In the lands of the Unicorn Clan, a torch passes from one generation to the next.
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Utaku Tsukiko laughed as she rode across the golden plain. She knew that she should not, for this was not a place of joy or abandon, but she could not help herself. This was a place of sorrow, but even in sorrow she found joy. It was everywhere, it was in all things, suffused there with the radiant light of the sun. Most could not see it, she had learned in her short life, and for them she felt genuine pity. But such moments as these were not for pity. Even as her beloved horse pulled up short to a stop, Tsukiko launched herself into the air, exulting in the feel of the wind on her face. There was a perfect musical note that rang out as she soared through the air, and she laughed again with it, her sing-song laughter echoing across the plain.
The ground rushed up at her impossibly fast, but Tsukiko was prepared for such things. She tucked her legs and spun faster, holding her arms out to her sides. When she was far enough through the somersault, she extended her legs quickly and her feet bounced against the soft earth in perfect timing, allowing her to bounce back into the arms of the air again. She smiled at the sensation, feeling the long black tresses of her hair brushing against the blades of grass as she completed this second flip. She lacked adequate momentum this time, however, and her feet were not completely seated when she flipped back around. Her legs slid out from under her and she landed on her back on a wonderful cushion of grass, sliding another horse’s length at least before she came to a stop, staring up at the majestic sky, her breath coming faster from the exertion and the laughter. She stayed that was for several long minutes, simply enjoying the feel of the grass and the warmth of the sun.
Moments later, a head floated into her field of vision, and a man with a moustache looked down at her with obvious concern. “Are you injured, young lady?”
Tsukiko looked at him quizzically. “Injured?”
“Did they hurt you?” the man pressed.
She sat up quickly. “Hurt me?” she asked. “Whoever do you mean?”
The man stared at her for a moment, his eyes seeming to take in every tiny part of her. “The men you just killed,” he explained flatly, and gestured at the expanse of gold between them and where her horse was presently nipping hungrily at the plains grasses.
“Oh,” she said. She looked down at her blade and flicked it clean of blood. It was the blood of the man she had disemboweled as she slid beneath his strike, her back to the grass, his steel uselessly over her head. She glanced over at the second, a man she had fatally injured as she engaged her second somersault, a maneuver that had surely saved her life as the battered tetsubo he wielded had flickered uselessly through the grass and her hair. And she walked past the third man, a man with a bow, whom she had slain even as she struck the ground after her aerial dismount, and retrieved the helm she had lost during that first maneuver. Part of it had been broken away by the arrow the man had fired on her only seconds after she had leapt from her horse, his aim spoiled by the maneuver. “No,” she finally answered. “No, they did not injure me.”
“You must be utterly mad,” the stranger said, holding out his chop so that she could see he was a magistrate of the Shinjo family. “Do not misunderstand, I am quite grateful. I have been pursuing these three brothers for some time and I feared that if they had chosen to double back to face me, I might have been outmatched, yet I could not seek assistance or I might lose their trail. It appears they are no longer a problem regardless.” He glanced at her curiously. “Is that your normal fighting style, then?”
Tsukiko frowned at the question. “I was trained in all the standard Utaku techniques,” she finally answered. “I have little practical experience, however.” She gestured at the dead men. “When I am forced into such a thing, however, I… I simply prefer to focus on the beauty of life rather than the death I am forced to dispense.”
The magistrate considered it, then nodded slowly. “That is one way to look at it, I suppose. Still, you are rather young for such… proficiency.”
She continued to look at the dead men, the joy of the morning long since faded from her mind. “I had hoped to train as an acrobat as a youth. I was never able to do so, but I try to keep fit.”
“Fit?” the magistrate said incredulously. He began to speak again, but was distracted by the sound of approaching horses. Within seconds, a blemish on the horizon had become a Unicorn patrol, pulling up short among the lot of them.
An officer leapt down from his horse and looked from one corpse to another, his expression growing angrier with each one. “Tsukiko,” he barked sharply. “Do you have any notion of what reconnaissance means?”
“Yes, gunso,” she said. “I am sorry, gunso.”
“So you do know what I expect when I ask someone to scout ahead, then?”
“You wanted information, gunso.”
“Yes!” he shouted. “And what did you do instead?”
“I gathered information, gunso.”
The officer’s eyes narrowed. “And what information would that be?”
“They are dead, gunso.”
It seemed like a shadow fell across the gunso’s face, and his features twisted into a mask of anger, but the magistrate’s laughter cut him off. “Who are you?” the gunso demanded, pointing a finger at the man’s chest. “Present your papers immediately or I will have no choice but to take you into custody.”
“Naturally.” The magistrate offered papers with a half-smile. The gunso took them and unrolled them roughly. His eyes widened and he sputtered. “Yes, yes,” the magistrate said. “Are we all in order, then?”
