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Blue Skies

By Rich Wulf

"I'll never get used to this cold," Doji Jun'ai said, clasping her arms across her slim chest and shivering as she stepped onto the snow-covered road.

"You just haven't learned to deal with it like I have," Kakita Tsuken answered with a chuckle. He looked up at her from where he sat on the barracks stairs. "I bring my own warmth with me." He offered her the black clay bottle.

Jun'ai smirked. She accepted the bottle and took a sip, her face quickly twisting in a pained grimace. "You know they say the Crab grow the rice for their sake on the other side of the Carpenter Wall," she said, handing him back the bottle. "After tasting that I can believe that there's a little bit of Jigoku in there."

"Whatever works," Tsuken said, taking a long drink.

"It isn't really making you any warmer, you know," she said in a chiding voice. "It's just dulling your senses enough that the cold doesn't seem to matter."

"Well maybe that's not such a bad thing," Tsuken said. "Maybe I want my senses to be a little dull tonight." He looked away from her, down the winding road that led into the lonely Phoenix mountains.

Jun'ai looked down at him with a disappointed expression. "It has to be this way, Tsuken," she said.

"Does it?" he asked, looking up at her sharply. "Was there truly no other samurai you trusted enough to protect your perfumed ambassador?"

Jun'ai's frown deepened. "If you have a problem with my orders, you may address them through the appropriate channels, Tsuken."

"So formal all of a sudden," he said. He rose and sauntered away a few steps, shaking his head ruefully. "What did I do wrong, Jun'ai? You know how I feel about you. I know you feel the same." He looked at her intently. His blue eyes were wide and clear. "We've kept it secret this long. Why is there a problem now?"

Jun'ai looked back over one shoulder nervously. Seeing none of the other soldiers were close enough to overhear, she looked back at Tsuken with a pained expression. "What we are doing is selfish, Tsuken," she answered. "Our clan struggles to maintain its dominance of the courts the marriage of young Crane samurai is the coin lord Kurohito pays for future alliances. In loving one another, we would betray the Crane. We must fulfill our duty, Tsuken, not our desires."

"Spoken like a Doji," Tsuken said with a bitter smile. "My family believes that one's passion defines one's destiny. To deny it is to deny truth."

"That is not for us to judge," she retorted. "We both know that. It was wrong for me to draw upon favors so we would be assigned to the same unit. This is supposed to be an honor guard, Tsuken - a gift to seal the bonds between the Shogun and his bride. If they knew&"

"The Shogun does not care about us," Tsuken said, exasperated. "Why do you think he sent us here? He still hates the Crane, as he always has. If you wish to see the tragedy that comes of letting politics rule affairs of the heart, look no further than Kaneka and Doji Yasuyo. At least Kaneka has a respectable sense of irony." Tsuken looked at the castle that dominated the surrounding village. The Castle of the Faithful Bride had been built in honor of a Lion samurai forced into a marriage that ultimately destroyed her.

"You shouldn't drink, Tsuken," Jun'ai said coldly. "It makes you act like a fool."

"Fine, then," Tsuken answered, taking another long drink and setting the bottle on the stairs. "If you wish me to go, I can deny you nothing, Jun'ai." He gave her a sidelong look. "Not even my absence. If you feel the only way you can retain your honor is to send me off to guard your pet diplomat, then that is what I shall do." He walked down the steps, starting on the path toward the castle ahead.

"Thank you, Tsuken," Jun'ai said softly.

Tsuken did not hear. His thoughts were already focused upon the journey ahead.

----------------

Several Weeks Later&

Fujita Mura was not such a bad place, really. It was a small village, well secluded in the chill, wooded mountains. The cold was intense, but it wasn't that different than winter in Tsuken's home province. The cold had never really bothered him. He tried not to dwell upon the fact that the village would likely be even colder when actual winter set in.

The village was so small it only appeared on a handful of Phoenix maps. Named for an obscure hero of the War Against the Darkness, it was a simple place inhabited of woodsmen and herbalists. The lord of the village was a shugenja by the name of Agasha Oshu. While many others might have avoided a post in such a remote area, Oshu asked to be assigned here specifically. He was a descendant of the original Fujita, and had a number of complex schemes to transform the village into a profitable holding for the clan. He would expound upon his plans at the slightest provocation, and some of his ideas were certainly a bit less sound than others. His idea to increase lumber production by importuning the air kami to carry soothing, encouraging music throughout the forests only succeeded in terrifying the local wildlife and almost decimating the village's hunting industry. Despite such failures, Oshu pressed on with boundless energy. He was undeniably a clever and resourceful man. Tsuken found that he could not help but like him.

