The Return Home
By Brian Yoon
Edited by Fred Wan
Clouds of dirt whirling into the air announced the return of the Unicorn army long before they reached the border. Shono had ordered a state of increased vigilance for the Junghar army and his men patrolled the entire Lion/Unicorn border. In the absence of both the Khol and the Baraunghar from the Unicorn lands, he did not feel safe. When scouts first saw signs of thousands of people moving through the Lion lands, they immediately send word to the concerned general. He ordered the majority of his forces to where they predicted the approaching army would pass across the Unicorn border. After that, all they could do was wait.
Shono stepped out of his tent on the second morning and stared east. The cloud of dust from the road had grown closer, yet no sign of the men themselves yet presented itself.
“You seem unsettled,” a voice came from behind Shono.
He did not need to turn to know the speaker. “With good reason,” Shono replied. “We have heard no news of the Khan’s march in far too long. And as one of the Three Generals, I should receive constant word from the other heads of our military.” He paused, turned to face his friend, and offered his hand to him in greeting. “Of course, I do not need to remind you of that, Chen-san.”
Moto Chen smiled wryly. He strode forward and clasped his friend’s hand by the wrist, as was their custom. “Do not worry on my account. I have long since released any prior desires for my past. I hold no regrets for what happened; after all, it led my life into a new path and blessed me with a lovely family.”
Shono raised an eyebrow. “I apologize if I gave you the wrong impression. I was gloating about taking your post. Did you mistake it for pity?”
The two men chuckled. They certainly had an unlikely friendship, Shono mused. He had replaced Chen as the general of the Army of the Left when Chen fell from the position. Chen never held a grudge for his promotion. They had been acquaintances before Chen’s fall, meeting at important gatherings but never speaking. After his disgrace that quickly changed. As they faced various hardships over the years, they laughed together, fought together, and defended their families together. Now there was a strong bond between the two that was based on friendship and respect. Now they were nearly brothers. Perhaps it was that they had both been disgraced, and neither by their own actions, that allowed them such easy friendship.
The laughter faded, and Chen’s eyes met Shono’s eye. “My reassurances do not seem to reach you.”
“The Baraunghar fight with the Khol. Our brightest and strongest shugenja travel with our lord. If he so wished, he could have signaled me a dozen times over by now. The fact that he hasn’t…” Shono shook his head. “The Khan’s plan was too ambitious. This long silence troubles me.”
“What do you think has happened, then?” Chen asked with a frown on his face.
“I do not know,” Shono replied. The two stood in silence and stared out together in the distance. “I do not know if that is a victorious Unicorn army headed in our direction or a Lion one bent on vengeance.”
“One thing is certain, my friend,” Chen said. “One way or another, the horizon will bring you news of our Champion’s tidings. I only hope that the news does not spell out our destruction.” Chen glanced at Shono. “If the Khan has fallen, few people hold the authority to lead us as you do.”
Shono shook his head. “I am too old to lead and too bitter. You would be better at it, I venture.”
“A disgraced man like me?” Chen retorted.
By then, Shono was no longer listening. His attention was drawn to a figure galloping toward him. The woman rode her horse through the camp with little regard for the people surrounding her. Though countless samurai called out to the scout for news, she made her way to the general without stopping. Shono stared closely at the scout when she drew near. It was Shinjo Loruko, a scout he trusted to fulfill her duty. She had been assigned deeper into the Lion lands than anyone else. She did not dismount, but stopped her horse next to the two men. She bowed as deep as her position would let her.
“Shono-sama!” she called out. “Our armies return!”
“The Khan is on his way?” Shono replied sharply.
Loruko hesitated. “Yes, but… come, Shono-sama, you must see this with your own eyes.”
Shono and Chen quickly mounted and followed Loruko as she snaked through the camp once more toward the east. They rode up the large hill next to the camp. The scout handed Shono her spyglass, and the general quickly unfolded the gaijin artifact and looked out toward the approaching mass.
The Khan’s banner flew from the road as the Unicorn army made its way toward their lands. Thousands of Lion soldiers marched on both sides of the Unicorn army, both escorting and threatening the envoy. Shono could see no end to the mass of enemies along the horizon.
“Oh, merciful Lady Shinjo…” Chen breathed.
Shono turned to the other scouts waiting nearby. “Ride north as fast as you can and send word to our forces guarding the border. They must join me here to meet this force. They will not dare to attack us now when all of our forces are here, but we must be prepared. Go! Now!”
The young men and women bowed quickly then spurred their horses onwards, scattering in different directions to take three different paths north. Shono and Chen shared a wordless look of dismay.
Please, Shono thought, let him still be alive.
It took another hour for the approaching armies to change from distant specks along the horizon to thousands and thousands of soldiers. By then, Shono had gathered nearly a sizeable contingent of the Junghar to the meeting point. Units of battle ready soldiers waited motionlessly along the border as the Khan’s forces and their Lion escorts marched closer. They stood as an answer to the Lion’s visible threat. Shono only prayed it was enough to discourage a Lion attack now. The Lion were far too numerous, and any direct attack would almost certainly result in the Junghar encampment being completely overrun.
