By Brian Yoon
Edited by Fred Wan
Castle of the Swift Sword, Month of the Boar, 1169
The front door of the house flew open with a resounding crash that rang through the air. Ikoma Noda looked up from the quiet peace of his room. An involuntary smile crept onto his face. There were few people who would hold such little respect for the tranquility of his home. He set his brush down, stood and strode out to greet his unexpected guest.
His suspicions were confirmed when he came to the door. A boy, still too young for his gempukku, leaned against the jam of the door. He was small but feisty and was the spitting image of Noda himself. He wheezed as if he had overexerted himself. Knowing the boy, Noda mused, he probably had. And know him he did; Shiro was his youngest brother, a mischievous little urchin preparing to become a bushi in service to the Lion armies.
“You are back,” Shiro said. He tried in vain to control his heavy breathing. “When I heard the news, I ran all the way from the training grounds to find you.”
Noda laughed heartily. “Skipping your lessons, Shiro? You’re earning trouble with the sensei. Again.”
Shiro seem nonplussed by the idea. “It is just as well that I give them the excuse. They find fault in everything I do. It is never enough. They will correct me for the smallest error and force me to do them over, and over, and over.”
“That is because the teachers are preparing you to become a Lion samurai,” Noda replied. “A Lion must always strive to be the perfect samurai.”
Shiro shook his head impatiently, as if he had heard it all many times before. “In the last letter you sent us, you told us you were on the front lines against the Unicorn. Has that changed? Are you staying in the castle for the winter?”
“Only for a few weeks,” Noda said. “Then I travel back to the front lines with the supply lines. I have little time to myself before I must attend to my duties, and I looked forward to relaxing with family. I am glad to see you again, little brother.”
He gestured Shiro inside his house, and they began to walk deeper into the house together.
“Did you see many battles, brother?” Shiro asked eagerly. “How was it like to travel with our glorious campaign?”
Noda nodded. “I have fought in dozens of battles, Shiro. I have witnessed hundreds of Lion fall to Unicorn arrows and blades. I have seen even more Unicorn die in droves as we marched deeper into their territory. They fight with marvelous strength and dedication to defend their home. It has been a worthy campaign, and I feel truly honored to be able to write it down to forever inscribe it into our history.”
“So we are winning?” Shiro said.
Noda’s face grew grim. “The Unicorn are worthy adversaries,” he replied. “We continue our advance, but Shinjo Shono and the armies of the Unicorn make us earn every mile of ground we take. Our progress is slow, but inevitable. It will be a difficult campaign, little brother. It will be glorious.”
Shiro nodded eagerly. “I look forward to listening to the tales of glory you shall create, Noda. You entrance me with each story.” He looked up. “Are you working on any stories now?”
Noda hesitated. “I just finished writing down an experience from the front lines, but I fear it is not akin to your favorite tales, brother. This is a cautionary anecdote that I have written for audiences outside our lands.”
Shiro was quiet as they reached Noda’s room. They entered and sat down on cushions that rested in the middle of the room. Noda quickly checked the scroll and made sure that it was still clean. Satisfied, he turned back to his brother.
“Is it a true story?” Shiro finally asked.
Noda smiled at him and reached out to touch his little brother’s head. Shiro allowed it with little protest. Samurai were not prone to displays of emotion and very rarely touched others. However, his brother Noda had been trained as an Omoidasu, the bards of the Lion. He was trained to express his emotions in public in his warrior brothers’ stead. Shiro had grown accustomed to Noda’s demonstrations.
“All of my stories are true, brother,” Noda said. “I am a historian. It is my duty to record the events as they occur. Other clans may embellish the deeds of their heroes, but Lion samurai have no need of it.”
“I would like to hear it, Noda, even if it is outside my interests,” Shiro said. He looked down at the floor. “I can see that the subject is close to your heart. I want to know what it is, even if I will not understand it.”
Noda nodded. He began to recite the story from memory, and his voice deepened as he started to perform.
“This is a story of the dedication of the Lion,” Noda said. “Two weeks ago, in the month of Boar, the glorious armies of the Lion approached the city of Watarimono in the Unicorn lands. It had been a tough campaign, full of tough battles and deeds of great honor. I had the privilege of accompanying our brave samurai as they crested a hill near the city. When they saw the city in the horizon, they were filled with resolve. Each Lion samurai vowed to take the city for the glory of the Lion by next sunset.”