The same could not be said of Doji Jurian. Upon hearing of Oshu's reputation, Lord Kurohito immediately arranged for a diplomat to be dispatched to Fujita Mura to establish trade arrangements should Fujita Mura ultimately prove to be profitable. His chosen ambassador, Jurian, was the sort of Crane Tsuken despised the most. A conceited, spoiled courtier, he was exactly the sort of man that others so often pictured as the stereotype of a Crane. To Tsuken, it was fairly obvious that Jurian had been dispatched here not only to broker trade arrangements, but so that the masters of Kyuden Doji would not have to tolerate his insufferable arrogance. Tsuken wondered if that was why so many outsiders pictured Crane courtiers in such a negative light if it was because the only ones they met were the ones the Crane themselves wished to be rid of. He could not help but snicker at the thought.

"Why are you laughing?" Jurian asked sharply. He glared back at Tsuken and nearly lost his balance in the saddle as he did so.

"My apologies, Jurian-sama," Tsuken answered smoothly. "I was merely recalling a clever story you told the other day. The one about your shogi game against Bayushi Paneki at Winter Court six years ago."

"Ah," Jurian replied, brightening noticeably. "A good story. You have a good memory, Tsuken-san."

"I remember what matters, Jurian-sama," Tsuken replied sincerely. Jurian told the tale at least twice a day, so remembering it was no difficult feat.

"Perhaps a game of shogi would be an excellent diversion now," Oshu said, looking back from the head of the patrol with a concerned frown. Jurian's normally pale face was quite rosy from the cold and he visibly shivered as he huddled in his thick robes. "You and Tsuken could return to the village. It appears this will only be a routine patrol after all, and I wouldn't wish to bore you any further."

"A generous offer," Jurian replied with a tight smile, "but my duty here is to enforce the alliance between our two clans. Tsuken-san may prove useful against whatever threat you believe lurks in these woods, and where he goes, I go."

"Very well," Oshu said, bowing respectfully from his saddle. The shugenja cast a pained look at Tsuken, who only shrugged.

"Here, my lord!' called one of the Shiba samurai from the road ahead.

Oshu instantly snapped to attention, ordering the patrol into a gallop. They rounded a sharp bend in the mountain road. The corpses of two shaggy horses and an ox lay on the snowy path. A half dozen warriors in strange armor lay in the road as well, their bodies peppered with arrows. Tsuken reined in his horse and looked at the carnage with quiet horror.

"Yobanjin," he said.

Oshu only grunted his agreement as he climbed from the saddle. The local woodsmen had reported an increase in barbarian activity. The patrol had hoped to find Yobanjin raiders but had not expected to find them already dead.

"Here, my lord, you should see this," one of the Shiba said in a nervous voice. He drew an arrow from one of the corpses and held it out so the fletchings were visible. The feathers were dyed bright yellow and ebony.

"Mantis archers," Oshu snapped. "What are they doing so far north? I desire no part in their foolish war against the Isawa."

Tsuken looked around, studying their surroundings cautiously. He noticed the blind turn in the road, the thick trees that lined the path on either side. This area was the perfect place for an ambush.

"I see no tracks, Oshu-sama," one of the bushi said. "No signs the Mantis were ever here."

Tsuken felt a cold fire burn deep within him, a sense that something was wholly wrong. "Oshu-sama, we should leave this place," he warned.

"My lord, look out!" screamed one of the Shiba, leaping between Agasha Oshu and the hail of arrows that erupted suddenly from above. Some of the other men fell. One arrow grazed Tsuken's shoulder. Another struck Jurian in the arm. To his credit, the courtier did not cry out.

The man who moved to save Oshu died almost instantly, and the shugenja howled in rage. A crackle of lightning burned from the shugenja's fists, raking the trees around them. The Shiba warriors drew their bows, firing blindly into the woods. Tsuken drew his katana and searched about for any enemies, feeling useless without a bow of his own. Oshu grunted fell to his knees, a Mantis arrow sprouting from his stomach. He looked back at Tsuken and Jurian with a pained smile.

"All I wanted to do," Oshu said, "was make this place worthy of my grandfather's name."

"Oshu-sama, no!" howled one of the Shiba, drawing his sword and charging into the woods.

