By Brian Yoon
Edited by Fred Wan
The Month of the Rooster, Year 1169
“And so, my lady, I ask as a representative of the Unicorn Clan for a symbol, any symbol, of brotherhood from our friends to the north,” Ide Eien said softly, a sincere smile pasted over his face. He spread his hands out in a placating gesture in front of him. The lady of the castle sat in front of the ambassador, her eyes boring into the man. Mirumoto Kei was well known for her tactical brilliance, her beauty, and her strength in combat. Her face was fixed into an unreadable mask, and Eien could not tell what effect his speech had had so far. The others in the room â€” advisors, dignitaries, and other important samurai â€” were not nearly as difficult to understand.
“Brotherhood?” A bald advisor behind Kei said, spitting the word as if it was distasteful. “We are no brothers to warmongers and usurpers.”
Eien shook his head. “My lord the Khan simply wished to unite the empire under a strong leader, to guide these lands through troubled times to come.” His eyes grew sharp and he gestured boldly out in front of him. “If no man ever dared to traverse the difficult, misunderstood path, we would not be the civilized samurai we are today. We would be weaklings, cowering from our powerful enemies that threaten to destroy the empire even today.”
“Do you truly believe the Khan’s attack would have brought order and stability into the land?” the same advisor retorted. “You would have simply divided the empire more, as you have done. Perhaps your claim for the Unicorn’s intentions would have merit if your men guarded us from the horrors of the Shadowlands. Yet Unicorn samurai do not stand on the Wall. We must have peace, yet your troops will soak the land in blood.”
Eien’s smile grew chilly, and his eyes hardened. “The Unicorn have always held the interests of the empire at heart. We have sent aid, military and otherwise, to the Crab to bolster their efforts against the Shadowlands. When people were starving, the Unicorn sent rice to feed the peasants. We are not the heartless monsters you depict, Togashi-san.”
“That rice was sent as bribes to buy new friends,” the advisor sneered. “Hardly heroic.”
“If you desire peace, send aid to the Khan in repelling the Lion’s mad attack upon our homeland.” Eien said without pause, as if the advisor’s comment was beneath his notice. The chatter from the others in the room grew quiet. It was true, they knew; without Unicorn rice sent before the start of winter, hundreds of men would have died of starvation. Perhaps the rice had been sent as leverage to keep the Dragon out of the war. Yet the effect of the Unicorn’s aid could not simply be pushed aside. Did they, they wondered, owe a debt of honor to the Unicorn?
“The Lion’s assault on your lands is a matter of honor,” Mirumoto Kei interjected, silencing both the quarrelsome advisor and the Unicorn courtier. “It would bring shame on both the Lion and the Unicorn Clans if outsiders were to interfere within your quarrel.”
“You call the Lion Champion’s maddened vow a point of honor?” Eien asked. “I would beg to differ, my lady. It is sheer madness, and a simple, ignoble desire for revenge. He wants blood for his fallen father, a man who died honorably in battle. This quest of his only spits on Nimuro-sama’s memory.”
“The reasons for his promise are well known across the empire, Eien-san,” Kei replied, her calm unruffled. “I would caution a diplomat of accusing such a powerful man of lies, but I know you are aware of the dangers.”
“Kei-sama,” Eien said, his voice dripping with sincerity, “the Mirumoto are the head of the Dragon military, and you are the famed general who led your samurai in the City of the Rich Frog against the might of two armies. You have gained much respect in the eyes of the Unicorn with your strength. I plead of you, use this strength to stop another tragedy from occurring. If the Lion assault our lands, thousands of our soldiers will die. We must accept that as our role as samurai. The tragedy lies in the countless, innocent peasants and merchants murdered to the Matsu’s murderous rampage.”
Kei shook her head. “We do not side with the Lion, nor will we protect you. We will not intervene in this war.”
Eien bowed deeply. “If I cannot gather your aid,” he said, “I am glad to know we need not worry about the mountains descending to destroy us. Thank you, Kei-sama.” He turned to leave the room, and his entourage moved with him.
As they left, Kei finally relaxed. She was adapting to her new duties well, she thought, and looked around at her yet-unfamiliar surroundings. Her eyes latched onto her advisor as he stared at the Unicorns exiting the room. She was surprised to recognize anger burning in his eyes.
* * *
Matsu Fumiyo was certainly no stranger to combat. She had joined the Lion armies as soon as she had left gempukku and had been involved in the defense of the City of the Rich Frog. In the chaos of those tough months, she had faced charges from Moto madmen, the skillful ambushes of Dragon archers, and the strange magic of monks and shugenja from both sides. She had faced it all, yet the coming war somehow unsettled her mind and made her feel ill at ease. The march west toward the Unicorn lands had given her much time to mull over it in her mind, yet she could not pinpoint what exactly made her feel uncomfortable.
