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Honor's Grave
By Shawn Carman

A man swathed in heavy clothes strode through the streets of the City of the Rich Frog. The clothes obscured his every feature despite the mild weather, and occasionally a particularly observant individual would look curiously after the man. In this city, however, those who paid too much attention to people who clearly wanted to remain unnoticed rarely fared well, and so most observers moved on and forgot what they had seen. If onlookers could have seen the man's expression beneath his cloak, they would have likely been confused by his appreciative smile.

The wanderer turned left down a seemingly empty alley and moved to a door hidden from view from the street. A quick glance around to ensure no one was paying attention, and the man disappeared into one of the ancient wooden buildings. The interior was surprisingly dark, and in the moments it took for the man's eyes to adjust, a voice came from the shadows. "Nicely done. You are surprisingly spry for one your age, if I may say so."

The man quickly removed his heavy cloak, revealing the golden brown kimono beneath, emblazoned with mighty lions tearing at their prey in combat. He was an old man, much older than his practiced stance and quick gait suggested. A snowy white beard covered his chin, spilling over his kimono. "I have always heard that one's age is merely a reflection of one's outlook," he said.

"Ah, the wisdom of the famous Ikoma Sume," said the other with a mocking bow. "Is that from the Tao?"

"No, Tomaru," admitted Sume. "I just made it up. It's a useful skill. You'd be surprised how many supposed students of the Tao can be fooled with a false quotation here and there. Speak with confidence and anyone can be Shinsei, if only for a moment. I find it quite enlightening."

"Enlightening?"

"Certainly. Those who will lie casually to cover a moment of ignorance are far easier to manipulate than those who will readily admit their own shortcomings."

Kaeru Tomaru shook his head and smiled. "You are not the stereotypical Lion, Sume."

"Thank you," replied Sume.

Tomaru gestured to the table where tea awaited. The two men sat down on opposite sides of the table. Tomaru sipped his tea while Sume brushed fibers from the cloak off of his kimono. "Did you see what you wished to see?" asked Tomaru. "I can still arrange for a more official tour of the city, of course. It would be my pleasure as your host."

The older man shook his head. "You would show me that which you wish me to see, not what I wish to see. I found everything that I require on my own, thank you."

The ronin raised his eyebrows curiously. "Such as?"

"Such as the dojo in the southern section of town called the House of the Golden Frog," Sume answered plainly.

Tomaru's hand halted in the middle of bringing the cup to his lips. He set the cup back down and made an effort to appear unconcerned. "I'm afraid I don't understand what you mean."

"Now, now," said the old bard, shaking his finger, "there's no call for dishonesty. Particularly if you and I are to be allies. The men trained at that dojo are accustomed to somewhat more. . . shall we say, unsavory duties in the name of your family?"

Casting his eyes down, the other man was silent for a moment. "They are necessary," he added finally.

"I have no doubt of that," agreed Sume. "And I certainly do not begrudge you their existence. But you would not have shown me their dojo on your little tour, and that is why I had to see the city for myself."

Tomaru nodded wordlessly, then took another drink of his tea and sat in silence for a while. In time, he seemed to resign himself to the coming conversation. "So am I to assume from your rather unusual visit that you are answering our request to Lord Naseru for protection?"

"That would be a safe assumption, yes."

Concern creased Tomaru's brow, and it was obvious that he was choosing his words carefully. "The Kaeru have always respected the Lion Clan," he offered. "But we have had to survive on our own for centuries. Our ways are. . . they are not the Lion's ways."

"They will be," Sume said firmly.

The words caused the ronin to wince. He gripped the table carefully, expecting to be killed for what he was suggesting. "I fear you do not understand, Sume-sama," he said, using the respectful term of address. "The Kaeru cannot survive as the Lion do. If that is the price of your protection, I must respectfully decline."