* * *
Unicorn lands, two weeks ago
“At last, a city to conquer,” Matsu Fumiyo said to herself as she rested at the top of the hill. It was hard to see the city properly in the poorly lit dusk, but that did not stop her from eagerly devouring the sight. For weeks, the Lion army had slowly marched through miles of grasslands and plains. They had fought over every yard of the Unicorn fields as Shono’s forces died to protect their homeland. The Unicorn had ground down the Lion assault to a mind numbing, protracted march. Fumiyo was inordinately glad to see any sight of civilization.
“If you can call it that,” Akodo Hachigoro, her unit’s officer, responded as he stepped up from behind her. Fumiyo turned to him in surprise. “The Unicorn are nomads. This is barely a city.”
Fumiyo smiled at Hachigoro. “Hachigoro-san, you are speaking to me outside the battlefield. Some might even consider such a thing socializing. Where is the gruff, stoic officer I have come to know of late?”
Hachigoro glared at the young, outgoing woman. “Nonsense, Fumiyo-san. I believe in the propriety that must occur between soldiers of different rank. My social graces have nothing to do with my silence.”
“A convenient excuse,” Fumiyo said. When she had first been assigned to Hachigoro’s unit, she could have never gathered the courage to speak to him in such a manner. After surviving countless battles at his side, her attitude had changed. He was calm, smart, and reliable under pressure. She respected him greatly, and knew that he did not mind her teasing. “Perhaps you simply do not know how you should approach a Matsu woman.”
Hachigoro frowned. “You miss the point, Fumiyo-san.”
“Hachigoro-san, I simply jest. You Akodo do not know how to relax,” Fumiyo began to say. She stopped as four others walked up to the pair. A faint red glow graced her cheeks as she recognized the newcomers. The youngest, Akodo Sadahige, was a young samurai who had proven his worth on the battlefield several times in this campaign alone. He was skilled with the blade, but his talents did not end there. He was known as a lively young man whose carefree attitude lightened the moods of his comrades. Fumiyo had spent little time with the handsome man, but what little she did know of him made her heart race.
The others did not catch Fumiyo’s attention as quickly yet she shortly realized that they were no less important. A young man was dressed in the flowing garbs of an Ikoma omoidasu, a bard who traveled with important samurai to write down the events for posterity. They made certain the legends of Lion samurai continued on through the ages. Another was a middle aged man dressed in the brown, drab kimono of a ronin; he had an aura of casual violence around him, as if he were ready to leap into combat at any moment. Fumiyo did not recognize him, but that did not concern her. The Lion army traveled with many ronin hired to fight. Some were so accustomed to fighting for the Lion that they nearly considered themselves Lion samurai. The Lion, for their part, generously chose to overlook this insult, as they expected little better from the low-born ronin.
The ronin was special only because he accompanied the third and last man of the newcomers. He was a small man, yet his eyes betrayed sharp intelligence and strength. Though he was physically unimpressive, Akodo Bakin radiated calm around him. Fumiyo straightened her posture and erased the grin from her face. Akodo Bakin was the commander of this unit of the army. Despite her informal conversation with her leader Hachigoro, Fumiyo knew full well the courtesies that were due a superior officer.
Akodo Sadahige entered the conversation as if he did not notice Fumiyo’s sudden discomfort. “I beg to differ, Fumiyo-chan,” he said. “Some of us are rather much more adventurous than others. May I dare say it, some Akodo know how to live a little.” He bowed in Hachigoro’s direction. “No offense meant, Hachigoro-san.”
“None taken,” Hachigoro replied. He bowed to Bakin. “My lord.”
Bakin nodded. “Hachigoro-san. I came to congratulate you on your unit’s performance during the Unicorn’s raid last night. You kept your calm, though you were closest to the attack, and rallied the defenses. I was impressed.”
“I simply did what I had been trained to do,” Hachigoro replied. He looked over at Fumiyo and gestured to her. “Matsu Fumiyo-san was instrumental in leading the counterattack. All compliments are due to her.”
Fumiyo blushed once more. She did not think herself a dullard, but for the life of her she felt frozen and unable to speak in the presence of both Bakin and Sadahige. “Hachigoro-san is too kind,” she finally mumbled.
“I do not make light of your achievements either, Fumiyo-san,” Bakin said, his eyes fixing on the woman. “I have sent word to my superiors of your valor in combat. Perhaps it will result in favorable conditions for you both. As for now, I have another assignment in mind for you.”
As if on cue, the ronin stepped forward and gave a curt nod to Fumiyo and Hachigoro. He pointed at the distant city. “This is a small trading village on the way to Shiro Moto. It is an unremarkable city, one of many such cities that dot the vast Unicorn lands. During half of the year, it is nearly empty, as its inhabitants wander across the plains. The ones who remain do so to maintain trades with their partners from across the empire.”
