*    This story begins approximately six years before the start of the Great Clan Wars preceding the second Day of Thunder. One section has been copied directly from The Clan War Saga: The Crane by Ree Soesbee. Many thanks to her for including Kaori in her story. Many thanks also to Shimekiri, Kakita Koshin, and the many other players who allowed me to use their characters in the making of this story.


by Kakita Kaori

"Again!" Diligently, each student drew and swung his blade in perfect symmetry. The dour-faced samurai walked before the line of students, frowning at what he saw. "Up! Yosai, the tip of your sword is too low. " To demonstrate the flaw in the technique, the instructor flicked his boken forward until its point rested against the young man's chest, gently marking
his heart.

"Hai, Kashiwa-sensei," the Doji answered, looking ashamed. Kashiwa did not notice. "Again." He continued down the line.
In the back row, one student's heart soared. With each smooth draw and resheathing of his sword, he could feel the chi flowing through him like a great river that extended from deep in the earth to the very tip of his blade. He didn't even hear his instructor correct his favorite student, though he was aware of it on the edges of the perception. Instead, he kept
his heart focused on the void. But he was filled with joy none the less, because he knew, this day, this moment, he was perfect. As Kashiwa walked through the lines of students, correcting their flaws, he knew his stroke had none of them. In his mind, he could picture his enemy cut down cleanly before him. Soon, Kashiwa would come through the lines to him, and would see his strike. And then the constant corrections would be over. He would be able to advance. He would be able to take his Gempukku. Kashiwa was only two students away now...

A young woman ran into the courtyard, bowed before the iaijutsu instructor, and whispered something softly to him. Kashiwa nodded, and shouted a curt 'Continue!' He then left, following the young woman.

He had never even bothered to look Shimekiri's way. He had never seen his technique. Anger boiled in the fifteen-year-old's heart. He would be passed over again.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

The sounds of wailing filled the house, but it was doubtful that any angry spirits would be deceived by the mock cries into believing that the Kenshinzen was truly in pain. Two of the household servants stifled their giggles as the master of the house walked past, earnestly completing his duty to his wife in the back room. But the rest of the servants were too
busy to pay attention to him. They were attending Lady Nishoko, whose labor had continued for five hours without respite. As the sun was setting, the cries of pain from the room stopped, and an eta midwife hurried out to Kashiwa as he walked the house, crying for the spirits.

"Master," the eta said, pressing her forehead to the floor before him. "You may stop now. Lady Nishoko-sama has delivered a healthy boy."

Just then, as the eta spoke, there was a fresh cry of pain from the back room. Kashiwa looked down his nose at the eta, and said, "I will perform my duty until it is no longer needed, eta. Return to my wife!" He then began, even more earnestly than before, crying out to the spirits to distract them from his bride.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

There was great celebration in the house of Kakita Kashiwa, and the celebration spilled out from Golden Petal Village all the way back to the Kakita Academy. The household had announced the birth of twins, a boy child and a girl child, and among the Kakita, there could be no better omen. Since the days of Kakita and Kiyamori, and Yasurugi and Konishiko, down
through the ages to the headmaster of the academy, Kakita Toshimoko and his sister Teinko, the destiny of the Kakita family was written in the lives and blood of such shared-soul children.

Asahina Tomo saw the streamers of blue and white tied to the gateposts, celebrating the fortunate birth.

"Such confidence," the middle-aged shugenja thought to himself as he was escorted up the path. Few dared to so loudly announce to the kami that there was a newborn child in the home, for fear they would come to steal its spirit for themselves. Still, the Fortunes might choose to wait, and the Kenshinzen clearly believed that it was worth the risk.

Leaning on his staff, he made his way up to the screened doorway, which a servant hurriedly pulled aside for him to enter. Looking to the side, Tomo could see a boy in seiza position, waiting near the doorway. He shook his head and asked the servant, "I am a guest, but I can wait until this boy's business is done."

