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Souls of Steel, Part 1
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan

The Crane provinces, one month ago

Mura Sabishii Toshi was a port city, and a busy one, particularly at this time of year. The last days of summer were waning, and winter was creeping up quickly. Already the wind from the mountains to the north had taken on a decidedly unpleasant chill, one that promised to spread very soon. In a matter of weeks, the snow atop the mountains would gradually grow to include the foothills, then the plains, and eventually everything in sight.

Yoritomo Bunmei despised winter. It wasn't so much the cold; a life spent on the seas had rendered him virtually immune to all but the most miserable temperatures winter had to offer. No, it was the way the cold affected others. They shrank down inside themselves, withering like plants. They huddled around fires or cups of hot tea, grousing and complaining about everything one could imagine. It made for miserable company. And of course no one ever felt like gambling.

"Are we going ashore, captain?" one of the other Mantis asked him.

Bunmei glanced at the sailors on deck. Even though they were all maintaining their duties properly, he could see they were also listening keenly. They had been out for a long time, and were hoping for a chance to get off the kobune, if only for a little while. He grimaced as he thought about the schedule he was supposed to keep, but he had been in their place far too many times. "Two hours," he finally said. "And I expect you all to be in decent enough condition to get us up that river without killing us all."

"Hai, captain," the men responded in unison. They went back to their work hurriedly, eager to see what trouble the port had to offer them. Bunmei idly wondered how many of them he would have to retrieve from the magistrate's office. He was still contemplating it when one of his men gestured to the docks. "Are we expecting an escort, captain?"

Bunmei frowned and glanced toward land. His frowned grew more severe at the sight of four heavily armed men wearing fur-trimmed armor emblazoned with the purple and white insignia of the Unicorn Clan. "I had heard nothing of this," he said in a low, almost menacing turn. "I do not much care for surprises."

"Shall we steer straight up the river?" the pilot asked.

The captain considered it, but he could not afford to risk offending the Unicorn. He would have to face them in Ryoko Owari regardless, and if they were angry it would only make his business there more difficult. "No, we will dock. I will have words with our friends, though, I think."

Bunmei strode to the stern of the kobune and stood, staring openly at the Unicorn. When they finally reached the dock, he shouted down. "I think you may have misunderstood the terms of our agreement. Our business is to be concluded in Ryoko Owari, not Mura Sabishii Toshi."

"You have a strange way of greeting allies," a woman's voice returned. A slightly built figure stepped out from where it had been obscured by the much larger guards. "We had a few extra days, and I just thought it would be prudent to meet you here and travel together to Ryoko Owari. I hear the river can be treacherous."

"Akasha!" Bunmei's face split into a wide, mischievous grin. He leapt from the boat and landed nimbly on the dock, placing his hands on his hips and regarding the small Unicorn woman with obvious delight. "I was expecting some wrinkled old Ide caravan master."

Akasha smiled wryly. "I'm quite sure I could find one for you, if you prefer."

"No, that's quite alright," he said. "We are docking for two hours to let my men have a chance to& refresh themselves."

"Of course," she answered. She turned to the Moto guards. "Assist the Mantis if they require it. We depart in two hours." The men all bowed quickly and stepped over to offer their assistance to the Mantis, unneeded though it was. "So, surprised to see me, are you?"

"I am," Bunmei said. "It is a most pleasant surprise, however. You are& much thinner than you were when I last saw you." His grin took on a rakish tilt. "Much more appealing, if I may say. Tell me the truth, now. You just couldn't wait to see me again, could you? I get that often."

"I was hoping to see you again, yes," Akasha answered, "but try not to take too many liberties with that. If you recall, I am a married woman."

"Yes, yes, a mere formality," he said. "After all, it's not every day that& wait, what is your husband's name again?"

"Moto Chen," she replied. "I think you might have heard of him."

"Oh. Yes. Well. Perhaps tea, instead of sake."

Akasha laughed brightly. "Did I suddenly lose my appeal?"