Bakin turned to Hachigoro. “You will be in charge of the scouting unit sent to assess the situation inside the city. Our scouts have told us that the armed forces of the Unicorn have already left the city as a lost cause. They know that they will eventually lose if they chose to make a stand here, and for some reason, the Unicorn care that the fighting will result in dead peasants. Still, to be sure your unit will enter the city and make sure no defenses remain.”
Hachigoro bowed. “I understand, Bakin-sama. What can I expect to face inside?”
Bakin looked expectantly at the ronin, and the ronin continued. “It is like any other Unicorn city. They mix their strange, gaijin architectural styles with that of traditional Rokugani styles. I suppose they believe it makes the buildings look more familiar to outsiders. I think the hint of Rokugan only serves to emphasize the abomination of the place.”
“Thank you, Kensaki,” Bakin said quietly. “Kensaki is a ronin who has served the Lion armies for over a decade. He is a man who has earned both my trust and my friendship. His knowledge of the Unicorn lands will be a boon to you and your unit inside the city, should any problems arise. Take him, and Sadahige-san with you. They will both serve you well.”
Hachigoro bowed. “Yes, my lord.”
“The Unicorn have vacated this village to spare the lives of their farmers,” Bakin continued. “We shall demonstrate Lord Akodo’s wisdom by refraining from destroying the emperor’s property. Do not harass the inhabitants of the city. Do not kill any of them. They will resent our presence; after all, they are Unicorn. Still, we will not make them hate us any more than they need to. We shall make the change of ownership as painless as possible.”
* * *
The Next Day
“Preposterous,” Yasuki Yukinaga sniffed. “You must be joking with me. Someone must not have informed you exactly who you are dealing with, peasant.”
The merchant shook his head violently. His gaze fell on Yukinaga’s feet, as if he dared not risk the Crab’s wrath by staring at his face. “Oh no, Yukinaga-sama, my master Ide Haruto was perfectly clear in your identity. I am sorry to tell you that his orders regarding your request are perfectly clear. He has no merchandise available for you this winter. He respectfully asks that you search elsewhere for your needs.”
“My needs?” Yukinaga snarled. “For Hida’s sake, Haruto knows perfectly well that I represent the Crab Clan army in all my trades, not myself! We had a deal! He offered me exclusivity for five years in return for selling the merchandise ten percent above market price. It’s worked perfectly so far. Tell me, merchant, why is his supply suddenly empty?”
Haruto’s servant gulped audibly as he struggled to stray calm in the face of Yukinaga’s anger. After all, he was a large samurai, a man that was above his station. Moreover, he was a Crab, and Crabs had a reputation for becoming violent when things did not go their way. Intimidation did not fit into his usual methods â€” he had been taught to wheedle and navigate the black market with far more subtlety â€” but he figured any tactic would be useful. It would not do to return to the Crab lands empty-handed.
“I-I-I-” the man stammered.
Yukinaga leaned closer. “Yes?” he asked, his voice rumbling in the confines of the small room. The merchant blanched.
“Haruto-sama received an offer,” he said. His voice lowered to a whisper, as if he expected the walls to have ears. “Haruto-sama also received a threat.”
“How interesting,” Yukinaga said. “That sounds remarkably similar to what I had in mind for today.”
“I am sorry, Yukinaga-sama, but my master’s hands are tied.” the merchant replied. He bowed deeply and profusely. He kept his eyes on the floor and continued to bow over and over until Yukinaga sniffed and waved his hand.
“Who approached Haruto with this threat?” Yukinaga asked. He knew the answer already, of course; he had already heard it from five other merchants in five other cities. Still, he wanted to hear it directly from the trembling Unicorn in front of him.
“He — I do not know for sure, because this lowly servant was–”
Yukinaga cut him off with a single word. “Who?”
The merchant swallowed again. “I do not know his name, Yukinaga-sama. My master Haruto-sama dealt with him personally. I only know it was a Daidoji samurai.”
Yukinaga nodded and sighed with resignation. It was the inevitable answer, but the same one he dreaded. His clan had begun hostilities with the Crane Clan months ago, and they had battled each other on several fronts on the border. At the beginning of the war, Yukinaga held no doubt in his mind that the Crab would completely trounce the Crane military in a matter of weeks. The reality had taken him by surprise. The Crab were making steady advances, but their progress was not as swift, frequent, and decisive as the clan would have liked. And the Crane had retaliated in a predictable, yet highly damaging, way.