The servant bowed. "He is one of the master's students. The master has told him to wait, and will come out when he is ready. He says he is too impatient."

Hot blood rose to the boy's cheeks, but he did not change his expression, keeping his head down and eyes in front of him.

"Well, patience is very important," Tomo said, his voice amused. With that he entered the house.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

Nishoko rested upon her futon, one babe cradled in each arm. Her blanket was drawn up tight around her, despite the warm summer morning. One of the babies stirred in his sleep, kneading at the air with a clenched fist. She gently brushed her finger down his tiny cheek and he was still.

The Asahina was now staying in another room in her husband's house. He had arrived yesterday afternoon, but had not come to visit the children until late in the night. The servants had pulled all the shoji's open to let the light of the Celestial Heavens fall down upon the two little ones. The Asahina gave his blessing, the blessing of the kami; and all members of the household burned incense and prayed.

Nishoko remembered the fire spirits dancing upon the glowing ends of the sticks of incense. They spoke to her little; her parents assured her of her meager affinity with the elements when she was but a child. But a daughter of the Isawa knew enough to see the fires dance, and Phoenix blood still flowed in her veins.

Was it that blood that froze so cold when Tomo-sama proclaimed her children's glorious destiny, as written in the stars above that night? While he read the spinning of the Celestial Wheel, how one child would become an artisan with talent unseen in Rokugan in generations, while the other would become a famous swordsman, known for honor.... was it the jealousy of her ancestors that brought fear and regret into her heart? Why, amidst all that joy, were there shadows?

Womanly foolishness. Nishoko knew well that there could have been no omen that Tomo-sama had not seen first; and her power as a shugenja was so slight as to be meaningless. She could hear her husband's voice faintly from beyond the shoji, and it was strong, confident. He would shelter her from any trouble that might come.

The young student he was speaking with, his tone filled with anger and frustration, snapped a quick reply, and she could hear rapid footsteps as he ran past her screen. The other infant by her side whimpered softly.

A fresh wave of fear washed over the young mother as she kissed her daughter's head tenderly. "Hush, my heart. There is no reason to cry, sweet Jasmine-blossom. No reason at all."

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

"Stop!" The cold, clear voice rang across the marketplace. The heimin, preparing their goods for sale for the day, froze.

A samurai slowly turned. His armor was brown and burnished gold, and his mons would have made his clan clear even if the high crown of golden hair did not. The Lion faced his challenger, his eyes cool, his demeanor proud. "What is it, Crane?"

The young, slender Crane samurai drew himself up to his full height. His long hair was white and his lips were twisted in an arrogant curl. "Your blade. It offends my sight. To think that such a piece of rotted tin might be dampened by Crane blood on the battlefield is a disgrace to my whole clan."

The Lion's eyes narrowed. Anger bloomed in his cheeks, but he kept his face impassive. "If it is wet with Crane blood, then its edge is keen enough to draw it. Though I know that is poor testimony to its edge. For a five-year-old Ikoma with a boken can draw Crane blood with little difficulty."

The Crane assumed his stance, his grip light, resting against the tsuba of his blade. "My name is Kakita Shimekiri, of the Kakita School. Far more likely, Lion, that your blade would be wet with Crane blood as the eta drag it off the battlefield with the corpses, where you cast it down to flee for your life."

The Lion also assumed his stance, his brow furrowing with rage. "I am Matsu Kimura, and I will prove differently, Dog."

Shimekiri nodded. The villagers drew away from the duel, eyes wide with concern. This was an illegal duel, but Shimekiri knew that none of the villagers would dare report it. War was coming and every Lion was the enemy...or would be soon enough. The duelist's mind reached for the void.

A flash of steel, a spray of blood.

As Shimekiri wiped the blood off his blade with loving care, he smiled. This always worked to get his teachers' attention.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

The wind blew, laughing, teasing, bending the grasses above the cliffs near Kyuden Doji. The rhythmic sound of the waves crashing against the cliff face was sweet music, especially mingled with the sound of a child's laughter.