"You are the one who does not understand, Tomaru." Sume's tone was calm, even jovial. "You and your family have just become vassals of the Ikoma. Therefore, whatever practices you see fit to conduct here are now the ways of the Lion, as you are now, by definition, Lion."

The daimyo of the Kaeru reclined on his haunches, his hands resting on his thighs. If he understood the old man correctly, the implications were staggering. But with the Ikoma, and particularly with Ikoma Sume, one could never afford to make assumptions. "Forgive my ignorance, Sume-sama, but I am but a simple merchant patron. Are you implying. . ."

The bard halted him with a single raised hand. Sume lifted his tea and carefully took a sip, savoring the exotic blend that so many teahouses in the city were famous for. He sat the cup back on the low table and looked at Tomaru patiently. "By order of the Imperial heir Hantei Naseru, I am placing the City of the Rich Frog under the protection of the Lion Clan. In exchange for allocating you the resources and manpower you need from the coffers of the Ikoma, I am offering you fealty to my family as the daimyo of the Kaeru vassal family. Nothing," here he leaned in and emphasized his words carefully, "nothing will change about how your family conducts their business. I expect the same efficiency and prosperity from you that you have enjoyed for centuries, only now it will ultimately benefit the Lion." Sume reclined in his seat and took another drink of his tea. "Unless, of course, you wish to decline our most generous offer. I suppose I might be able to convince the other daimyo to overlook such a terrible insult, but it would be very difficult. Matsu Nimuro is not known to be a forgiving man."

Despite himself, Tomaru smiled. "So I can choose to merge my family and our holdings with yours and continue to enjoy our prosperity and autonomy for a meager percentage of our earnings, or I can choose to offend the most powerful army in the Empire and still be in your debt. A most intriguing offer."

"Truly, one for the ages," agreed Sume with a straight face. "Though of course most will never know the details."

"I am a merchant at heart, Sume-sama," said Tomaru. "And I know a good deal when I hear one." He stood and walked around the table and knelt before Sume. "I am yours, my lord."

"I know." Ikoma Sume smiled and bade his new vassal rise.

* * * * *

Despite that he was still quite active for a man of his advanced years, Ikoma Sume had discovered that the older he became, the less he liked to travel. It was inconvenient, uncomfortable, and just generally unpleasant. The ride from the City of the Rich Frog to the Kitsu lands had taken just over a week, and Sume was eager for a rest. Unfortunately, that was not likely. Matsu Nimuro had ordered the daimyo under his command to deal with the situation on the western border, and the others were likely impatient for his report.

"This way please, Sume-sama," the young Kitsu maiden before him said, bowing low. "My lord Kitsu Juri-sama and his honored guest await you in his audience chamber."

"Thank you, my dear," Sume said absently. The woman had said ‘guest', not ‘guests'. One of the daimyo was absent. This could present problems. Sume withdrew his signature golden tessen from his robes and clutched it in his left hand. The weight was comfortable, familiar, reassuring. An unconventional Lion he may be, but Sume was still a Lion and thus found it was always good to have a weapon on hand. The tessen was small, innocuous and deadly when utilized properly, much like himself. He always carried this one into court, and he had a suspicion that tempers would flare between those he was about to meet. He did not expect to have to use the tessen to defend himself, but it never hurt to be prepared. The Kitsu maiden opened the doors to Juri's chambers and bowed low, allowing Sume passage. As he swept into the large, stark room, he heard the girl pull the doors closed behind him. Juri was known for his love of privacy.

"Sume," came the stern voice of Kitsu Juri, daimyo of the Kitsu. "We thought perhaps you had stopped in one of your libraries to find some obscure wisdom to share with us."

"The road takes its toll on us all, Juri. Particularly those of us in the twilight of our lives." He glanced sidelong at his host. "As you well know, I suspect."

The elderly sodan-senzo scowled. "Old I may be, but if I find myself unable to fulfill my duties, I'll take my final trip to the land of the blessed ancestors."