Bunmei grimaced. "You are as lovely a woman as I've ever met, but I've never met any woman that was worth having my legs broken."

Akasha's eyes flashed. "My husband is a rather direct sort, I must admit. Personally, I find it intoxicating."

"So, tea, then," Bunmei said loudly, hoping to change the subject. "I heard you had a new blade. I should like to hear about that."

"I heard something similar about you," Akasha replied. "What an odd coincidence. I can't imagine how such a thing could have happened."

This time it was Bunmei that grinned. "I can't imagine."

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

The River of Gold, near Zakyo Toshi, one year ago

Akasha closed her eyes and felt the rhythmic movements of the horse beneath her and the wind in her hair. It had been far too long since she had ridden so far or so fast; she had missed it more than she could express in mere words. There would be problems upon her return to the Naga city she currently called home, of course, but for now it was all worth it.

She frowned at the thought of home. Chen would be overwrought with worry. He was a very protective man, and had obsessed over the health of their unborn child almost without ceasing since they had first learned she was pregnant. It had taken all her determination to prevent him from sending her to the Unicorn provinces until the child was born. "This is my home," she had finally told him, using a tone that would brook no further discussion. "Our daughter will be born in my home."

Still, perhaps departing so suddenly had been a childish move. She knew very well that their child was healthy, and that there was nothing to fear from riding, but Chen was a man, and men were blithely ignorant of such things. She had the ride she wanted, perhaps it was time to return home and assuage her husband's bruised ego. She pulled her horse to a stop, placing a hand instinctively on her somewhat swollen stomach. For a moment, she enjoyed the natural silence of the plains, the only audible sounds the wind blowing through the tall grass, the heavy breathing of her trusted steed, and&

Askasha looked to the east. Were those shouts she heard? She squinted as she peered into the distance. There was little in that direction before one reached the river, but she could swear that she saw the thinnest ribbon of smoke winding its way skyward.

The samurai-ko glanced over her shoulder, back toward the forest and the distant city, then to the river once more. With a grim expression, she kicked her heels and gave her steed the command to gallop.

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

Yoritomo Bunmei released an incredible string of profanity as he cut the bandit open from hip to shoulder. "Douse those fires!" he shouted, gesturing to his ship's blazing sails. "Futoshi, take out those archers!"

The Tsuruchi nodded and fired three arrows in rapid succession. He brought a fourth to his bow, but the shot went wide when the ship lurched precariously. Bunmei could tell from the sound alone that the ship was taking on water. He cursed again and ran to the side to peer over. For the briefest of moments, the spectacle made him forget what was going on around him.

Two men clung to the hull of his ship, using what appeared to be modified sai to hold on. They had apparently broken through the hull with their weapons and attached a metal hook with a rope to one of the crates within, a crate that had only moments ago been forcibly removed from the ship by a pair of horses attached to the other end of the rope. The captain snarled and drew his tanto, hurling it downward into one of the men with as much force as he could muster. The blade sank deeply into the man's shoulder, causing him enough pain to fall from his perch and drop into the water. "They're taking the cargo!" Bunmei shouted. "Stop them!"

There was a whistling thud behind him, and Bunmei turned to find a bandit collapsing dead on the deck. A gigantic arrow jutted from his face. "That's a Naga arrow!" Futoshi shouted, nocking another arrow of his own. "Where did that come from?"

"Kill them and stop chatting!" Bunmei roared. He sheathed his blade and leapt from the kobune into the river. The water was cold, but he was filled with such anger that he barely noticed. He emerged on the riverbank only a moment later, drawing his blade and cutting down an archer even as another fell from the Tsuruchi's steady fire. He charged toward the men loading the stolen crate in a cart, but was forced to dive to the ground to avoid their archery fire. He rolled in an attempt to get to his feet, but before he could there was another standing over him, weapon held aloft for the killing strike. Then another Naga arrow appeared, this time in the man's chest, and he fell.

"They're too much trouble," Bunmei heard a woman's voice call out. "To the forest!"