Tsuken moved to follow, but Oshu held up a warning hand. "No, Tsuken," the shugenja hissed. "Take your master from this place, swiftly! I will buy you time with what magic I have remaining, but the Shogun must know what has happened here!"

Tsuken looked back at Jurian, who merely wobbled in his saddle with a queasy expression. He nodded at the shugenja and seized Jurian's reins with one hand, shouting as he kicked both horses into motion. Behind him, he could hear a peal of thunder, crackling fire, and the screams of dying men.

----------------

"Wait," Jurian called out weakly. "Stop, please."

Tsuken looked back at his master irritably. They would have to hurry if they intended to reach the Castle of the Faithful Bride. He considered just leaving his spoiled charge behind to catch his breath and riding ahead to carry the news of the attack to Jun'ai.

Then Tsuken's face fell. He knew Jurian had been wounded, but thought the arrow had only struck him in the arm. The courtier's baggy kimono had deceived him; now he saw that the Tsuruchi shaft had struck more truly, protruding from Jurian's chest just below the heart. Jurian's fine robes were drenched with blood. The courtier looked at Tsuken with a weak, apologetic smile.

"Just for a moment, Tsuken-san," he begged. "Let us stop& only for a moment, to catch my breath." He coughed, and blood trickled down his chin. He wiped it away with an annoyed, pained look.

Tsuken nodded grimly. He reined in his horse and dismounted, helping his master carefully from the saddle. Jurian nearly fell, his legs too weak to support him. Tsuken wrapped a supportive arm around the courtier, ignoring the blood that now stained his robes and armor as well. He helped the other man lay back against a tree.

"They sky in Phoenix lands is so blue," Jurian said, his voice weak as he gasped for breath. "Like Lady Doji's eyes. Don't you think so, Tsuken?"

"A beautiful sight, my lord," Tsuken agreed quietly.

"It makes me&" Jurian winced. "It makes me remember the time at Winter Court& The time I almost beat Bayushi Paneki in a game of Shogi. He complimented me on the fine blue silk of my robe. Have I ever told you that story, Tsuken?" Jurian looked at his yojimbo eagerly.

"Yes, my lord," Tsuken said, choking slightly. Each time Jurian had told the tale before, he had always won the game. "It is my favorite of all your stories."

"Good," Jurian said, looking pleased. He looked down at himself with a wistful frown. "I do not think Paneki would be so impressed now. I fear my robes are not quite so fine anymore."

"They look fine to me, my lord," Tsuken said sincerely. "Stained only by the blood of a courageous samurai."

"No one has ever called me brave before," Jurian answered with a laugh. "You are a good friend, Tsuken. I am glad that you are with me."

"It has been an honor to serve you, my lord," Tsuken said, bowing his head so that Jurian would not see his tears.

"Ride to the Castle of the Faithful Bride, Tsuken-san," Jurian said, his voice suddenly intent. "Do not let the men who murdered Oshu take his grandfather's village. Do not fail our friendship with the Phoenix."

"I will not, my lord," he said.

When he looked up again, Jurian's face was peaceful. He stared blankly up at the eternal blue sky.

Tsuken wondered how the courtier had endured his horrible wound, never complaining or saying a word to delay their flight for aid. He said a brief prayer over the body of his dead charge, chiding himself for having misjudged the man so deeply. Rising, Kakita Tsuken removed the saddle from Jurian's horse and slapped its haunch, releasing the animal to run free in the forest. Mounting his own steed, he galloped as swiftly as he could toward the Castle of the Faithful Bride.

----------------

"I am sorry, Tsuken," Jun'ai said.

She looked at him with a mixture of pain and frustration. She was as beautiful as he remembered, with eyes of crystal and hair that fell in ebony waves, always a stark contrast to his own pale white hair. Tsuken felt strangely detached as he listened to her words, storing away each memory of her as he realized what must happen next.

"Don't you understand?" he pleaded. "Jurian is dead. Oshu is dead. The Mantis came from the north, through Yobanjin territory. If they secure the village and its pass, they'll use it as a stepping stone to Kyuden Isawa."

"I realize that," Jun'ai said. "We're just an honor guard, Tsuken. If the Mantis survived the march through Yobanjin lands and intend to move on to Kyuden Isawa, they'll have more than enough troops to deal with us. If we marched on them, we'd only throw our lives away."

"We could delay them," Tsuken said.

"We might delay them," she corrected. "We might die to the last man and have no affect on their progress. We must remain here, so that if the Phoenix need us to aid the defense we will be ready."