"Let us hope that day is many years in the coming, Juri-san," Sume said, turning to face the other man standing across the room. "Good day to you, Ginawa. I apologize for my delay, and I hope it has not inconvenienced you and our host to any great extent."

The Akodo daimyo waved his hand absently. "Nimuro instructed us to deal with the Kaeru. I will wait as long as is necessary to do as my lord commands."

"Ah, the Akodo," smiled Sume. "Ever the picture of duty."

"Enough patter," grimaced Juri. "We are all busy men, especially now. What did you discover in the City of the Rich Frog, Sume?"

Sume glanced around the room. "Where is Ketsui?" Strange that the Matsu daimyo would not be here.

"She had to deal with another matter," interjected Ginawa. "The Khan of the Unicorn wishes to curry favor with the clan of the Shogun, it seems. He has sent word that the Lion may have free passage through Seikitsu Pass whenever they so choose. Ketsui is at Shiro Matsu preparing a delegation to meet with Chagatai and thank him for his generosity."

The old bard raised his eyebrows. "You're sending the Matsu on a diplomatic mission?"

"No," answered Ginawa. "We're sending the Matsu to talk to the Moto. I would hardly call such a meeting diplomacy by any stretch of the imagination." He allowed the bard a brief chuckle before continuing. "She also was preparing to send additional troops to Shiro no Yojin. It seems the Crane have been on the move lately, and Ketsui is convinced they are preparing for an offensive."

"Doji Kurohito has not learned history's lessons well at all," mused Sume.

"Perhaps not," agreed Ginawa. "I also understand that she has had scouting patrols looking for other ways through the mountains. This message from Lord Chagatai should allow her to call off her scouts, at least. More troops available for Shiro no Yojin."

"The Kaeru, Sume," reminded Juri impatiently.

"Yes," said Sume, addressing the matter that had called them together. "It went every bit as well as we had hoped. The Kaeru have accepted our patronage. They are now a vassal family of the Ikoma, and I dispatched a full squadron of wardens to assist them in protecting their lands from the Tsuno. Their merchants' profits will feed a great many of our soldiers, I predict."

"And who did you leave to govern them?" inquired Juri.

"Kaeru Tomaru, of course," replied Sume. "Who else knows the city better?"

"What?" demanded the shugenja. "You left so prosperous a holding in the hands of a filthy ronin? We do not even know if he can be trusted!"

"A filthy ronin, you say?" rumbled Ginawa, an angry gleam in his eyes. "What an intriguing stance on wave men. Would you care to discuss it further?"

Kitsu Juri glanced down and cleared his throat nervously. "That is not what I meant, Ginawa-san. The circumstances that led you to become a wave-man were, as we all know, beyond your control and those days are long past. The Kaeru have always taken great relish in their independence and are, by all accounts, of questionable ethics and honor. Are we to leave what could be a very profitable enterprise in their dubious hands? It seems far too risky."

"The Kaeru are now members of my family," answered Sume firmly. "Whatever becomes of their enterprise is my direct responsibility. I would ask you this, Juri. If we are to take away the responsibilities of the Kaeru, what purpose do they serve? Their role is to provide us with the funds we need to fuel our great armies. Their only use to us is to continue what they have been doing for centuries. If there is dishonor to be had, then I will deal with it."

The shugenja shook his head. "You are far too daring for your own good, Sume."

"The bold enhance their fortune with kharma, while the inactive allow theirs to atrophy," Sume said.

Kitsu Juri frowned. "Is that from the Tao?"

"Why yes," smiled Sume. "Yes, it is."

* * * * *

Matsu Giriko gasped and struggled for breath, her bladed gauntlets scraping ineffectively against the carapace of the gigantic beast that held her aloft by her throat. She continued to struggle for a few brief moments before gurgling her last breath and going limp. The Tsuno warrior snarled in disgust and hurled her body against the rocks. "Pathetic!"