"No!" he shouted, but the bandits were already withdrawing. Over a dozen dead were littered across the riverbank, with more on board the ship. Bunmei charged after them, but he was on foot and they were mounted. They were outside even the archer's range after only a few moments. "No!" he shouted again.

"Calm down," an unfamiliar voice said. Bunmei turned to see a young woman with a large bow standing, watching the bandits racing toward the Shinomen. "It doesn't appear as if they got it all."

"That doesn't matter," the Mantis said. "I have to get it back."

"Don't be ridiculous," she retorted. "Banditry is not uncommon in this region. Defending the majority of your cargo was valiant, if dangerous. You will be commended."

"Doubtful," Bunmei said morosely. "I& I have lost cargo before. If it happens again, there will be repercussions." He turned to say something else, then stopped suddenly. "Are you pregnant?"

"Yes," she answered flatly. "I am Akasha. You are?"

Yoritomo Bunmei," he answered. "I have to go after them. If I can find that woman, perhaps I can get my cargo back."

"Woman?" Akasha said sharply. "What woman?"

"Their leader. She was a younger woman with long black hair."

"Did she have any markings?" Akasha asked.

Bunmei frowned. "I think there was a tattoo on her left cheek. A mark of some kind, anyway." He looked at the Unicorn cautiously. "Why do you ask?"

"These men are Forest Killers," she answered. "The largest and most dangerous bandit group in the Empire. They say that the Emerald Champion is planning a campaign to destroy them, but for the moment they remain a threat, and their leader is a former Unicorn. A woman named Ide Nomari. Her death is a matter of honor for the Unicorn."

"Well then," Bunmei said, "I will be happy to take care of that for you. I am going after her."

"I am coming as well," Akasha insisted. "This is a Unicorn problem as much as Mantis."

"You?" Bunmei exploded. "You cannot be serious!"

"You could use the help," she retorted.

"The help of a pregnant woman?" Bunmei shouted, throwing his hands in the air. "Of course! How could I refuse? Perhaps when we find them, we could enlist the aid of an orphan with no legs and only one arm as well! We would be unstoppable!"

"I am coming," Akasha repeated. "There is no debate."

"By Jigoku there isn't," the sailor spat. "I will not accept your assistance!"

"Very well. Good luck finding them on your own. I hope you enjoy life as a ronin vagrant in Zakyo Toshi once your Champion casts you out for your egregious failure."

Bunmei literally ground his teeth in impotent fury. "Fine!" he finally bellowed. "But when you die and your husband comes looking to me for vengeance, I'll feed his carcass to the fish!"

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

The River of Gold, one month ago

Akasha stood near the railing and looked over at the bank passing slowly by. The wind was light today, so most of Bunmei's men were either pushing the ship along with long poles or rowing with a collection of crude oars kept on board for just such an occasion. It was slow going, but compared to the size of caravan that would be required to transport the same amount of cargo, it was an acceptable rate.

"Here," Bunmei said, tossing something to her.

She caught the small bundle and looked at it cautiously. "What is this?"

"Dried fish, wrapped in dried seaweed," he answered. "The hold is full of it. Assuming payment goes as was arranged, there will be almost two dozen more ships with the same cargo over the next three weeks. Your Unicorn friends are quite hungry, it seems."

Akasha bit delicately at the wrap and grimaced. "Not particularly flavorful."

"Not when dried, no," the Mantis agreed. "Still, it's small, and a man can go a long time on only a few of those a day. It gives the body everything it needs, but isn't enough to fill one up. In my experience, it tends to keep those who eat them hungry, and rather mean." He shrugged. "That's life on the seas for you, though."

"I have no idea why the Khan needs it, but hopefully you were paid a fair price," Akasha said, sticking the ration in her obi.

"Quite fair indeed," Bunmei said with a smile. "So, were you right?"

She raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"You were certain you were going to have a girl. Were you right?"

"Yes," she said with a brilliant smile. "Our little Naleesh is almost a year old."

"Naleesh?"