They had shut the markets down to the Crab, restricting the flow of goods into the Crab lands from almost every single source. Somehow, the Crane had managed to stop hundreds of shipments that the Crab relied on every day to continue in their duties, both on the warfront and the Wall. Reliable merchants were suddenly making excuses for lost shipments. Those who still sold to the Crab charged astronomical prices; when pressed on the issue, they would only state that they had received pressure from outside sources to change prices. The Crane did not even leave the market on jade intact. In this war, the Crane were doing everything in their power to prevent the Crab from continuing.
Things had grown so desperate, Yukinaga mused, that Hida Benjiro had sent his spy to rustle up supplies from any source that he could find. Yukinaga had searched far and wide. He went everywhere to try to scrounge up even the hint of success. This, he supposed, was why he now found himself in an uncomfortably small room in a Unicorn city located in the middle of nowhere.
“So Haruto, the weasel, has no lumber for me,” Yukinaga said.
“He is regrettably unable to fill your request, Yukinaga-sama.”
“Haruto, the imbecile, has no steel for me,” he continued as if no one had spoken.
“He is regrettably unable–”
“Yes, yes, I get the gist of it,” he interrupted. He turned around and looked at the small room. He suddenly noted that the dozens of trinkets Haruto normally had on display were missing. The room looked positively bare compared to his memories of the same room a year previously. He frowned as a thought struck him. “Why is Haruto not here to talk to me directly?”
“He left the town a week ago, my lord,” the merchant said. “Every Unicorn samurai has evacuated this town under the orders of general Shono. The Lion are coming, and with them battle.”
“Wonderful,” Yukinaga said. “No supplies, and I’m placed in the middle of a war. What a wonderful way to begin my day.”
Their conversation immediately ended as a scream rang out from nearby. An annoyed grunt quickly followed, and the sound of steel leaving their scabbards was unmistakable. Yukinaga frowned and quickly headed for the door. The sight that reached his eyes stopped him in his tracks.
* * *
If this was how one invaded a hostile city, Fumiyo thought, it was much less interesting than battle.
Hachigoro and his unit of Lion samurai moved forward cautiously through the main street of the city. Fumiyo and her comrades swept through the town, searching for Unicorn resistance in the form of samurai or armed peasants. There was no one. The streets were empty as the Lions made their way through the city, and it was duller than a patrol. Perhaps that meant little; of late, the Unicorn had assaulted many of the scout patrols that moved out from the Lion army and had made the job an exceedingly dangerous one to perform.
Hachigoro and the unit formed up at the front of the town and waited for the arrival of Bakin and the rest of the army. Fumiyo frowned. Sadahige was there with the rest of the men, but the ronin Kensaki was nowhere to be found. She set the thought from her mind and chided herself not to concern herself with others. For all she knew, Bakin had given the ronin additional orders to follow. Quietly they waited, and in an hour the Lion army appeared at the city. Bakin rode out in front of his men, followed only by the same omoidasu as before. Hachigoro saluted sharply.
“I am happy to report, Bakin-sama, that there is no resistance. The Unicorn seem to have truly left this town.”
“Good,” Bakin said. “Gather the able-bodied peasants and set them to work on the city’s defenses. If we are to rest here for the winter, we must set up fortifications to prepare for assault. The Unicorn may have wished to avoid harm to these inhabitants, but if the peasants escape they will have little to hold back their decision.”
Hachigoro bowed and gestured to several men in his unit. They quickly set on the task given to them. Fumiyo, Hachigoro, Sadahige, Bakin, and the omoidasu headed down the main street. Bakin and Sadahige held a conversation quietly and Fumiyo did her best not to listen. It was none of her business. The takeover of the town was occurring without a hitch.
A loud scream rang out and shattered the peace of the moment. Without waiting for an order Fumiyo ran in the direction of the sound. She could feel the rest of the group at her heels as everyone else had the same idea. A second scream rang out, but was suddenly cut off in a gurgle.
Fumiyo and the others drew short when they reached a building down a street that met the main road. The commotion had occurred in front of a building that had a sign of meat hanging in its front, advertising a slaughterhouse. Kensaki stood over the corpse of an aging man, his katana in hand. Kensaki had eviscerated the butcher and left him bleeding on the ground. A young sobbing peasant knelt by the corpse’s side. Kensaki turned to the man as if to finish the job, but at the sound of the approaching horse he turned around. He immediately stepped away from the man and cleaned the blood off his katana.
Fumiyo glanced at Bakin. His expression could not be read.
“What happened here?” Bakin asked as soon as he reached the ronin.
Kensaki shook his head and sheathed his katana. “I am sorry to have violated your edict, Bakin-san. When I entered the shop to check for enemy soldiers, this man attempted to reach for a butcher’s knife. I was forced to run him through.”
