I carry the key.”
“You don’t know what’s inside,” Shono said, “yet you were willing to die to protect it?”
“Such was Lord Yojiro’s command,” Shixiang answered. “It is neither my place nor my desire to pry into Lord Yojiro’s secrets.”
“Your lord is fortunate to have such a loyal retainer,” Shono replied. “The chest is waiting outside, guarded by my comrade, Huang.”
“Again, I thank you,” Shixiang said with a low bow.
“Think nothing of it,” Shono replied. “If my caravan can assist you in delivering your burden, don’t hesitate to ask.”
“You are too generous, Shono-sama,” Shixiang said.
“That’s what they tell me,” he replied, turning toward the tent’s entrance. “I will leave you to your rest, Shixiang-san. We depart in the morning.” Shono paused for a moment. “Oh. . . there is one more thing.”
“Yes?” Shixiang asked.
“Huang found this at the site of the battle,” Shono said. He reached into the satchel at his hip, drawing out the tasseled red mempo. “Your helmet was destroyed, but I felt you would want this nonetheless.”
“Hai,” Shixiang said quickly, accepting the mask with gratitude. “Arogato, Shono-sama!”
* * * * *
“What do you think?” Huang said, waiting outside the tent as Shono exited. The pair quickly walked out of earshot, amid the clamor of the caravan’s morning preparations. “Should we trust him?”
“I’m not sure,” Shono replied, his tone mild and thoughtful as he squinted into the morning light. “Shixiang seems unusual for a Scorpion.”
“Shixiang?” Huang asked. “What sort of Scorpion name is that?”
“He claims to be half Unicorn,” Shono replied. “By his looks and accent, I believe him. In fact, he seems generally trustworthy. He admitted he was a Scorpion even before I told him we had discovered his mask. He told me his entire mission; he has been sent beyond the northern mountains to seek a man named Hojyn, apparently some ally of Bayushi Yojiro.”
“Hojyn?” Huang asked. “That is an Ashalan name. How does Yojiro know an Ashalan?”
“He is Yojiro,” Shono said, as if that explained it.
Huang nodded slowly.
“At any rate, Shixiang seems too honest by far, and too incurious. He did not ask what we were doing so far north. He did not even ask me about my eye. . . and everyone asks me about my eye. Then again, perhaps that is why he is here. Perhaps Shixiang’s clan sent him on this mission to rid themselves of him. . . ” Shono turned this thought over in his mind. “Or perhaps that is simply what they wish us to think,” he added.
Huang stared blankly for several moments. “I hate Scorpion,” he said finally.
“Of course you hate them,” Shono said. “The Bayushi are liars, deceivers. Treachery is in their blood. Not one of them is to be trusted. Much like that other untrustworthy family I cannot recall the name of presently. . . oh yes. . . the Shinjo.”
Huang looked at his lord with some surprise.
“We have been judged for our entire lives for my father’s crimes,” Shono said, his expression grim. “Are you prepared to judge this Scorpion in return? The only crime I have seen him commit is foolish bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.”
“So you think we can trust him?” Huang asked.
“I find it difficult to believe that every member of the Scorpion Clan would live up to their stereotype as deceivers,” Shono replied. “I may as well believe that every Unicorn is a dim-witted barbarian.” He paused for several moments, then grinned. “Perhaps that is a bad example.”
Huang chuckled. “So what will we do with him, Shono-sama? He has seen our caravan. Even if Shixiang is trustworthy, we cannot expect him not to report what he has seen to his superiors. If the Scorpion discover that we are trading with the Senpet. . . it would be unfavorable for our clan.”
Shono laughed out loud. “Huang, you are truly a master of understatement. Wearing last year’s kimono to Winter Court is ‘unfavorable.’ Trading with gaijin in violation of Imperial Edict is treason. However, I disagree. The discovery would not be unfavorable for the Unicorn.”
“It would not?” Huang asked, confused.
“Of course not,” Shono said. “It would simply be unfavorable for you and me. Chagatai would execute us personally, and cleanse his hands of the matter.”
Shono sighed deeply. “Huang, why do you think we were chosen for this mission? If we are discovered, Lord Chagatai will let the entire blame fall upon our shoulders. We will be executed, and join my father’s soul in Toshigoku. No one would spare a second thought for two more fallen Shinjo.”
“Chagatai thinks we are disposable?” Huang hissed, eyes narrowing in anger.
I commend him for his skills of observation,” Shono replied, selecting an apple from a half-opened crate and chewing thoughtfully. “A lesser daimyo might not realize what a resource he has in a family of samurai both skilled and expendable. I am proud to serve a man who is not afraid to take advantage of the tools he has at hand. . . though in truth I do wish I were not the tool in question.”
Huang folded his arms against the mountain wind and scowled.
Shono laughed. “Huang, such is our family’s fate,” he said. “Some men are forced into undeserved greatness; so are others forced into infamy. We must bear it with strength, or the Shinjo truly have been defeated.”
“We deserve better,” Huang said.
Shono rose one eyebrow and grinned. “Obviously. But if the gods gave us all that we desired, life would be a stale meal indeed. Hardship is the spice that makes life more interesting. So shut up and eat, that’s what I say.”
“I have had enough ‘spice,’ I think,” Huang replied.
Shono shrugged. “Things could be worse,” he said.
“How?” Huang asked. “As I see it, my lord, we are faced with two choices. On one hand, we help Shixiang complete his mission and the Scorpion learn that we are trading with gaijin. On the other, we finish what the Tsuno started, and murder a brave and honorable samurai.”
“That was never a choice at all, Huang,” Shono said, his green eye gleaming fiercely.