"There is no direct translation, but it means roughly little precious treasure.'" Her smile grew even more radiant. "She will presumably choose something a bit more traditional when she undergoes her gempukku."

"Naleesh," Bunmei said. "You Unicorn and your affectation for gaijin names."

"It's a Naga word, actually," she corrected. She turned to face him, then stopped.

Bunmei's expression had hardened, and he was staring intently to the northeast. He pointed wordlessly. She followed his gaze and gasped at the thick column of smoke rising there. "I thought the Emerald Champion destroyed the Forest Killers," he said quietly.

"He did," Akasha replied. "Chen's scouts worked with him. The band is broken, scattered to the four winds."

"All of them?" Bunmei demanded.

She started to reply, but shook her head. "I do not know," she finally admitted.

"I think we should make absolutely certain," Bunmei said flatly. "I hate to leave a game unfinished."

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

The outskirts of the Shinomen Mori near Zakyo Toshi, one year ago

In its simplest form, their plan was really quite simple: follow the bandits and take back the cargo they had stolen from Bunmei's ship. In reality, of course, it was far more complicated. To begin with, the bandits were mounted, whereas only Akasha had a horse. To make matters worse, the bandits had split into several groups upon reaching the forest. This was one of their more common tactics, and one with which Akasha was familiar. It was part of what made their band so difficult to track and comprehend: they were constantly splitting up, regrouping, and splitting up again, always in small groups. Even if one could find their trail in the vast forest, there was no telling how old it was, how many bandits had used it, or how often.

Fortunately, Akasha was likely more familiar with the forest than any member of the Forest Killers, living or dead.

The trail had been easy enough for her to pick up. The horses on the northern most trail were obviously carrying a much heavier load, and they found the cart discarded near the forest entrance. The best hope, then, was to catch up to the group that carried the cargo before they met up with any more Forest Killers. Their speed was hampered, however, as Bunmei had very little training in the forest. And, if she was being honest, her pregnancy had taken a toll on her athleticism as well, not that she would ever give Chen the satisfaction of admitting it. Regardless of the cause, it was night by the time they finally reached the Forest Killers, and by then they had set up their evening camp.

There were fourteen of them, by Bunmei's count. Three were sentries, who were quickly and easily removed. The Mantis might be unfamiliar with the forest, but he was no secret to this form of combat. Still, that left ten, and ten was too many to face at once, especially considering that they were most likely the most seasoned and experienced members of the band.

And if she was lucky, somewhere in the encampment was the traitor Nomari.

Bunmei had a plan, although using that term was in her opinion quite charitable. She took her position with ten arrows planted loosely in the dirt in front of her, and her Naga bow held at the ready. She only hoped she wasn't committing suicide.

Sword on his hip, a rakish smile on his face, Bunmei walked openly into the camp. The bandits reacted at once, grabbing their weapons. Akasha fired twice, as fast as she could. One was killed, another wounded. "Stand down, or I will have the rest open fire," Bunmei said loudly. "No one has to be killed here."

The bandits froze, their hands on their weapons. They looked from one to another, then to one of the tents. After only a moment, a young woman stepped out. Akasha's eyes narrowed at the sight of her. It was Nomari, there was no mistake about that. She was quite possibly the most disgraceful member of her adopted family, and she longed for the bandit leader's death. "What do you think you're doing, Mantis?" Nomari asked quietly.

"I've come for my cargo," Bunmei said. "I'd like it back."

"Are you completely mad? Where do you think you are?"

"I think that I am in the middle of a bandit camp, surrounded by a dozen of my finest Tsuruchi crewmen."

Nomari's eyes narrowed. "No, if that were the case you'd have opened fire."

"I don't see my cargo," Bunmei said. "If you all die, how do I know I could find it?"

"I see," Nomari answered. "And I assume you expect us to surrender as well?"

Bunmei laughed. "My dear woman, I am a pirate. I stole that cargo in the first place. Do you think I take offense at you taking it? I don't care what you do once we're gone, but out of professional courtesy, I expect it to be returned. But of course, if you aren't so keen on that, perhaps we could leave it up to a game of chance?" The Mantis withdrew a pair of dice from his obi and tossed them playfully from hand to hand.