“Shinjo Junpei!” the gunso said. “The one they call… uh… I apologize, Junpei-sama.”
The man waved the comment away. “I am aware of the comments made concerning my qualifications. I was not trained as a magistrate, of course, and we all know how popular political appointments are.”
“No, my lord, the Champion’s will cannot be questioned!”
“Well it seems it is, by some,” Junpei said, lifting the scroll back from the officer and placing it in his obi. “Indirectly, if nothing else. Regardless, I find the nicknames somewhat flattering. ‘The Champion’s Bloodhound’ is my favorite.” He looked around to the patrol. “This is the honor guard, then? And you are their commander?”
The gunso continued to gawk for a moment, but Tsukiko stepped in. “Moto Taha was recently promoted to the rank of gunso. He is a decorated veteran of the Junghar, selected for this duty both for his prowess and his decorum.”
Taha looked at Tsukiko curiously. “Thank you,” he said, sounding uncertain. He hesitated for a moment, then added: “Forgive me for my anger, Tsukiko. I am grateful you were not injured, and that you did not allow the perimeter to be breached. You honor your unit.” He shook his head. “It is just…”
“You hoped for a break from the tedium, I am sure,” Junpei added. “This place is sacred, but it is a home for the dead, not the living.”
Taha’s expression was one of relief. “I would not question my duty assignment, my lord.”
Junpei smiled. “Of course you wouldn’t. What honorable man would?” He straightened his kimono. “What are your orders, if I may ask?”
“We are to ensure that none approach the temple,” Taha answered. “Only those who serve the clan are welcome, and only those with specific business or who hold sufficient rank to request an audience.”
The magistrate held his hands out. “Would my rank be sufficient? I would pay my respects.”
Moto Taha bowed sharply. “Of course, magistrate-sama.”
* * * * *
Utaku Tsukiko sat in the quiet foyer that marked the path to the temple’s primary residential quarters. It was silent, almost disturbingly so, as was virtually the entire temple. There were no servants, no monks, no residents save for one. Indeed, the entire province was virtually empty. It was a place of the dead, a mausoleum larger than perhaps any in the entire Empire. It was smaller than many buildings Tsukiko had been in previously, but when it was so completely empty, it seemed so much larger.
The sound of the shoji screen sliding open was like thunder. Shinjo Junpei stepped out, his expression somber, his face pale. “He asked for you,” he said quietly. “I do not think it will be long now.”
Tsukiko nodded. “It has been growing worse for some time.” She rose and moved toward the door.
“He speaks of you almost as a daughter,” Junpei observed. “May I ask why?”
“My father served him in the Imperial Legions,” Tsukiko answered. “He died, but the commander always ensured that my family was taken care of.”
Junpei nodded. “Watch over him, little acrobat.”
“I will,” she said softly, and stepped through the doorway.
The quarters within were stark and plain. There was no indication of who might call them home, and if it were not that Tsukiko knew better, she might think that they were empty. And in a way, perhaps they were.
Horiuchi Nobane lay on an elevated dais, his mat as comfortable as possible. His gray hair still contained streaks of black, but every year of his life was written in pain and suffering on his face. His eyes spoke of years that he had not lived. His life had been filled with turmoil, and it had aged him. “Hello, little one,” he said, his smile tired and weary. His voice was weaker than she remembered, and sweat was beaded on his forehead. “I think the fever is just about finished with me.”
Tsukiko struggled to keep the tears away. “Why won’t you let us summon a shugenja, uncle?”
“Because I am so tired,” Nobane said, and with such absolute exhaustion that it broke her heart to even hear the words. “I am tired, and I want to be with my family. They all wait for me in the next life. I am the last of the Horiuchi. Of those of us who survived, honorable Meimei was the first, and I shall be the last.”
“Rikako may yet live,” Tsukiko offered feebly.
“No one has seen Rikako since a year after the Destroyer War,” Nobane said. “If she lives, she has long since departed from these lands and the oaths she took. I do not fault her for that. She was so full of life… you remind me of her in that way. I would not see her tied to these dead lands.”
“They are beautiful lands.”
“Beautiful and dead,” he replied. “With my passing, they can be repurposed and someone can restore them to the majesty they deserve. The Unicorn Clan should have such at their disposal, now that our numbers are sufficient to require it once again.”
Tsukiko could not look at him. “It will be different… when you are gone.”
“It will be better,” he said. “The Horiuchi’s time is over. It is time for new stories to be told.” He smiled at her. “Soon… soon, I can rest, and you will be free.”