A boy, no more than six, tussled with a girl of nine years, dressed in a boy's attire with a fierce joy in her eyes. Both carried sticks broken off the trees in the summer winds, and the boy swung wildly.

A stick broke, and a laughing cry rang out. "Your sword broke, Gisei! Now you need your spear!!" The boy's taunt ended in a humph and a burst of giggles as the older girl abandoned her 'sword' to tackle him to the ground. "Stick or no, Toshiki....You can never defend against my Daidoji technique."

Toshiki's giggles grew more hysterical as Gisei tickled him without mercy.

Nishoko's lips twitched as she restrained a smile. She knelt upon the warm grass, drawing her needle up and through the fine embroidery that she was stitching....a mon for her son's Boy's Day kimono. "Ayome-san....surely it is unbecoming for your sister's daughter to behave in such a fashion?"

The woman across from her snapped off a thread. She was an older woman, her long hair starting to show just a little white. She was dressed in a somber fashion, but a small smile came to her lips as she looked at her niece. "I do not mind, and I know my sister would not. She loved little Gisei and could deny her nothing. When autumn begins, I will enroll her in the Daidoji school, where she can follow in her father's footsteps. They encourage such...energy...there."

Nishoko's fingers wove the fine silver needle back and forth through the cloth. After a moment of silence, she said, "That is what he would have wanted, if the plague had not claimed both their lives."

The giggling children continued playing, unaware of the dark conversation amongst their elders. But one was not with them. A tiny girl, also six, knelt neatly at her mother's side, her hands folded in her lap, and her blue eyes watching their faces and listening to every word.

Ayome nodded to the girl, and said to Nishoko, "Still, you are fortunate to have such a beautiful, lady-like daughter as little Kaori."

Nishoko turned to glance at her daughter, giving her a smile and evoking a blush and downcast eyes in return. "She does make up for her brother's...energy. They are as different as the Sun and the Moon, I think. She is so quiet!"

"Stop it!! STOP IT!!" The boy's cries broke through the conversation. Gisei released him and helped him to his feet. He glared at her angrily and stormed off, walking towards the cliff to look over the ocean. Gisei hung near to make sure he didn't go too close.

Nishoko shook her head. "Kashiwa and I are very proud of them. Toshiki has been invited to begin training with the Iaijutsu students at the Academy. His father is very content...he longs for a son to follow his footsteps. And Kaori has been invited to study with Kakita Taiguka in Otosan Uchi."

"The Dance instructor? That is a great honor."

Kaori quickly looked away, studying a clover blossom in the grass rather than meeting her mother's gaze.

"My husband has called in many favors. She will stay with his cousin, Seppun Kossori." Nishoko kept her voice steady. They were so young; she was not ready to let them go yet. Young shugenja began their studies even earlier than this. Her husband was insistent. But the Scorpions and their Coup was not very long ago. How she wished she could keep her children near her always.

"Gisei! Look!" Toshiki shouted excitedly. "There's Lady Doji on the water! Just like in the stories!"

Gisei stomped over to the boy, wrapped her arms around him, and pulled him away from the edge of the cliff. "Silly Boy! It's just a bird." The two launched into a fresh wave of fighting, while Kaori looked on shyly.

"A great honor," Ayome repeated with a small bow.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

On the balcony, the mon of the imperial family waved in a faint breeze. Golden chrysanthemums decorated intricately carved wooden rails. Two cushions provided a commanding view of the entire battlefield and each dais below, but one of the pillows was empty. The emperor, too ill to attend the gathering, had sent his blessing. And his wife.

Hoturi gazed across the balcony and bowed formally.

Reclining on the golden pillows, Kachiko gazed at the duels with a careful eye. Her rich kimono shone despite the relative shadow of the balcony's cloth sunshades.

Hoturi rose from his bow, uncertain if she had seen him.

A servant knelt before him, touching her head to the ground. This was no heimin, but a very young woman of noble house, servant to the imperial family. She had probably not even passed her gempuku, and she bore the mon of the Crane.