“Then what will we do, my lord?” Huang asked.
“Leave it to me,” Shono said after a moment’s consideration. “I think I have an idea. . . ”
* * * * *
Two Months Later. . .
Shixiang never felt fully at home within Kyuden Bayushi. The walls seemed too narrow, too cramped. The labyrinthine tunnels made him uncomfortable, as if he were slowly drowning in shadow. Shixiang stood at one of the few windows and looked out at the mountains surrounding the great castle. His Unicorn heart called out to explore those mountains, but the Bayushi blood that pumped through it reminded him that his place was here. Heart and blood warred with one another. He knew that he could not tell his lord of what he had seen in the northern mountains; such an act would seal the fate of the Unicorn who had saved his lives. Nor could he show disloyalty by concealing the matter from Lord Yojiro. ..
“Shixiang,” whispered the voice of an invisible servant. “The Master of Secrets will see you now.”
Shixiang did not bother to search for the source of the voice. He knew better. He turned from the window and stepped forward, sliding the shoji screen aside and stepping into Bayushi Yojiro’s chamber. The Lord of the Scorpion awaited him, seated on a small stool as he regarded an unfurled scroll. A single candle burned on a small table beside the Master of Secrets; all else was shadow. Yojiro was dressed in full armor, complete with his terrifying demon mask. Most Scorpion preferred the comfort of a silken kimono, regarding armor strictly as attire for the battlefield. Yojiro, on the other hand, wore his armor frequently. Some thought he did it to appear intimidating. Shixiang suspected that his daimyo merely intended to remind those that followed him of their true role – warriors.
The truth, as usual in matters regarding Bayushi Yojiro, was anyone’s guess.
Shixiang bowed deeply and awaited his lord’s acknowledgment.
“Greetings, Shixiang-san,” Yojiro said, gesturing at the mat in front of him. “Sit. Tell me of your journey.”
“Hojyn-san sends his regards,” Shixiang said, kneeling. He drew a bright crystal scroll case from his robes and offered it with both hands. “He sent this message, my lord.”
“My thanks,” Yojiro said, nodding at the small table. Shixiang placed the case there. “Did you encounter any trouble along the way?”
Shixiang paused for several moments, head bowed. “There were Tsuno, my lord. A pack of them attacked me on Exile’s Road.”
“A full pack?” Yojiro asked. “A miracle you survived.”
“No miracle,” Shixiang replied. He paused again.
“Is there something you wish to tell me?” Yojiro asked, turning his full attention to the young Scorpion.
Huang folded his hands in his lap. “Yes, my lord,” he said, his voice sorrowful. “I did not fight the Tsuno alone.”
“Shixiang-san downplays his own accomplishments,” said a voice from behind Yojiro. “The first Tsuno was dead even before we arrived. The others feared to approach Shixiang, lest they share their brother’s fate. We simply helped clear away the rest of the rabble.”
Shixiang glanced up in surprise. Shinjo Shono stepped out of the shadows.
“Shono-sama?” Shixiang said, surprised.
“Thank you, Shixiang,” Yojiro said, his tone unreadable. “I will hear the rest of your report in the morning. For the time being, there is much that I must discuss with Lord Shono. You are excused.”
“Hai,” Shixiang said, rising and bowing deeply to the two daimyo. He turned and exited the chamber as quickly as possible, feeling very confused but also very much relieved.
* * * * *
“It is a pity,” Yojiro said as the shoji screen slid closed. “I wonder if he would have told me the truth, given the choice. It is rare I have such a fine opportunity to test the character of my retainers.”
“No need for a test there,” Shono said, green eye shining in the candlelight. “Shixiang showed great courage in the mountains, and he completed your mission.”
“Ah, his mission. . . ” Yojiro nodded. The Scorpion rested one hand upon the crystal scroll case. “My old friend Hojyn. It has been too long since I heard from him. An extraordinary creature. Did you chance to meet him, Shono? Did he appreciate his gift?”
Shono tilted his head slightly. “We both know it was no coincidence Shixiang found us, even though Shixiang himself knew no better.”
“You think I dispatched him to investigate your caravan?” Yojiro asked mildly.
“Whether he knew the truth or not, yes,” Shono said. “And you knew we would treat him with respect, the blood of the White Guard.”
“I must be a clever man indeed, to planned all that,” Yojiro mused.
“You certainly didn’t send him out there to deliver an empty chest,” Shono replied.
“Disappointed?” Yojiro asked. “Did you look inside hoping to find something you could use against me in return?”
“Of course,” Shono said.
“I am sorry I could not be more compliant.”
“Not at all, Yojiro-sama,” Shono replied. “You’ve been most reasonable.”
“Do not tell my enemies,” Yojiro said. “I would not wish to soil my reputation as a treacherous blackguard.”
Shono bowed in acknowledgment. “If there is nothing else, Yojiro-sama, I must return to my estates and make arrangements for the first shipment.”
“Of course,” Yojiro said. “I have only one more question.”
“Does Lord Chagatai know that you are here?” Yojiro asked.
Shono looked at Yojiro. “What do you think?”
Yojiro rolled up the scroll he had been studying, turning his piercing gaze toward Shinjo Shono. “I think that it is unfortunate your house fell, Shinjo Shono,” Yojiro said. “You would have made a most intriguing adversary.”
“Will there be anything else?” Shono asked.
“I am tempted to ask you about your eye,” Yojiro said, “but there have been enough secrets tossed about today. You may go.”
Shono bowed to Yojiro a final time, and exited.
In the darkness of Kyuden Bayushi, the Master of Secrets smiled.