"They need us now!" Tsuken snapped. "Haven't you been listening to me, Jun'ai?"

Jun'ai frowned. The two officers beside her looked away in shame. She bowed her head before she continued. "What you say makes sense, Tsuken, but there is nothing I can do. I have my orders."

"Orders?" Tsuken asked. "What orders?"

"Orders that my soldiers are not to interfere in the war between Mantis and Phoenix. We are to remain neutral. This is Lady Akiko's own command."

"What?" Tsuken snapped. "Why would she command such a thing? She is both Crane and Phoenix. She will not allow one of her clans to help the other?"

"I do not understand," Jun'ai admitted, "but neither do I question. Such is duty."

"To Jigoku with duty!" Tsuken snapped. "What of loyalty to the Phoenix? What of the vows we made to protect one another? When they matter most do we just cast such things aside? What of honor, Jun'ai?"

"I&" she paused for a long moment. "I will send word to Shiro Henka. When the Shogun learns of this, he will send his army to crush the Mantis."

"That might take weeks," Tsuken replied. "The damage will be done by then."

"I wish I could help, Tsuken," she said, "but I can do nothing. And neither can you."

"That is where you are wrong, Jun'ai," Tsuken replied, moving toward the door.

"Where are you going, Tsuken?" she demanded. "I am your commanding officer, and you will remain here."

Tsuken looked back at her with a grin. "No," he said. "You passed my command to Jurian, a brave son of the House of Doji. I go now to fulfill his final command."

"You would fight the Mantis alone?" one of the officers said, shocked.

Tsuken stepped out of the barracks back into the swirling snow.

Silence followed. Jun'ai looked at her officers. She saw shame in their eyes, shame for their own actions and admiration for Tsuken.

"Is there nothing we can do, Commander?" one asked.

----------------

In the valley beyond lay the village of Fujita Mura. A legion of Mantis soldiers now made their way through the winding mountain road that led there. The path had been difficult, and the Yobanjin had not taken kindly to the incursion. Many of the men were wounded, exhausted, but their journey had hardened them. Their scouts had reported that Fujita Mura was only lightly defended, with only a few samurai to speak of. Now those sons and daughters of the Phoenix lay dead in the forests behind them. Only a handful of ashigaru remained, and then the village would be theirs.

Or so they had thought.

"Is that a Crane?" Yoritomo Yorikane asked, staring at the sole samurai that blocked the road ahead.

"I fear so, my lord," replied Tsuruchi Arishia, his second in command. Since they had found the dead Crane in the woods, she had feared this would happen. The Children of Doji rarely traveled alone and did not forget injuries.

"Stand aside, samurai!" ordered one of the forward sentries.

"I will not," the Crane shouted back in reply, his voice carrying clear upon the cold mountain air.

Arishia sighed, drew her bow, and aimed it at the Crane. The man's blue eyes fixed on her without fear, and though he stood more than a hundred feet away she felt a sense of fear.

"No, Arishia," Yorikane said calmly, gesturing for her to lower her weapon. "This man is not our enemy. We will not offer him such a death."

"Who leads this band of murderers?" the Crane demanded.

Yorikane led his horse to the front of the body of troops. He looked down at the Crane warily, but without fear. "I am Yorikane of House Yoritomo, and I am the commander of this Legion," he replied boldly. "You have insulted the honor of every man here with such an accusation. Explain yourself quickly."

"I am Kakita Tsuken," the samurai replied, "Guardian of Doji Jurian. He is the man you murdered with your honorless ambush."

"If the Crane do not understand that these lands are at war," Yorikane replied calmly, "then they should confine their interests to their home. If your friend Jurian did not know the risk, then perhaps Rokugan is better off without him."

Tsuken sneered as he studied Yorikane. He pointed to the amulet that hung from the Mantis' obi, a gleaming golden symbol of the sun. "You wear Toturi Tsudao's seal," he said. "The Empress' seal."

"That is none of your concern," Yorikane said.

"That symbol is worn by those who once rode with the First Legion," Tsuken said. "How would the Glorious Empress feel about your tactics in this war, Yorikane? Stalking through the woods, murdering men from the treetops, waging war against the Phoenix who served her so well? What would she say about such a man, who does such things but dares to wear her symbol?"

Yorikane's face darkened.

"Do not listen to this man," Arishia shouted to her commander. "He seeks only to goad you into a pointless duel."