Nomari stared at him for a while, perhaps wondering, as Akasha was, how much of his story was true. Finally, she smiled coyly. "I don't believe you," she said. "Kill him."

Akasha began firing as quickly as she could and still hit her targets. She dropped two more men before she realized that one of them had been studying her first target, and had deduced her location. The man drew his bow and fired, but Bumei was too fast. He moved between them and somehow, she had no idea how, cut the arrow out of the air less than ten feet from the archer. She had never seen anyone so skilled, or so lucky. Bunmei dispatched the archer and another, but the others were scattering. Nomari drew her blade and lunged at Bunmei. She moved quickly, and her stance clearly demonstrated that she was a deadly combatant.

Bunmei parried her first strike, but his sword snapped off cleanly at the hilt. He squandered a precious instant staring mutely at the blade's hilt, then buried the inch of broken steel in the woman's side. She hissed in pain and kicked him squarely in the stomach, driving the air from his lungs and pushing him down into a sitting position. Quick as lightning, she lifted her blade for the killing strike.

And Akasha put an arrow in her left ear.

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

The Ronin Plains, one month ago

The village was small enough that it didn't even have a name, or at least not one that Akasha was familiar with. By the time she and Bunmei had arrived, it was mostly in flames, and there was fighting in the streets. The confusion had been the worst part, because in the beginning, it looked as though the villagers were fighting one another. It wasn't until they had seen the rice fields outside the village that they had understood. Men with torches, peasants from the look of them, were trying to set fire to everything, and others were trying to stop them. They were fighting with simple farming implements, clubs, sticks, anything at hand, while others tried to put out the fires. It was a losing battle.

"This village is dead," Bunmei said, mirroring her own thoughts.

"Perhaps the next one doesn't have to be," she said. "Find the leader."

As the only two samurai in the village, the two stuck out badly, and it was only a matter of minutes before they were noticed. Bunmei shouted a ferocious battle cry and attacked a trio of men that had cornered a young peasant valiantly defending his home with what appeared to be a rake. He fought with a brilliant sword that tore through anything it touched. Akasha was familiar with it, for it bore the same chop as her blade.

It was the mark of the Fortune of Steel. They each bore a blessed blade, forged in the Heavens and granted to the Clan Champions as a parting gift of Tsi Xing Guo. They had each been awarded such a blade after the defeat of Ide Nomari. She drew her blade and charged through the village, moving with a speed and agility that characterized her unique training and fighting style.

The village was not a large one, and she estimated that there were perhaps no more than three dozen of the attackers at most. Some were already dead, although there were far more villagers lying unmoving than the attackers. They depended, it seemed, on their apparently superior training and equipment to win the day. Ironic, given that she and Bunmei had much the same notion.

Akasha darted between two groups of combatants, cutting through the leg muscles of one attacker and completely severing the hand of another. The rallying cry of the peasants behind her was echoed from deeper within the village, where she heard Bunmei shouting and other voices shouting with him. Could it be possible that the battle could be turned simply by their presence?

No. Not as long as the revolutionaries had a chance to rally as well.

She moved through the village like a phantom, cutting down or injuring her enemies at every turn. After what seemed like hours, she found a cluster of men near the village's northwest edge. One was barking orders, which the others followed quickly and without question.

Without hesitation, Akasha withdrew a trio of small knives from her obi and hurled them one after another. The Naga blades were unerringly true, and three of the men dropped from their saddles without a word. The other two turned to face her, one with fear in his eyes, the other with anger. "Samurai harlot!" the leader shouted, drawing a crude parangu from his belt. "Kill her!"

The other man rushed in, but his assault was clumsy and he was obviously afraid. The strike would likely have gone wide regardless, but she easily side-stepped it and cut the man in half. The leader howled in rage and rushed forward, attacking with a crude kata that nonetheless surprised Akasha; someone had taught the man the rudimentary basics of swordsmanship.