"I am Kakita Kaori, Master Hoturi-sama, servant to the Imperial Court and fostered to the care of Seppun Kossori. It is my honor to direct you to Her Imperial Majesty. She bids you meet with her and tell her of the battle, that the emperor will be well informed of each technique on the field of battle."

The attendant stepped to the side, motioning Hoturi forward.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

"I have no clan to turn to and no family to help me...I need you to meet with me, tonight, in my chamber. I found something else in the labyrinth where my family had hidden Shosuro's Hand. I believe it will help us both..."

The Mistress of Scorpions had laid the trap, and Hoturi would come. Her full, scarlet lips curled in a soft smile, one that quickly fled when she saw the attendant she was 'borrowing' from Kossori kneeling patiently by the entrance to the balcony. A little girl, of the Kakita family, all that was necessary to put Hoturi at ease in the Scorpion's Lair. She had arranged
for the servant personally, looking for one too young and naive to know of any previous relationships between herself and the Crane Champion, and too innocent to read the language they shared. But, innocent or not, she was not supposed to have stayed. She was too young to be properly discrete.

Kachiko waved her fan at the girl, painting on an approving smile. The girl quickly pressed her face to the tatami and backed off the balcony, disappearing from sight.

"Aramoro?" the Empress said, not looking down to where the dark figure waited. "Was she close enough to overhear?"

"I could not tell, my Lady," he replied, voice void of emotion.

"Have Asami take care of it. Tomorrow."

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

There was a mantis on the rose orchid.

Breathe out...punch...turn...breathe in....hands up....

It was big and fat, and brown.

Change stance...right foot forward...bend the knees....

And it had tiny kama, like it was waiting for a fight.

Breathe in....

Oops...I meant out....

Breathe out. Big circle and turn.

I wonder what sort of bug it's waiting for....


Toshiki pulled away, rubbing at his ear. That hurt! He could hear the sound of laughter coming from around him.

The older student loomed above him, blocking out the brilliant azure of the sky. The boy looked up nervously.

"Focus, Toshiki! You must always be aware of everything that is around you, within you and outside of you. You must be as aware of your surroundings as you are aware of your very self, and you must be as aware of your breath as your life. So pay attention!"

Toshiki bowed deeply, a very sincere expression of apology in his face. "Hai, Hiroru-sama. I will try to be more aware."

The older student turned to the rest of the children in the small class. "And you! Do not laugh. Not unless you can prove that you have no such weakness.

"The class immediately fell silent, bowing in unison to the teacher.


Hiroru went back to the front of the class, where a man, a few years his elder, lounged indolently on a stone bench. He wore the robes of a shugenja, but they were russet brown and green, not the Asahina's white. He had a scruffiness about him that was out of place in the pristine courtyard.

"My. You certainly aren't gentle with them, Hiroru-san. I hope that Phoenix sensei are more kind than Crane, or I may end up taking a few bruises myself."

The teacher shook his head. "You forget, Katsume-san...I am born Phoenix. I assure you...they are much less gentle in their discipline for shugenja."

Katsume gestured to the boy in the back row, who seemed now more focused on watching them than on footwork. "He's wandering again."

Hiroru sighed, straightening his hakama as he sat down. "I can't keep cuffing him. But he can't afford to be a daydreamer. Not here. Not now. War is coming, Katsume-san. Even little ones like these might end up fighting soon. Too soon. If I let him daydream, the day may come when he will never return."

'They're talking about me,' Toshiki thought, watching the pair with a whole class in between. 'Hiroru-sama's probably worried cause I wasn't paying attention.' He sighed. It wasn't /his/ fault that fat brown mantises on pink orchids were more important than fighting drills, after all.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

There was a buzz of excitement in the air, made up of the nervous chatter of twenty excited girls. The girls moved swiftly and uniformly into place, lined up on either side of the long, low tables. They knelt together, but the chatter didn't diminish.