“He lies!” the sobbing man said. “He lies! My father would never do that!”
“You dare?” Kensaki snarled and grabbed the hilt of his katana.
“Stay your blade,” Bakin ordered. “He was your father?”
The peasant nodded without meeting Bakin’s gaze. “My father was an honest man, Lion-sama,” he pleaded. “He would never think to threaten the life of a samurai. He made a simple living. This ronin entered our shop and demanded that we give him all of our hard-earned coin. When my father refused to tell him where he hid the money, the ronin murdered him.”
Kensaki sniffed. “He is just a peasant,” he said. “He lies. His word means nothing. You cannot possibly believe his testimony over mine, Bakin-san.”
“His word may not mean anything, ronin,” a voice came from a nearby building, “but mine does.”
Bakin and the other Lions on the street turned to face the disturbance. It was a large man dressed in the clothes of a Crab who was leaning against the door. He was impeccably dressed, and his hair and goatee looked immaculately clean. Fumiyo could see a small Unicorn peasant, richly dressed and cowering in the room behind the Crab. She disliked the Crab at once. He seemed like a fop.
“Allow me to shed a little illumination on this event,” the Crab continued.
“Who are you?” Bakin asked.
The Crab raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Forgive my discourtesy,” he said. He bowed in a grand gesture. “I am Yasuki Yukinaga. I am here on business.” He looked around. “Perhaps I could have chosen another week for my visit.”
“Did you see what occurred, Yukinaga-san?” Bakin asked.
“I did,” Yukinaga said. “It is a shame that an old man such as this peasant chose to protect his treasures with his life. The ronin here murdered the man when he refused to give up his hiding place.”
The street grew quiet. “You cannot believe this man,” Kensaki protested. “You do not know him like you know me, Bakin-sama.”
“I know that he is a samurai and his word is more valuable than yours, Kensaki. Surrender your weapons.” Bakin said.
Kensaki’s smile rapidly disappeared. “Bakin-san, what do you mean?”
Fumiyo and Sadahige stepped forward, their hands on their weapons in case the disgruntled ronin attempted anything rash.
“You have disobeyed my orders,” Bakin continued. “You murdered someone and stole his possessions. Did you believe I would allow my personal feelings to grant you clemency?”
Kensaki was quiet. “He was only a peasant,” he said.
“Yes, he was. But you disobeyed the orders of a superior,” Bakin said.
As Sadahige and Fumiyo escorted the ronin away from the scene, the wronged peasant looked up at Bakin with a look of gratitude in his face. “Thank you, Lion-sama,” he said.
Before he could continue, Bakin cut off his statement. “Justice has been served. Now take up your tools and join the other peasants along the outer portions of the city. You have work to do.” Without further discussion, he turned his back on the peasant. He walked up to Yukinaga, who waited in the same area with an expectant smile on his face. “I thank you for your honesty, Crab-san.”
Yukinaga bowed once again. “I am simply glad that I could have helped in such a difficult scenario. Think nothing of it.”
“Perhaps, and perhaps not,” Bakin replied. “I am still in your debt for resolving this manner. We will take over this city for the good of our campaign, but it is far from our desires to wreak havoc on any trade agreements and deals that may already be in place in this city. Tell me, why are you here? I will see what I can do to resolve your issues so you may return home as soon as possible.”
Yukinaga’s grin grew. “I came to this town for my annual trade of lumber and steel,” he said. “Maybe you can help me after all, Bakin-san.”
* * *
Shiro was silent. “So Bakin-sama ordered Kensaki’s execution?”
Noda nodded. “Kensaki referred to all his years of service to the Lion armies and pleaded for a chance to seppuku. Bakin-sama denied it. Kensaki was beheaded the next day at sunset.”
“Kensaki was his friend,” Shiro said softly.
“A friend who had betrayed what the Lion army stands for, little brother,” Noda said. “Many evil things occur in war. Plunder of the defeated often occurs in the chaos of the aftermath. But Bakin-sama forbade it, and Kensaki lied about it to his superior officer. He betrayed the tenets of bushido that all samurai must strive to follow. I am sure Bakin-sama felt personal remorse for what had to be done. Still, there was no other choice. There are concepts and beliefs that transcend friendship, Shiro. Do you understand?”
Shiro gazed off into the distance. After a moment, he turned to Noda and fixed him with a sharp glare. He nodded solemnly. “I do.”
Noda smiled. “Good,” he said, his eyes glinting with pride. “Now you understand what it means to be a Lion.”
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