"Calm yourself, Tatakiwaru," said the dark figure that stood nearby. A thick blue cloak obscured his face and shrouded his thick figure. His voice held a strange echo, like the crashing of waves on the shore. "There is not need for such excess. Save your rage for when it can be put to good use."

"No!" roared the great beast. "Humans are pitiful, wretched creatures! I cannot stand the sight of them! Their smell offends me! I will crush every one I find beneath my heel like the pathetic insects they are! Especially the Lion! They are. . ." The ravager's words trailed off suddenly. His eyes widened and his jaw opened and shut with a choked clicking sound. The gleaming red eyes of the stranger were now fixed upon him.

"What's that, Tatakiwaru?" asked the dark man softly. "Did you have something else to say? Perhaps more disparaging comments about my race? Or my former clan? Perhaps you would like to insult my mother next. I am not quite so far distanced from my former kin as my fellow Oracles. Allow me to show you. Wither."

The Tsuno gurgled and clawed at the sky ineffectively. It was eerily similar to the Matsu's death spasm mere moments earlier. Finally, there was a great retching sound and thick, black water burst forth from the creature's mouth, eyes, and ears. The foul mix stained the ground black. Tatakiwaru's corpse toppled, a dry and lifeless husk.

"Tsuno Shingai," said the dark man, turning to another of the colossal beasts. "You are now the leader of your pack. Do you have anything to say to me?"

The Tsuno stared at the dark man warily. "Know that I hate you," it said defiantly, "for you are a human and a Lion. But I fear your power, Dark Oracle, and so I obey as I have been ordered by Lord Daigotsu."

"You are very wise as well as honest," the Dark Oracle said. "Now, what have you to tell me?"

"We have found it, Matsu Turi-sama."

The man broke into a wide grin. "Excellent. Show me."

The Tsuno led Turi to a ravine in a secluded section of the mountains. The terrain was treacherous indeed, and only the inhuman strength of the Tsuno allowed them to make the descent. The Dark Oracle of Water, of course, had no difficulty with such things. Tsuno Shingai pointed to what appeared to be an empty field of rock. "There. The grave is below. Centuries of rockfalls have buried it far beneath, and we are unable to reach it."

"I will deal with that," said Turi crisply. "Awaken," he whispered to the stone, lifting one hand absently. A great roaring sound began to make its way through the mountains, sending the Tsuno scrambling for high ground. In moments, a great wall of thick, black water rose from the mountains and smashed into the rocks before Turi and Shingai. Over a thousand years worth of stone and debris was washed away in an instant, leaving a narrow chasm exposed to the light of day for the first time since the dawn of the Empire.

"Go," said Turi, and the Tsuno descended into the chasm like the bloodthirsty savages they were. The creatures scoured the base of the ravine as if hunting for prey in the forest. It was only a short time before one of them called up to Shingai and Turi that they had found something.

Descending into the ravine, the two quickly located the find. It was a human skeleton, driven well into the ground by the force of the weight upon it. It was not shattered, however. "Even after all these years," marveled Turi. "Surely he was the greatest of all his family." He reached down and ripped something from the dirt. Holding it aloft, he quickly uncovered the shine of metal beneath the crust of filth upon it. "And here is his blade. I believe my kinsmen would like very much to have this back. What do you think Shingai?"

"Yes," the Tsuno growled. "I'm sure they would take great honor in its recovery."

"Well then," said Turi, thrusting the blade to Shingai hilt-first. "Let us see what they think when they discover it in your hands on the battlefield. Take it, Shingai. Take Akodo's blade and bathe it into the heart of his children until I comme for you."

The Tsuno roared in triumph, and was joined by his packmates. Alone among their roars, Matsu Turi's bright, cheerful laughter rang out through the mountains like the poisoned waves of the Sea of Shadows.

"And what to do with you?" Turi said, looking down at the remains of the First Lion. "I think I know..."


Kaze no Shiro Return

Togashi will return!