"Do you think he'll be there tonight?"

"I saw him once. He's so handsome. They say he carries a lock of his wife's hair on his obi."

"Did you really get to meet him, Kaori? Is he really as handsome and nice as they say?"

Kaori blushed deeply, setting the other girls off into renewed giggles. "I did meet him," she said softly. "And he is very nice. And very handsome."

The servants emerged, bringing out small bowls of rice, vegetables, and soup and setting each down before the girls.

"Well, I don't think he could be anywhere near as handsome as Yoshi-sama," one young girl protested. "Besides...he's married."

A servant brought the three covered bowls to Kaori, her eyes meeting the girl's own as she set them down. Kaori blinked and looked away.

"So?" another girl protested hotly, "Just because you're married doesn't mean you suddenly get old or anything, Yoshiko. Hoturi-sama can be married and be handsome at the same time."

The hazel-eyed girl flushed, still eager to defend the Master Courtier. "Maybe not. But Yoshi still is the most handsome person in the whole court AND he wears the best kimonos."

Kaori laughed with the others and picked up her soup bowl.

<The soup is poisoned, Granddaughter.>

Kaori's hands froze and her eyes darted around, looking for the source of the deep, commanding voice that spoke. She could see nothing.

"They'll both be there tonight when we dance at the Feast for the new Emerald Champion, right?" The girls' gossip was no more than the buzzing of fireflies in the distance.

<Put down the bowl. Do not move or speak.> The voice was firm, cold, with sepulcher tones of command. Kaori had no choice but to obey.

"Yes, I think so. And Lord Toshimoko, too, of course. I'm so nervous!"

<The soup is poisoned. But you must drink it anyway. If you do not, then the assassin will only try again, and then you will die. Do you understand?>

Kaori trembled, concentrating with all her will to keep her face and body impassive despite the waves of fear that washed through her. The voice told her not to move; she would not move. It seemed familiar to her, as though it came from the depths of her own soul. Grandfather. She blinked once.

"Then we can see them side by side, and find out who is more handsome....Yoshi-sama, or Hoturi-sama."

<Pick up the chopsticks, and eat all of the rice. Every morsel. Ask for more.>

Automatically, Kaori's body obeyed. She lifted the chopsticks and ate methodically. When a servant came to take the bowl, she managed to stammer, "More, please." The servant smiled and went to bring her a second bowl.

"I've got a new kimono and fan, just for tonight. Taiguka-sensei says we must all look our best."

<Now eat the rest of the food.>

Kaori obeyed. The other girls were too intent on describing their new kimonos to notice her. The servant returned with another serving of rice.

<Now drink the soup. Leave one swallow in the bowl. Smile when it is done, and say it is good. Drink quickly.>

"My kimono is covered with little waves, like the ocean. Taiguka-sensei said that we must be perfect tonight, for it is a great honor and opportunity for the school."

Kaori's hands trembled as she picked up the bowl. She closed her eyes and lifted it to her lips. She felt the orders of the voice still hold her, but she knew she could just throw the bowl across the room if she tried. But then she would die. She sipped. "The soup is very good," she said softly as she set down the bowl.

Yoshiko smiled at Kaori, drinking her own soup. "It is. You must be very hungry, Kaori, with all that rice. You're being very quiet...."

<Now, eat the rest of the rice, drink as much tea as you can, and leave with the others, saying nothing. All will be well. > The voice faded into the depths of her soul.

"She's just nervous. Maybe she's eating more rice because she's afraid no one will be able to see her when we're dancing tonight. She's so little....it can only help," another girl teased.

"Maybe she's going to try and steal Yoshi-sama away from you." The gossip turned away once more from Kaori as the others teased the hazel-eyed dancer about her crush.

Kaori ate the second bowl of rice quickly, watched by the bold eyes of a servant.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO


The sound of Kashiwa’s voice was the crack of a boken across Shimekiri’s heart. Why would Kashiwa refuse him?