Not that such meager skills would be sufficient, of course. She smashed his face once with the tsuba of her weapon, then a second time when he did not drop instantly. The man staggered, blood streaming from his nose and mouth, but reached for her with his off-hand, as if to strangle her. She grabbed his hand and snapped it neatly at the wrist. The man groaned in pain, and fell unmoving to the ground.

Akasha turned and listened for Bunmei's shouting. There was a bit more work before the battle could be considered won.

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

Once the attackers were well and truly routed, the two samurai returned to question their leader. "You've stopped nothing," the man said, spitting blood on the ground. "You cannot stop a storm, or an earthquake. You will only delay what is inevitable."

Bunmei struck the man sharply across the top of the head, causing a bright ribbon of blood to run down his face. "Idiot!" he snarled, and lifted his hand to strike again, but Akasha held up a cautionary hand.

"Who are you?" she demanded.

"My name doesn't matter. I am one of countless legions. Someone else will take my place tomorrow. You've accomplished nothing!"

"Yes, so you said," Akasha said patiently. "Why are you here?"

"The fields in the Scorpion lands are barren," the man said. "The Fortune came and cursed them, and now thousands risk starvation. And for what? So the Scorpion can continue fortifying the southern border in case the Crab attack again? My family should die, just in case? No!"

"Sacrifices have always been made in war," Akasha began.

"By whom?" the man demanded. "By samurai? No! By us! By the people! They use us and throw us away! We are nothing to them!"

"It is not like that," Akasha said.

"It is!" he insisted. "But no more! We will not stand aside to suffer and die in silence so that you can have your wars, your lavish courts! The Dark Prophet has shown us the truth! He has shown us the truth! One man with a knife can destroy a dynasty!"

"You turned on others of your kind, to send a message to the samurai you serve?" Bunmei said. "That's ludicrous."

"They would not join us! They continued to serve, to feed their masters! They work against us and the Prophet, and they are our enemies!"

"Then your enemies won today," Akasha said, "if this could be called a victory." She opened her arms to take in the village. "Look at them. You have done everything that you claim samurai would do. These men and women never harmed anyone, and served loyally. They were rewarded for their service, but you took it all away. You are the criminal here. You are the traitor."

"Never," the man said. "Kill me and be done with it."

"So be it," Bunmei said, and drew his blade. "Look away, Akasha."

She looked away, to the burning fields, and wondered idly how many more just like it were burning elsewhere throughout the Empire.

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

Ryoko Owari Toshi

Akasha and Bunmei watched as the last of the few crates were loaded aboard the ship. It was noticeably higher in the water now than when it had arrived only a day ago, and yet the value of its contents was probably even greater.

"I imagine you won't have trouble with bandits on your return trip," Akasha observed.

"Probably not," Bunmei agreed. "We'll be moving downriver, which is normally faster. With a hold that's only a quarter full, it will take perhaps one third of the time it took to sail up."

"Why did they trust you to receive the lion's share of the payment?" Akasha asked. "When we first met you took great care to explain how disreputable you were, after all."

"Don't be ridiculous," Bunmei scoffed. "Haven't you heard? I am Yoritomo Bunmei, wielder of Shori. The captain who will risk certain death to ensure his cargo reaches its destination!" He smiled broadly. "Also I am quite certain Naizen-sama will break my jaw if I am late."

Akasha chuckled. "It was good to see you again. You wield Shori well. I am certain the Fortune of Steel is greatly pleased with how his gift is being put to use."

"Thank you," Bunmei said with a bow. "It is nice to have a blade you can trust not to break, even after a year's exposure to salt air. You are likewise the only warrior I can imagine worthy enough to bear Jiyu. Your lord is fortunate to have such a vassal." His roguish smile returned. "Not to mention your husband, of course."

"Have an interesting winter, Bunmei-san," Akasha said, returning his bow. "Perhaps we will see each other again next year."

"Perhaps we will," he replied. "As for interesting& I would have it no other way."


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!