Translated by Shiba Gunichi
The guard tower looked to have been long since abandoned by the Dragon Clan armies, yet its walls had been freshly repaired. The serpent, it seemed, had retreated to its nest. Mirumoto Jerasu stood at the crest of the hill and surveyed the situation.
“This is not a new problem on our hands,” he mused aloud.
“How do you mean?” Kishi asked.
“My father told me stories of the first bandit organization he ever chased. A man named Drunken Tiger led the gang. He and his entire organization fought to their deaths in an abandoned guard post.”
Kishi frowned. “This Drunken Tiger cannot be any older than twenty-five years old.”
“These bandits managed to avoid detection for weeks, even after we increased Mirumoto guard protection within the province. This Drunken Tiger could be a son carrying on his father’s work, or a follower who found his old base.”
“I see,” Kishi said, slowly drawing each word out. “Did your father ever describe how he invaded the heavily fortified home without severe losses?”
“In the end,” Jerasu said, “samurai of the Lion Clan assaulted it and solved the problem for us.”
A confident and familiar voice interrupted them. “History will not repeat itself here, my friends. There is no need to trouble our neighbors with this minor problem when we have the tools to fix the situation within our hands.”
They turned to face the newcomer and were immediately struck by his overwhelming presence. He was a young man, confident in the full bloom of his life. Colorful tattoos writhed and undulated with magical intensity around his forearms. He wore a breastplate of Dragon green over a bare chest. There was an intoxicating power in his easy smile and twinkle in his eyes.
Jerasu and Kishi bowed as deeply as they could toward Mirumoto Shikei, the Dragon Clan Champion.
“It is a pleasure to see you, my lord,” Jerasu said. He hesitated a moment before continuing. “If I may ask, how did you find this remote hideout? Our scouts uncovered it only several hours ago.”
Shikei squared his chest and fixed the magistrate with a sharp glance. “I am the lord of these provinces,” he answered. “I will appear if I am needed, wherever it may be.”
“Shikei-sama stopped your messenger along the road before he returned to the castle,” the man next to the Champion spoke out.
Shikei gave a rueful smile to his advisor. “Give me the small pleasures in life, Sutano-kun. What am I supposed to do if I cannot tease my followers?
Sutano’s glance was somehow disapproving and respectful at the same time. “You are supposed to return to the road and continue your journey to the Unicorn lands. You were betrothed over a year ago, and we must negotiate an end to the delays.”
Shikei waved the concern away with a careless gesture. “Naleesh, bless her heart, will not consent to leave her clan. A few hours’ delay will not make a difference. First we must help contain this situation.”
“My lord-” Jerasu began to say.
“Your followers filled me in on the situation when I arrived, Jerasu-san,” Shikei interrupted. “Their archers are on top of the roof, giving them perfect sight of the land around the building. If we approach, we will suffer many casualties. I could challenge the leader to a duel instead.”
Every samurai around Shikei shared concerned glances with each other, but the Champion did not seem to notice. “Why would the leader take such an offer, my lord?” Jerasu asked.
“Because he is desperate, and desperate men will grasp at any chance for survival,” Shikei answered. He made a decisive nod, raised his hands palms out, and stepped forward out of the cover of the trees.
“These bandits are unimportant, Shikei-sama! Jerasu-san can make the duel in your stead,” Sutano cried out. It was no use. The Champion stood twenty feet from the fortress doors.
His voice rang loudly over the clearing. “You are surrounded by the finest samurai of the Dragon Clan. You are all bandits and criminals, and you will all be executed when you can run no longer. However, I offer your leader a choice. If you defeat me in a duel now, I will allow you safe passage out of this area. I am the Dragon Clan Champion and I give you my word.”
Jerasu held his breath as silence served as a reply to the challenge. Finally, the door creaked open and a single warrior in heavy armor stepped out. He was the biggest man Jerasu had ever seen, and his armor bore the marks of earnest repair from his previous years. He drew a no-daichi and easily hefted it to his shoulders.
Shikei smiled and bowed to his opponent. The dance began.