“Kashiwa-san...the other judges have seen Shimekiri’s dueling. He has defeated a kenshinzen in combat. He has earned glory on the battlefield. What are your reasons?” Kakita Musashi was a man who focused much on the spiritual side of kenjutsu, but at heart he was a practical man. Surely Musashi saw his worth.

Kashiwa’s face was stern and emotionless, wrinkles tracing the frown he wore as he watched the young duelist that knelt before him. “I have watched this student for years. I have seen him grow from a boy to a man, and always he was too impatient. He always sought to reach the end of the path without journeying through the middle. You saw how he won the duel with Norishoru.”

“But he won.”

Shimikeri’s stormy eyes darkened. He pursed his lips.

“Yes. But we are the children of Doji. For us, it is not enough to win. Victory...success...these are easy to achieve if it does not matter what road you take to get there. But we seek excellence. Perfection. Shimekiri has shown again and again that he is willing to abandon honor in order to achieve his goals, to take the easier route.”

Kashiwa’s eyes were as blue as the finest steel of a Kakita blade. They glared, relentless, into the face of the young duelist. They brooked no mercy, and Shimekiri had no choice but to turn his head away.

“That is the way of the Crab. Not the Crane.” Kashiwa’s tones rang, a test of stone, and the assembled sensei of the Kakita school began to debate with renewed concern about Shimekiri’s acceptance into the ranks of the Kenshinzen. Even Kakita Musashi became thoughtful.

An eternity passed as the thunderclouds of anger swelled in Shimekiri’s heart.

Finally, the leader of the council, a man so old and frail that the duelist could break him like a stick, climbed to his feet. “Shimekiri. Toshimoko-sama, headmaster of the Academy, has gone to serve the Crane in Otosan Uchi. He has left us, the Masters of the Academy, to make decisions in his stead.” He paused for a moment, coughing slightly. “We, the Masters of the Kakita Kenjutsu School, have made our decision. Although you have earned glory and reputation for the duels you have won, although you have demonstrated your skill with the blade, you have not yet demonstrated the honor necessary to join the most elite school of the Crane. You are not yet worthy to be Kenshinzen.”

Thunder broke into a storm of hate.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

Kaori could not recognize the image that blinked back at her from the small reflecting pool. She looked more like a painted doll than a human being. Utterly perfect in every way.

It was an illusion, an illusion of pastes and perfumes. Her skin felt dry and tight across her face, but its sickly pallor was concealed under white powder, pale as the moon. Her lips tingled, blue and numb with poison, but painted full and red as cherries. Delicate blues and greens highlighted her large, blue eyes, though she needed no nightshade to dilate them so.

Perfect hair, as white as winter, curled upward, lacquered into elaborate patterns and decorated with cranes and snowflakes. Despite her growing lethargy, Kaori had to stand straight-backed in order to carry its weight. Her wide obi, of dark blue and scattered with stars, also held her body rigid and upright, its butterfly bow reaching all the way up to her shoulder.

The kimono she wore concealed her trembling and covered her to the ground. Glimmers of silver snowflakes hid amidst the pure white silk, and blue shadows added a wintry depth. A long branch of pine formed a contrast to its pale colors in green and black. A kimono from the heart of winter, an obi from the dead of night. Each piece served to hide the small girl within the silks, leaving only the image of beauty and perfection. Everything the Crane strove for.

“You look lovely, Kaori. The heimen did a beautiful job. Now, stop falling behind. You perform next. Remember...you are performing for your Daimyo and Lord. You must bring honor to your family and school. Go join the others.” The older woman, still lithe and beautiful despite the years that had claimed their toll, hurried her on her way.

“Hai, Taiguka-sensei.” Kaori spoke slowly. Her mouth felt full of cotton as she tottered towards the other girls on her high geta. But Taiguka was already gone, busy straightening obis and calming stage fright among her young dancers.