"I seek only to gauge the honor of my master's killer," Tsuken retorted. "If you find honor pointless, then we are finished here, for you are not even worthy of my blade. I have heard many men decry the honor of the Mantis. They say that it is a sham, that you wear the trappings of a samurai only to facilitate your ambitions." Tsuken sighed. "Yet my great grandfather told me of a time when our clan's provinces lay in ashes. The Great Clans would not come to our side but Yoritomo did. So which is truth and which is legend, Yorikane-san? Are the Mantis men of honor or thieving pirates?"

"We are men of honor," Yorikane said stiffly.

Tsuken moved gracefully, holding his right hand open over the hilt of his sword, as if offering a gift. "Then prove it. Defeat me, and I will be no more than a foul memory. You will have proven your prowess to your soldiers who now look upon you with doubt. If I should triumph, all that I ask is that you spare Fujita Mura."

"We cannot spare the village, Commander," Arishia snapped. "We are in dire need of supplies."

"Food is nothing," Yorikane retorted. "An army that doubts the courage of its leader is doomed to failure. Very well, Tsuken, you will have your duel."

Tsuken smiled, but the smile stiffened when he saw Yorikane adopt a stance identical to his own.

Yorikane smirked. "You speak of my clan's past friendship with your own," the Mantis said. "Are you so surprised to see the results? I was trained by the Kakita as well, Crane."

The Crane's blue eyes gleamed. That his foe would not die easily seemed only to encourage him. The two men advanced slowly, stopping just within reach of a blade. For several moments, there was no sound, no movement, and the world seemed to wait upon what would happen next. Then a flash of steel, two identical kiai shouts, and one man fell dead in the snow.

Kakita Tsuken looked over his shoulder, a plume of bright blood still flying from the edge of his blade. He staggered back several steps then fell beside Yorikane, clutching his bloody chest.

Tsuruchi Arishia advanced toward the two fallen duelists. Prodding Yorikane with one armored foot, she smiled faintly at the Crane.

"Congratulations," she said to the dying Crane.

"Remember your promise, Mantis," Tsuken whispered.

"Very well," she whispered to him. "You have purchased the lives of your peasants and their worthless village - but only for a time. Yoritomo Naizen's army marches only two days behind our own, and he is bound by no agreement with you, Kakita. Think about that while you bleed." She turned toward her troops and shouted in a commanding tone. "Leave Kakita Tsuken to die with his honor. Any soldier who aids this man will join him in his fate."

Arishia signaled to two peasants, who quickly came to take their former commander's body away. The Mantis legion marched past Tsuken. Some looked at the Crane with angry sneers, other with respectful nods. One man stumbled on his knees as he passed, then rose and continued on.

Tsuken blinked numbly, realizing that the soldier had dropped something. He waited for the army to leave before he crawled over to investigate. Half buried in the snow he found a roll of silken bandages. A noble gesture, though he knew with his wounds it would do little good. What lay beside it was what truly interested him a bottle of dark sake.

Laughing, Tsuken threw the cork away and took a long drink. It helped with the pain, just a bit, but enough. Rising unsteadily to his feet, the Crane staggered off the road. In his drunken, agonized haze he saw a cave among the rocks, one he had not seen before. It would be as good a place as any to die.

As he stumbled through the cave's entrance, he was at first surprised by the warmth inside. He was surprised again when he found his wounds no longer bothered him quite so much.

----------------

The Halls of Kyuden Doji were never vacant, but rarely were they host to as many visitors as gathered here today. Though most were Crane, there were a smattering of attendants from other clans as well, and quite a few members of the Imperial Families. There were perhaps fewer Mantis than any other clan, but that was only to be expected under the circumstances. Even members of the Crane's political rivals, the Scorpion, were invited openly and without question.

After all, such opportunities as this did not happen every day.

Doji Kurohito, Lord of the Crane Clan, stood on the dais before them all. The doors of the great court opened and a single man entered, eliciting a hush from those assembled. The armor he wore was newly fashioned, brilliant red and worked with images of flame. Under his arm he held a thick volume, a symbol of burning fire emblazoned upon its cover. The assembly bowed before him as he strode swiftly through the chamber, stopping to kneel before Kurohito.

"The descendant of Shinsei proclaimed that the warrior who could defeat a thousand enemies in a single stroke would find the Book of Fire," Kurohito said in his rich, practiced voice. "And so it has come to be. Rise, Kakita Tsuken, Keeper of Fire."