She stepped in front of her tent and looked out toward the west. Lord Sun ignited the sky in dark orange as he began his descent below the horizon. Fields of grass reflected the light as they rippled in the wind. It looked as if the hill had been singled by Lord Sun for a moment of perfect beauty, a sight that gave her pause. In contrast, the lights from the Unicorn defense were a sign of a more ominous nature. They were clearly visible even in the fading light. They dotted the hill in impressive numbers, and Fumiyo strained her eyes to try to count them. She gave it up after a few moments as a lost cause. However numerous the Unicorn may be, she thought, the Lion would certainly prevail. She could imagine nothing less.
Her reverie was interrupted by the approach of her friend and mentor Matsu Sakaki. Sakaki was an older, taller woman with a mischievous grin pasted on her face. Though no one could call her a beautiful woman, Sakaki wore her scars with a grace that endeared her to those around her. Sakaki had been Fumiyo’s superior officer when she first joined the army, and the fierce and honorable warrior had taught her everything that she could not learn in the confines of the Matsu dojo. In recent years, the two had been separated with promotions and reassignments, and Fumiyo could feel the heaviness in her heart lessen by Sakaki’s presence.
Before Fumiyo could say a word in greeting, Matsu Sakaki called out. “Why the grim face, sister? Surely you cannot be unnerved by the thought of battle. I thought you were a woman of more mettle than that.”
“I have not lost my nerve any more than you have, Sakaki-san,” Fumiyo replied. “Perhaps your days away from the front lines have softened you. Do not fret. I will be there to hold your hand if some evil Unicorn scare you.”
Sakaki laughed heartily. “Perhaps you forget what happened the first time you faced a charge from the Utaku Battle Maidens, Fumiyo-chan?”
Fumiyo’s face flushed bright red. “Iâ€” I was young, and it never happened again,” she stammered.
Sakaki waved off her protests. “Do not worry on that account, Fumiyo-chan. I simply find it much too easy to catch you off guard. How will you ever catch a man if you cannot keep your composure from simple teasing?”
Fumiyo shook her head. She imagined her face could not possibly grow any more inflamed. “I have no such intentions,” she murmured. “War, bushido, and serving my daimyo are the only matters on my mind.”
“One day you will, sister,” Sakaki said, still smiling, “and you will find many other things to occupy your mind. Or perhaps you are simply being modest? Do you still stare whenever handsome young Sadahige comes near?”
Fumiyo turned away and pointed at the hill to hide her growing embarrassment. “There are a lot of fires in the Unicorn camp, Sakaki-san. We will have quite a fight on our hands tomorrow.”
“Perhaps, but not for the reasons you may think,” Sakaki said, stepping next to her protÃ©gÃ©. “I doubt the Unicorn have so many troops to defend here, far from their major cities. I suspect the Unicorn commander is simply lighting more campfires than he has men. Their commander understands war. The battle to come will be a worthy one.”
“I see,” Fumiyo said slowly. “They want us to think we are facing an impossibly powerful foe. We might be cowed when we enter combat, with that in mind.”
“No, he must know the Lion would not fall to such simple tricks. I would venture that he wishes to hide his true numbers, so that we will have no idea how many units we will face tomorrow.”
Fumiyo turned to face Sakaki. “Sakaki-san, there are so many things I don’t understand. It is fall and soon it will snow. Why do we attack now, when we will be forced to halt our campaign in a few months?”
“I am no tactician, Fumiyo, but if I had to make my guess, our generals intend to sweep past the Unicorn defenses and establish a foothold within their lands that will be ready when spring begins.”
“I see,” Fumiyo said. “We were there when Yoshino-sama announced his vow. You asked me then why we allowed the Unicorn to return to their lands. I have thought on the matter, but I cannot figure out why. The Phoenix prevented us from exterminating them at the Imperial City. We should have defeated the Khan then and there, so that we did not need to invade their lands now.”
Sakaki placed a hand on her forehead. Fumiyo knew from experience that her mentor tended to do so whenever she thought deeply on any subject. “The Phoenix act to protect history, tradition, and the Imperial City,” she said. “They simply wished to preserve the countless relics and treasures of the past, a goal that honors the ancestors of the Empire. I hear that they have recently asked us to leave the walls of the city when the Mantis provoked us into yet another fight.”
