Bayushi Tetsuro kicked his horse’s flanks, spurring him faster. The wind whipped past his face as he rode, and branches tore long red streaks in his skin. Ahead he could see the jagged ridge that overlooked his home. The scent of burning wood and flesh grew stronger as he neared the apex. Surely it was only a cookfire. He had to have made it in time. Failure was unthinkable. He would make it. He would save her.
Such hopes were dashed as his horse passed over the ridgeline. He reined her in, tears blurring the scene before him. She strained at the bit, recognizing the nearness of home and her rider’s agitation, but he ignored her. His face was drained of blood as his wet eyes passed over the familiar land. Wisps of gray smoke hung, tattered, in the air over the large homestead. Jagged skeletons of buildings jutted into the air, blackened and crumbling. The fields, so recently lush with grain, lay fallow, the dirt churned and flattened by the passage of horses and men.
His home was gone. He was too late, and her men had taken advantage of his absence. He had seen it in her smile at the court, seen some hidden knowledge of his doom. Hida Shizuko. She would deny all knowledge, of course, claiming her presence at the Winter Court absolved her of guilt. He knew it was she, nonetheless. Revenge, for a lover jilted.
Slowly, he picked his way down the steep slope to the ruins of his home. Only the barest remnant of the buildings’ structures remained. He dismounted and walked through the foundation, stepping over the bodies of guards he had known since his childhood, his eyes searching the wreckage. A delicate china teacup, miraculously unharmed by the fire, crunched under his foot. He winced. That tea set had been a gift from the Lady Kachiko herself, to his grandfather. With a sigh, he resumed his search. The scent of burnt flesh filled his nostrils, making him nauseous. He clasped a delicate silk handkerchief to his mouth as he searched. Where were they Could they still be alive, prisoner somewhere in his enemy’s stronghold
A patch of pale white caught his eye. A hand, lying limp, half under a fallen beam. It was small, delicate. Her Possibly. Gingerly he picked his way through the ruins and grasped the beam. With a surge of strength, he heaved it away. It fell with a crash, the sound echoing through the silent valley.
Through the blurring screen of tears, Tetsuro could almost imagine she was whole, that she was once again the maiden he had married. But then he blinked, and the reality was restored. She lay there, her body cracked and broken, her once beautiful skin blackened and blistered. Her skull had been crushed, her face hidden in the ashes. Her hand was clenched tightly around something. Carefully, delicately, he pried her blackened fingers open. A locket. Their son’s. There was no sign of the boy himself.
They had taken his son.
Bayushi Tetsuro fell to his knees and wept.
Tetsuro stood over her grave, his fists clenched. She was gone. His revenge had been taken from him by cruel fate, a simple disease. With a growl, the former Scorpion stalked from the cemetery. The Fortunes may have taken Shizuko from his grasp, but there was still the matter of her proxy. The man who had carried out her wishes.
The man who had taken his son.
In eight long years, he had been unable to find trace of him, and so had put off his revenge, for fear his son would pay the price. Now, with Shizuko gone, there might be hope. He had received a message, two days ago. Just one sentence – “If you want your son, come to Tani Hitokage.” Somewhere in the Valley of Spirits, there could be information about his son.
And he would, at long last, have his revenge.
The speaker was a little man, carefully preened and oiled, out of place among the hulking brutes of the Crab. He called himself Hida Yoshitsu.
“We couldn’t do anything,” he continued in a low voice. “Shizuko was too powerful. She had too much influence. We were scared.” He looked at Tetsuro sympathetically.
“You stole my son,” Tetsuro said, through clenched teeth. “You killed my wife.”
Yoshitsu drew back perceptibly. “Not I. Although I did not say anything to stop her. And for that, I will pay in the next life.” He sighed. “But I was not the hand that acted against you. I was but a servant, Shizuko’s scribe. She did not often consult me for advice.”
In spite of himself, Tetsuro almost smiled. She never had taken other’s advice. It had been one of the things that drew him to her. Carefully, he suppressed his emotions. “Then who” he asked.
“In Hida lands,” said Yoshitsu, “there is a castle, owned by a man named Hida Taki. It is not far from here. Among his men is Shizuko’s former lieutenent, and her confidante. Some say he was her lover.” He studied Tetsuro carefully. “The man’s name is Hida Natsu. He is accompanied by his ten year old son.”
“Where can I find this place” Tetsuro hissed, his fists clenching against his will. His enemy lay within his reah. In a few more days, it would be over. He would have his son back. He would have his revenge.