Tsuken stood tall, clutching the Book of Fire beneath one arm. He removed his helmet, white hair spilling loose over his shoulders. His face was grave as he looked upon his lord.

"I am undeserving of this honor," Tsuken said softly. "I am not an enlightened man."

"Shinsei said the same, as I remember," Kurohito replied with a deep laugh.

Tsuken laughed politely, though he felt no humor. He felt nothing at all. The next few hours passed in a blur as the Crane Champion introduced him to allies and functionaries. He saw the eyes of Kurohito's wife, the Lady Akiko, on him all the while. He was not surprised. Had he not defied her orders, and been rewarded? He could only guess how such a powerful and influential woman would react to such a thing.

And, in time, he found himself alone in the empty court. The others had moved on to their own affairs, their political games, breeding the next war that would send more honorable men like Oshu, Jurian, and Yorikane to their graves. Tsuken sat at the edge of the dais, the Book of Fire discarded on the floor, and buried his face in his hands. The doors at the rear of the chamber slid open and footsteps approached, but he ignored them.

"What you leave lying there is quite a treasure," said a deep voice as one sandaled foot nudged the Book of Fire. "Many men in the Empire would kill to earn this book."

"It is just a book," Tsuken replied. "I have already read it. It will give them no answers."

"And such insight, Tsuken-sama, is why only you deserve to bear it," the voice replied.

Tsuken looked up in annoyance. A monk in a tattered robe stood nearby, looking down at him with a mildly amused expression. Tsuken had never seen the man before, but somehow he was familiar.

"Rosoku," Tsuken whispered. "The descendant of Shinsei."

The man bowed.

"Take your book back, Little Teacher," Tsuken said, "and keep your tests, too. Find another Keeper of Fire."

"How surprising," Rosoku said, circling Tsuken and studying the Crane curiously. "They say that fire embodies courage, and the tales I have heard speak of courage in abundance, courage so great it inspires your allies and makes enemies doubt their actions. Perhaps you are not Kakita Tsuken?"

"Courage," Tsuken said wryly. "What use is courage if I cannot even save Fujita Mura?"

"An interesting question," Rosoku replied. "Fortunately it is one we need not answer."

"What do you mean?" Tsuken asked.

"Your friend Jun'ai," he replied. "She decided, in the end, that you were right. She marched upon Fujita Mura. Her troops fortified it as best they could against the impending attack by General Naizen. Word spread swiftly, and others came as well. Most were simple farmers who could not stand idle while a Crane defended their lands. A few were magistrates from way stations that Jun'ai passed along the way. There was even an Ox diplomat on his way to Kyuden Isawa who found her march so inspiring that he committed his forces to her own. The march was difficult, but in a single night, Jun'ai and her allies reached the village and fortified it against attack."

"But Naizen?" Tsuken said dubiously. "It is said his army is unstoppable."

"And perhaps it is," Rosoku said, "but Naizen sought that route because it was unguarded, unexpected." Rosoku smiled. "When he saw a true army waiting to resist his passage, he knew his plan had failed. Though he might crush Jun'ai and her defenders, the Phoenix would rise to defend Kyuden Isawa and his element of surprise would evaoporate. Rather than throw away more lives, he retreated to fight another day."

Tsuken's eyes widened. "So Jun'ai fought after all," he said, smiling broadly. "She saved the village?"

Rosoku nodded. "Courage is a powerful force," he replied. "If it burns brightly enough, it spreads like fire. The same, perhaps, can be said for enlightenment."

"Enlightenment?" Tsuken asked, confused.

Doji Jun'ai stepped into the chamber through the door Rosoku had used. The look in her crystal eyes was strange, a look of pride the likes of which Tsuken had never seen before.

"There are two sorts of samurai in this Empire," Rosoku said. "At one end, those who use their gifts only to gain selfish glory. They will stand blindly to one side, and let war consume the innocent, claiming they were powerless to act. At the other, there are those who will always fight, regardless of the odds, even when there is no hope."

Tsuken looked at Jun'ai again, and now noticed the thick bundle she clutched beneath one arm.

"And the general who can lead armies from one end of the Empire to the other in a single night," Rosoku said, "shall keep the Book of Water."

The Keeper of Fire took his discarded book from the floor, a broad smile spreading across the face. The Keeper of Water rolled her eyes and could not help but grin as well.

And with a final bow, Rosoku departed and left the Keepers in peace.


 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!