“We are the protectors of the Imperial City,” Fumiyo said. Her eyes widened in shock. “They dare remove us from our post?”
Sakaki smiled at Fumiyo. “They are misguided. You must understand that the Phoenix act to preserve the capitol from all sides. We must applaud their efforts. Although they presume much, their goal is an honorable one.”
“Perhaps you are right, Sakaki-san, but to start by removing us from ourâ€””
“Have faith in the Lion,” Sakaki said, cutting off Fumiyo’s reply. “We will defend the city even if we are not allowed inside. We are the Lion. We will not fail.”
“Perhaps they will feel the need to intervene here,” Fumiyo said, “before we can bring Moto Chagatai to justice.”
“If the Unicorn courtiers have their way, they will,” Sakaki replied. Her grin grew ferocious, and her eyes twinkled with excitement. “It will be my job and yours, Fumiyo-chan, to finish this battle so quickly they do not have the chance.”
* * *
Shinjo Shono’s crystal eye flared green in the dead of night as he stared out at the camp. Campfires flickered in countless areas along the hill as his men attempted to get some sleep before dawn. The time they had waited for, prepared for, and dreaded had finally arrived. His scouts had sent dozens of reports about the movement of the Lion forces, and by his reckoning, they would attempt to cross the Unicorn border tomorrow.
“You will not sleep, Shono-sama?” a voice asked, and Shono turned to his friend Shinjo Huang. Huang had stood by his side for countless battles, and the familiar sight of his rough face comforted the Shinjo daimyo.
“I will find time to rest later,” Shono said. “As for now, the Lion army is at our heels and they have too many advantages. They will outnumber us badly. They have the best tacticians on their side. We, on the other hand, must rely on our luck and a tired old commander.”
Huang shook his head. “You sell yourself short, Shono-sama. You are a brilliant commander and the troops know and trust you. We have ingenuity and righteousness on our side. Our men know that if we fail, our loved ones will fall to Lion blades. They will not falter tomorrow.”
Shono smiled wryly. “I never figured you as an optimist before, Huang.”
Huang looked back at his daimyo, his gaze unwavering. “You have… unconventional methods at times, Shono-sama, and you make light of your abilities, but I have full faith in you. We will persevere together, my lord.”
Shono gestured toward the hundreds of fires that lit up the camp. “If I only had enough men to sit by each campfire, I would throw the Lion back with gusto. But I will be frank with you, old friend. The force we have here is not sufficient. Without the Fortunes at our side, we will be overrun by the Lion.” He chuckled, and Huang’s eyes grew wide with worry. He had never heard Shono’s voice laced with so much fatigue. “Instead of men, we must rely on tricks like using campfires to hide our numbers from the Lion. I suppose it will have to do.”
“Shono-sama,” Huang said, his words dragged out by his hesitancy. “Even if we cannot stop the advances of their army, we will delay the Lion. We may not win, but we can always retreat and engage them again.”
Shono’s unnatural eye flared with green light again, and Huang instinctively flinched. He had seen it many times before, but he could not get used to the strangeness of that magic. Even with its oddity, Huang could not look away. The conviction in Shono’s eye was addictive. “We cannot fail,” Shono said. “The Khan honored me with this duty because he expected me to discharge it. I will not betray that expectation. That, Kuang, is why I cannot sleep. If I can think of even one more tactic, one tiny trick that will kill another Lion and stop their progress, I will do it. I must do it.”
“You will not do it alone,” Huang promised. “Just as you are the morale of the army, Shono-sama, I and the rest of the Junghar will be your might. We will be your blade to destroy the enemies of the Unicorn.”
* * *
The Lion assembled shortly after dawn. Units and units of highly trained samurai and ashigaru stood ready in perfect formation as they waited for the signal to charge. To the Unicorn’s credit, they were also ready. Fumiyo’s unit was not in the front lines; mostly ashigaru spearmen and Deathseekers were ready to fall in battle at the front lines. Fumiyo was among those who would replace the front line and exacerbate any weaknesses created in the opposing army by the deaths of the Deathseekers. She glanced up the hill, where the Unicorn army waited for the Lion assault. Sakaki was right. The Unicorn army was much smaller than she had guessed, with perhaps only a thousand men to face the Lion assault. She could not relax. The Unicorn must have had something up their sleeves.
She glanced over to her right, where her superior Akodo Hachigoro stood perfectly still with remarkable calm. She knew from experience she could count on him to retain his composure even in the heat of combat. She was thankful for that; with her enemies in front of her, it was easy to lose sight of the big picture and pursue her targets until they lay bleeding and dying on the floor.