When Shono could wait no more, he ordered his guard to remain with the rest of the army. Alone, he rode forward toward the Khan’s banner. Thousands of armed forces waited on both sides as he rode through the long stretch of plains between them. The Lion watched him as he rode closer but made no attempt to interfere with his plan.
Shono felt a sickly wave of relief when he spotted the rider at the head of the Unicorn procession. Moto Chagatai, the Khan, scowled and waited for him to approach closer. Shono examined him quickly, his jade eye flaring out with magic as it probed his lord. He seemed to have no major injuries on his body except for one of his legs that was heavily bandaged from ankle to thigh. It looked like a simple wound from first glance, but Shono’s jade eye told a different story. The jade eye caught traces of the kami’s touch on wounds long past mended. The fact that he could see the traces of their efforts at all, Shono knew, meant that the leg had been subject to powerful magical spells.
Shono stopped his horse next to his Champion and bowed deeply. Chagatai only nodded in response. “Chagatai-sama,” Shono said, “I have guarded the Unicorn lands in your absence as you commanded.” He began to continue, but stopped when he noticed a Lion samurai-ko and her guards approach the pair. Shono recognized her as the Matsu family daimyo Matsu Kenji, a fiery young woman and a talented warrior.
“We have peacefully escorted you and your men through our lands, as we swore to do,” Kenji said. “Our obligation is now over. I suggest you make haste and crawl back to your lands.”
Chagatai’s expression darkened. “Do not think for a moment that you have robbed me of my bite, girl,” he said. “I will not hesitate to silence an irritating cat.”
“And I will not hesitate,” Kenji replied, her face taut with deadly resolution, “to cut you down if you choose to betray the Empire once more.”
Chagatai turned to her. “Attack me then, if you dare.” His voice was dangerously devoid of emotion.
Suddenly, Kenji grinned widely and bowed barely enough to recognize a person of Chagatai’s status. “Forgive me. I forget my place. Chagatai-sama, I leave you to your officers. I simply remind you that time is no longer on your side. One year, my lord.” With that, she departed.
Chagatai and Shono spurred their horses forward at a trot, and the Unicorn procession quickly followed. The Lion soldiers stood in perfect formation and watched their departure. Shono waited until they had passed the Lions’ hearing range and turned to his lord once more.
“My lord, what happened at Toshi Ranbo? What has happened of your plans?”
“My gambit has failed,” Chagatai said quietly. “The Lion moved from the Dragon front to secure the city shortly before our arrival, and neutralized much of the element of surprise. Our allies among the Mantis were true, but it was not enough. My men fought well, and we may have perhaps saved the day but for the arrival of the Phoenix. They have taken the Imperial City with the aid of the Fire Dragon and have declared peace.” The old warrior paused for a moment. “The Shogun is dead,” he said flatly. “I killed him on the fields of battle, as I had said I would.” There was no joy or pride in his voice.
“What was that woman referring to? What will happen in one year?”
Chagatai spat on the ground next to him. “The whelp Yoshino has promised to take his forces and burn Shiro Moto within one year.” He looked at Shono. “I give you this duty. You must be ready to defend our lands from this threat. I have used my alliances and my influence to make way for this assault. We must start anew, if we are to have a chance of survival in the months to come.”
Shono frowned. “The Empress will not allow you to gather such power ever again.”
Chagatai looked back calmly. “Kurako is dead. Sezaru and Kaneka are dead. The Toturi Dynasty has fallen.”
Shono stopped, speechless.
“Though they decry my actions, there is great chaos in the horizon. We must be ready for it. You must hold the border while we can regain our economic and political strength.”
“It will not be an easy undertaking,” Shono warned. “They will remember this winter, and what you dared to do. We will be lucky if they do not come to destroy us for our audacity.”
“What they will remember,” Chagatai said quietly, “is that I dared to dream of a stabilized empire. They will remember that when the throne was empty, I had the strength to reach out to hold it in my hands. They will remember the strength of the Unicorn, and they will pause.”
Shono glanced at the amassed Lions and a shiver ran down his back. “If we are to have any chance at victory against the Lion, we must utilize our greatest strengths against them. They are too numerous to fight head to head in a battle. We must launch attacks, retreat, then repeat before they can compensate for our raids.” He stared out at his men as thoughts raced quickly through his mind. “At least the terrain will be in our favor, if the numbers will not. Can we count on the strengths of the Baraunghar to call upon the kami in this task?”
Chagatai looked away. “Lixue is dead, and her army was nearly entirely crushed in the battle. Only a tenth remains. The Khol is badly wounded as well. It is perhaps at half strength.”
Shono paled. “So many losses…”
Chagatai’s sharp gaze fixed on Shono. “We must rely on the strength of the Junghar to guard our borders. We must rely on your strength.”
Shono nodded slowly. “The Lion will not find their march easy. I know my men. We will make them pay for every inch they take in our homeland.” He stared back into Chagatai’s eyes. “I vow to you that Yoshino will regret his boasts. The young pup has never faced the cunning of a seasoned warrior. When he comes, he will face my fury. He will not reach Shiro Moto while I live.”