“I will take you there,” Yoshitsu said.
The journey took less than a day. The whole while, Tetsuro watched his guide carefully, studying him for any sign of a trick.
“Why are you doing this” he asked finally. “I was once your enemy.”
Yoshitsu was silent for a moment. Then, “Shizuko was not… well liked by most of her men. She never let the war go, never forgave your clan for your deeds. None of us ever knew why. We only followed her commands. But perhaps, perhaps we should have protested a bit more.” He paused. “Kidnapping your son to raise him was… not honorable. In helping you to regain him, I hope to redeem some measure of honor for my own involvement, however peripherally.”
Tetsuro nodded slowly. Shizuko had never forgiven him for being Scorpion, for being the enemy, for starting the war. What had started as love turned into the worst sort of hate. A hate she had carried with her long after the war was over, and those involved dead and buried. A hate she had nursed, until his wife finally bore a son, through which she could hurt him as she thought he had hurt her. “And this Natsu” Tetsuro asked quietly. “Does he feel the same way”
“I…” Yoshitsu stumbled slightly. “We are here. Let me do the talking.”
The castle of Hida Taki was large, large enough to be a governor’s mansion. After the guards saw Yoshitsu’s traveling papers, they were escorted into a stately audience chamber. On a raised dais at the far end of the room sat an old man, his hair a dirty white, his skin sagging from a once-powerful frame.
“So, Yoshitsu, you return,” the man said. His voice was still deep and strong, despite his age. “Have you come to accept my offer, then”
Yoshitsu knelt, motioning Tetsuro to kneel beside him. “Perhaps, my Lord Taki-sama. But first, there is some unfinished business that must be taken care of.”
Taki raised an eyebrow. “You presume to dictate what business I must take care of” He looked at Tetsuro. “I presume you speak of your companion”
Yoshitsu nodded. “This is Tetsuro, formerly of the Bayushi family. Perhaps you are familiar with the name” He looked quizzically at the old man.
“I remember…” the old man spoke quietly. “A long time ago. One of my niece’s paramours, if I remember correctly. You almost married her, didn’t you”
Tetsuro nodded. “Before the war broke out, my Lord.”
“Ah.” Taki leaned back. “And why have you come here, Tetsuro, formerly of the Bayushi family This is hardly friendly territory for one such as you.”
“I seek my son,” Tetsuro said simply. And revenge, the back of his mind whispered.
“Oh” Taki asked curiously. “I was not aware that Shizuko had ever borne children.”
“Not by Lady Shizuko, my Lord,” interjected Yoshitsu quickly. “Tetsuro-san’s son by his wife has been missing for some time.”
“Missing” Tetsuro asked, seething. “She stole him when she murdered my wife.”
“Those are dangerous words, Tetsuro-san,” Taki said softly. “Are you really prepared to call my niece a murderer in my own home”
“Shizuko always spoke of you as a wise and good man, my Lord,” Tetsuro said carefully. “I come to you in hopes that you will hear my case and not be blinded by love of your niece.”
“Wise and good, Tetsuro-san Really” Taki asked skeptically.
“Well, I believe the words she actually used were ‘too soft for his own good,’” Tetsuro replied apologetically.
Taki’s chuckle started a coughing fit. When he had recovered, he said, “That sounds more like her. Now, Yoshitsu-san, are you willing to support this man’s testimony”
“I am, my Lord.” Yoshitsu nodded. “This stain has weighed heavily on my soul, and I would have it removed. Lady Shizuko ordered her lieutenant, Hida Natsu, to burn Tetsuro’s home, kill his wife, and kidnap his son, whom she left in Natsu’s care.”
Taki was silent for a long moment, and Tetsuro felt the pit of his stomach churn. If he should fail, so close to his son… Finally, Taki spoke. “Yoshitsu, I have known you a long time, and I have never known you to lie. Come, we shall speak to this Natsu.” He rose and led them out of the audience chamber.
Hida Natsu was out in the courtyard, training. A small boy was with him, imitating his moves. Tetsuro’s heart skipped a beat as he saw the boy. It had to be his son. There was something in the way he smiled, the move of his tiny arms, which brought her to his mind. She lived on in this boy. He steeled his heart. Whatever this Taki’s decision, his son was leaving here today. No matter what.
