Translated by Shiba Gunichi
Ide Shimoro frowned. “What did you say?”
The merchant betrayed no hint of fear, which was completely maddening. “Your money is not good here,” he said firmly, and pushed the bag of coins Shimoro had placed in front of him away. “Take your business elsewhere.”
The Unicorn merchant was utterly confused. One week ago, he had stood in this exact same store, spoken to this exact same merchant, and had made an arrangement that would give him an incredible advantage over the Crane when harvest time came. The man had seemed like a greedy buffoon at the time, but now he stood with his arms crossed, absolutely resolute. Shimoro wondered if perhaps he had a twin brother. “What is this about?” he demanded.
“Leave my store now!” the merchant insisted.
Shimoro scowled and turned to leave, but it was merely a temporary setback. There would be a price to pay for this inconvenience. A high price indeed! The sun in the village courtyard was bright despite the cool weather, and there was the sound of children laughing. Shimoro hated that sound. It grated on his nerves. “Be silent!” he barked at the children, his irritation overwhelming him. When there was no apparent reaction from the children, it grew to genuine anger. “I said be quiet! Obey your betters, you insolent little whelps!” The surly merchant whirled to where the children were playing, intent on continuing his tirade, but halted in surprise when he realized that there was a man playing with the children.
While Shimoro watched, the man disengaged from the children, laughing as he did so. He tossed them a handful of zeni and then walked toward Shimoro, brushing the dust from his kimono. He realized with shock that the man’s clothing was of exquisite quality, better even than the most expensive garments he had ever traded, all of which were well out of reach for his means. “Their betters?” the man said, smiling broadly. “That seems a bit presumptuous, all things considered.”
Shimoro’s eyes narrowed. “Who are you?”
“Is that important?” the man replied. “All that truly matters is that your business in this village is concluded. You should depart immediately, and I would strongly advise you never to return, for your own sake.”
“How dare you speak to me that way?” Shimoro demanded. “I will not be insulted by some court fop!”
“I dare to speak to you any way I wish,” the man said, still smiling. “I spoke to your lord a few days ago. He was aghast at your activities and not a little angry over your insubordination. To describe him as apologetic would be something of an understatement, I think. And of course when I told him I wished to deal with you personally, he was enormously grateful. So really, I feel as if I owe you a bit of gratitude. You have made this season’s harvest negotiations with the Unicorn Clan ridiculously simple, what with your disgrace and all.” He paused for a moment. “Oh yes, before I forget, your lord wished me to tell you that if you return home, you will be expected to perform the three cuts for your temerity.”
“How dare you speak to me that way?” Shimoro repeated. “I am a respected merchant patron of the Unicorn Clan!”
“You were,” the stranger agreed. “That is, until you came to a minor, admittedly out-of-the-way Crane village and attempted to foster feelings of resentment against the clan.” He gestured at the bedraggled merchant. “Now? You are nothing.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Doji Makoto,” the man replied. “This village is mine to oversee in the name of the Divine Empress, as per the terms of the agreement between my ancestors and the first Hantei.”
Fear fluttered in Shimoro’s stomach, but he quashed it. “The Crane Champion? I doubt that. A true Clan Champion would have wiped this village from the face of the Empire for conspiring against him.”
“Conspiring is an ambitious term,” Makoto corrected. “If they entertained thoughts, they did not act on them. My visit seems to have reaffirmed their undying loyalty. Now they will never waver, whereas if they had been killed, their replacements would have acted out of fear rather than loyalty. Much less valuable a quality, would you not agree?” He shook his head. “There will be consequences, to be sure, but none like those you face.”
Shimoro sneered. “A Clan Champion from the Imperial Court, all alone here, far from his bodyguards?” His hand drifted toward his blade. “I think my shame can be washed away fairly easily.”
There was a soft sound, like the ringing of a tiny bell, and a tiny hint of a breeze as if something moving through the air quickly passed by. Shimoro noted absently that Makoto’s blade was in his hand, then noticed nothing more as he fell to the ground in two pieces.
Doji Makoto, the Smiling Blade, tossed a silver coin from his obi to a nearby villager. “I apologize if any of the village children saw that,” he said, gesturing to the dead man in the dirt. “It is probably best that they understand the importance of civility and loyalty, though, would you not agree?”