The Lion were the first to make a move. The front lines moved forward in perfect unison across the dead zone between the two armies, slowly but inexorably marching toward the small Unicorn army. Units of Unicorn charged in response, their movements superbly quick on the fast steeds that no other Clan had yet managed to replicate. They moved forward and loosed their arrows at the front lines, and the Lion began to fall in droves. They charged forward tantalizingly close to the Lion lines and fired their arrows, yet the Lion front line continued in the same steady rate.
“We are taking many losses,” Fumiyo murmured. Her hands grasped her sword in eagerness.
“Have faith in our men,” Hachigoro said. As if to punctuate his statement, an answering volley of arrows flew toward the Unicorn army. Though the horse archers moved fast, several were caught in the shower and collapsed to the floor. The Unicorn began to slowly withdraw to grab some respite from the rain of death.
“We should charge and attack them,” Fumiyo said loudly. The soldiers next to her nodded in agreement. “They don’t have the men if we simply charge and take them by force!”
“If we follow them,” Hachigoro said, “we cannot catch up to their horses. They will simply exhaust us with arrows then lead us into an ambush. Have patience, Fumiyo! They cannot breach our lines if we stay in formation. We will take casualties, but we would take more if we do not retain our discipline. Move forward!”
Fumiyo nodded. She would make a terrible commander, she mused as she continued in step with the rest of her unit. She frowned. The ground she marched on felt different to her, for some reason. Her instincts screamed at her that something was wrong. She just could not figure out what.
* * *
“Now! Shoot now!” Shono shouted. He raised his katana in the air and pointed out toward the advancing Lion army. He looked over across the battlefield to see if the archers had received his message.
Shinjo Xushen, the best marksman in Shono’s army, drew an arrow to his bow. His aide quickly lit the arrow on fire. He aimed quickly and loosed it into the air. It quickly whistled through the air and landed in the middle of the Lion unit that followed the front line. Before the Lion could react, the oil Shono had slathered onto that section of the field caught the flame. Within an instant, the fire ignited into an inferno that blazed across the entire field. As Lion men began to flail and drop weapons, Xushen smiled in victory.
Shono glanced down the hill. All of his units were behind the cleared line; the fire would not leap toward his units. He gestured to his heavy cavalry in reserves, and they began to charge toward the Lion front lines.
“Your move, Yoshino,” Shono growled.
* * *
The flames had missed her by mere inches, and Fumiyo stumbled forward to avoid it. The screams of the soldiers as they burnt to death echoed in her ears. The smell of charred flesh reached her nose, and she fought the urge to vomit. She placed her sword back in its sheath and moved backward to help pull her comrades out of the inferno.
“Stay in formation!” Hachigoro’s voice thundered above the chaos. “Ready for a charge from the Unicorn, or we will all die!” The rain of arrows into the Lion ranks began anew. The arrows slashed through the ranks, rapidly killing men in Fumiyo’s unit. The thundering sound of hooves reached her ears as the Unicorn began to charge again.
Fumiyo glanced behind at her dying comrades and gritted her teeth. She drew her blade and roared in pure anger. The fire was blocking all reinforcements. The unit in front of her and the portion of her unit that were not already dead were all there was to defend against the charge.
“Come, Unicorn!” she shouted. She knew they would not hear, but it did not matter. “Come, and I will show you how a Lion dies!”
Hachigoro shouted as if in reply and her unit charged as one to reinforce the front. They came to stand in ranks with the unit that had died in front of them. Fumiyo glanced over to her side and saw the unblinking stare from a painted face. They were Deathseekers. Fumiyo made a feral grin. It was fitting that she would fall with members of her family looking for good deaths, she thought. The thought was exhilarating.
The skies darkened without warning. Within moments, a downpour of thick rain covered the battlefield. Before the oil fire could spread, the fires abruptly disappeared in a sudden cyclone of flowing air. Fumiyo could hear her brethren charging to reinforce the front as soon as they could. The Unicorn charge faltered then stopped, as they realized the Lion were not isolated. If they charged, they would face the might of the entire Lion army.
“The Kitsu have earned their keep today,” Hachigoro said. He smiled.
* * *
“Shono-sama,” Huang shouted, riding back to his general. “The Lion have broken through the traps and evaded our ambush! What can we do?”
Shono quickly ran through the options in his head. In the end, there was simply one choice. Shono gritted his teeth. “Our intelligence told us the Kitsu were spread thinly, and were not with this army. If we stay, we will take unnecessary casualties. Sound the retreat.”
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