With effort, Tetsuro wrenched his eyes from his son and turned them to his captor. Natsu was young, younger than Tetsuro had expected. He could not be a day over thirty – had this whelp really been the one to destroy his life so Shizuko did always like her men young. Perhaps that was how Shizuko had controlled him.
Natsu looked up as the trio approached. “My Lord,” he said, bowing. “To what do I owe this pleasure”
Taki frowned, clearly displeased at this duty. “Hida Natsu-san. A grave accusation has been brought against you today.”
“An accusation” Natsu asked, surprised. He glanced at Yoshitsu. “By whom”
Taki motioned for Tetsuro to step forward. “This is Bayushi Tetsuro.” Natsu visibly winced at the mention of the name. Taki’s expression grew even more grave. “Ah, I see you are familiar with the name.”
Tetsuro could feel his anger growing as he watched Natsu hesitate. This, this boy had ruined his life, and here he stood, seemingly blessed by the kami, while he himself had had to leave his clan, take the life of a ronin to get his revenge.
Natsu knelt, his eyes studiously avoiding his lord’s face. “I… I am, my Lord. Please, allow me to…”
“Then his accusation is true Is the boy his child” Taki asked angrily.
Natsu was silent for a long moment. “It is… complicated, my lord.”
“Complicated” Tetsuro exploded, unable to contain his rage any longer. “You killed my wife, stole my son, destroyed my livelihood, and forced me to turn ronin to hunt you down, and you dare say that it is complicated”
Natsu blanched at the former Scorpion’s words. “I…” he stammered.
“Calm yourself, Tetsuro-san,” said Taki quietly. “Let me handle this.” He turned to Natsu. “Explain your actions, Natsu-san.”
“She was my world,” the Crab said softly. “I would have done anything for her. When she asked me to do this, I could not refuse. To do so would have meant losing her. It would only have been done by some other. She wanted the boy dead. It was I who suggested that it would be more painful to save him, to raise him as her own.”
Through this all, Tetsuro’s son had been watching them. He wore an expression of confusion on his face. He walked up to Natsu, placing his hands on the older man’s cheeks. “Father,” he said. “You are my father. Not him.”
Tears wet Natsu’s face. “I am sorry, Kenji-kun. I am not your father, and Shizuko was not your mother. This man,” and he nodded to Tetsuro, “is your true father.”
“No,” Kenji said firmly. “You are my father.”
Natsu bowed his head, his tears wetting the ground. “I am sorry,” he whispered. The little boy hugged his shoulder, his own tears mingling with his adopted father’s. Tetsuro’s heart wrenched. He resisted the impulse to take the boy in his arms and pull him from the Crab.
“You have dishonored yourself and your family, Natsu-san,” Taki said, regret filling his voice. “To take a hostage outside of wartime, and to do it in secret, this will cause repercussions. You realize this, of course.”
“I do,” Natsu said quietly. He looked up. “Might I ask a boon, my Lord”
Taki nodded slowly. Tetsuro looked up from his son. Surely Taki would not pardon this man, take the revenge he had worked so hard for He could not. Carefully, Tetsuro fingered his blade. If he had to kill every man in this castle, he would take his revenge.
“Allow me to commit purge my deeds from my family’s honor,” Natsu said. “Allow me to make the three cuts.” Kenji gave a little cry of despair. He knew what this meant.
Taki nodded again. “Very well.”
Natsu looked at Tetsuro. “My deeds have wronged you, Tetsuro-san, and for that, I must suffer. Will you act as my second”
Slowly, Tetsuro nodded his assent.
Tetsuro stood over him, looking down on the bleeding man. Natsu’s bowels made a sickening gurgling sound as the wakizashi sliced through them. His hand trembled in pain, making the cut jagged. Tetsuro could hear the crying of his son, but the sound made no impact on him. This was his revenge at last. While he watched, Natsu’s blood poured out onto the hard-packed soil, dying it a deep black. The Crab’s eyes met Tetsuro’s. He could see the pain in them, pleading for release. He remained motionless, absorbing his enemy’s suffering. A spasm wracked Natsu’s limbs, a barely audible gasp escaping his lips. Still, Tetsuro stayed his hand, his katana poised, prepared to fall. He could see the tears in the other man’s eyes, blood dripping from the corner of his mouth. It was not enough. His worst enemy was lying here before him, his life blood soaking into the earth. He should feel something. Satisfaction. Anger. Anything. But all he felt was emptiness. It wasn’t enough.
Natsu looked up at his second, desperately. In a barely audible whisper, he spoke. “I’m sorry.”
The katana fell.