“Please do not say that!” she insisted. The old man looked at her and smiled as if to apologize, but then his eyes fixed on something else, something beyond her, and the fleeting look of surprise that crossed his face was replaced by an expression of relief so sincere that it absolutely broke her heart to see it. “Uncle, what…”
The words died as she turned. Padding quietly into the room with the two of them was a lion, a warcat of such size that the mere sight of it caused physical pain to shoot through Tsukiko’s chest, so great was the fear that seized her. In her mind, she knew that she must take up her blade, despite that it was useless, despite that it would mean nothing to a beast of such size, but her body refused to obey. The lion simply stared at her, regarding her without fear or hostility, regarding her with eyes so brilliant and green that looking upon them seemed as if she were staring directly at a torch that was ever so slightly too bright. She was transfixed. Paralyzed. And yet the fear ebbed away. “Oh, how wonderful,” she heard Nobane breathe behind her.
As she stared at the huge cat, she saw others enter the room behind it, but remained unable to look away until a woman entered, walking among the cats with a touch here and there. She stopped by the one that had so transfixed Tsukiko, and scratched it on the ear. The big beast closed its eyes and purred, a sound like thunder in the small room, and at last Tsukiko could look to the woman. “Who are you?” she said, her voice sounding small to her own ears.
“I mean no disrespect, daughter of Utaku,” the woman said in a beautiful, musical voice. Her hand gleamed like the sun, crafted from jade itself. “I wish to say my final farewells to an old friend. Will you excuse us?”
“Please, let her stay,” Nobane said from somewhere behind her.
The woman’s eyes shifted to Nobane, and Tsukiko once again felt in control of herself. “Are you certain?” the woman was asking. “She will find the knowledge a burden.”
“She deserves to know.” There was no doubt in Nobane’s tone. “I have lived many, many years asking the question ‘why?’, and I would not see her suffer a similar fate.”
The woman looked at Tsukiko once more. “So be it, then.”
“You,” Tsukiko said breathlessly. “You are Matsu Benika. The Jade Hand.”
“I am,” Benika replied. She seemed to be staring into Tsukiko’s very soul. It was strangely uncomfortable, as if her gaze had weight. “You are Utaku Tsukiko.”
“Hai, my lady,” she said with a bow. “I am honored to stand in your presence.”
Benika smiled ever so slightly. “It is I whom and honored, to stand in the presence of the man you call uncle.” She walked past Tsukiko and regarded the old man warmly. Tsukiko knew that the two were of equal age at least, and yet somehow Benika seemed so vital and energetic that her age was irrelevant. “Hello, Nobane-san.”
“You’re here,” Nobane said, and his tone was one of such relief that again Tsukiko’s heart ached to hear it. “I’ve waited so long. Does this mean…”
Benika’s jade hand reached up and touched the man’s chest lightly. “Yes,” she said softly. “It is time for you to be with your family again. Your vow to me has been fulfilled. It is time for you to rest.”
Nobane closed his eyes and a tear ran down his cheek. “I kept it safe,” he said, just a whisper. “All these years, I kept it safe. I kept everyone away, so that no one would fall under its sway. Not again. Not after Remi’s death. Not after Kang.”
Kang. The name was like a curse among the Unicorn, and Tsukiko barely stifled a gasp to hear it. The name Moto Kang was not spoken, not ever, not for any reason. To hear Nobane speak it now, at this most sacred moment, was like a priest lapsing into blasphemy during a blessed ritual. Not only that, but… “Remi?” she heard herself ask. “Utaku Remi?”
Benika turned and regarded her carefully. “Yes, Utaku Remi,” she said. “She died not far from here, many years ago. After her passing, there was an item that I placed in the safekeeping of your uncle. A very dangerous item, something that belongs to a… let us say, a rival of mine.” She turned back to Nobane. “Your uncle has sacrificed a great deal to keep it safe for me, and for that, I am in his debt.”
“It was my honor to do it,” Nobane insisted. “There have been a few minor incidents. Some of those who are selected to serve as my honor guard have shown signs of succumbing to its influence. That nice young man, Moto Taha, has been increasingly hostile of late, for instance…”
Tsukiko could not imagine what Nobane meant, but Taha had been much more hostile lately. It was a sharp contrast to his personality when he had first arrived, but that was simply one more item of confusion on which she could not dwell at the moment. “I will take it away from here,” she heard Benika saying. “Your lands have been empty too long. Let there be life and joy here once more.”
“Thank you,” Nobane whispered. “Thank you so much.” He closed his eyes. “Tsukiko? Are you there?”
She moved to his side, scarcely noticing as Benika and her lions began to withdraw from the chamber. “I am here, uncle.”
“Precious little Tsukiko,” he said. “I… I…”
“I love you too, uncle.”
He was gone.
Tsukiko sat by her uncle’s side for a long time, but when her grieving abated for the moment, she rose and left the room. There were many questions to which she needed answers, and the only woman in the world who might be able to answer them was nearby.
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