Kaori stepped into place, behind Yoshiko. The music was starting, and she could see, beyond the edge of the darkness, bright, colorful lanterns to light up the stage. Each lantern shone with an aurora, but Kaori could only blink at the glow.

Why did her grandfather make her drink the poison? Why was it taking so long? Was she going to die? What was she supposed to do while she was waiting to die?

There were no answers forthcoming, so Kaori did exactly what she was told. She moved like an automaton, a clockwork doll like those of the Kaiu. The music began, biwa, fue, and drum. It was time for the dolls to dance.

Unfolding her fan, she stepped out onto the stage with eight other girls. Her hands and feet moved on their own; they were so numb they did not even feel like they were a part of her. A few steps, and already it was clear that she was throwing the rest of the dancers off. The music played, but her body could not feel it in her spirit. It was too clumsy to control. The other girls stared at her.

They were all staring at her.

Kaori stopped in the middle of the stage.

She could see them glittering in front of her. Kakita Yoshi, her Daimyo and head of the family, was there, dressed in blue and silver with a fan folded across his lap. A slight frown marred his features as he looked at her in the center of the stage. Kakita Toshimoko, resplendent in his new livery of green and gold, had his head lifted in laughter, just finishing a joke. There were others there...some she recognized, some she did not. More and more faces...but two were missing. Doji Hoturi was not there. The others would be disappointed. And one other was missing...the woman in scarlet and gold. Empress Kachiko.

Kaori’s head swam. The other girls stopped, unable to keep their carefully orchestrated moves with Kaori standing frozen in the middle of the stage. The fue and biwa played louder, to fill the void with improvisation. Quiet conversation and sympathetic laugher began among the members of the Imperial Court. Kakita Yoshi climbed to his feet....

Everything went black after that.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

“Again!” Koshin called, walking back and forth in front of the class, his boken held over his shoulder.

Each young student lined up in front of him thrust with the point of a blunt-tipped spear.

“Again!” Each student thrust again. Koshin grinned at them. “Only one-hundred more times to go. Then we can all go in and get something to eat!” The older student could see relief on several of the young faces as they firmly gripped their spears. He was hungry too. He could remember very well the long, long days drilling with the spear. The seven and eight years olds lined up in front of him had many more years of training ahead of them. For an Iaijutsu student, training did not end at gempukku. There was always more to learn.

“Again!” He swiped with his wooden boken at a spear blade, which swung crazily aside. “You have to hold it more firmly than that, Toshiki! It doesn’t do you any good if your enemy can bat it away like a cat bats at a mouse.”

The boy, the smallest child in the class, gave him a rueful smile. The spear looked far too large for him, but he adjusted his grip more firmly. “Sumimasen, Koshin-sensei.” The class thrust again, in unison. Koshin moved on.

“Ni-Ken no Tsuru!”

Koshin’s eyes narrowed at the nickname. “Hai, Shimekiri-san?”

The lanky form of the older student strolled out from the sleeping hall and picked up a boken from the weapons rack. He wore a casual smile. “There’s a visitor at the gates. He’s from the Mirumoto Ryu. The masters would like you to invite him in and to speak with him. They say you have much in common.”

Koshin turned and looked at his class. The children stopped their footwork to watch the pair.

“Don’t worry about them. I’ll finish their drills and bring them in.”

Koshin felt a twinge between his shoulder blades, but he couldn’t explain the feeling. Shimekiri was a year older than him, and taught classes all the time. Despite his previous difficulties with the man, there was no arguing he was skilled both at performing and teaching the blade. He shrugged and slid his boken back into the rack.

“Thank you for letting me know, Shimekiri-san. They are almost done with the two-hundred set, four-winds form.”

Shimekiri gave a short bow, and turned towards the class. “Thrust!” he said in a clear, commanding tone. The students all quickly assumed their stances and obeyed.

Koshin shrugged and walked out of the courtyard, just as other young students were lighting the lanterns in the gathering twilight.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

“Again!” the man shouted. Toshiki thrust his spear forward, and then glanced over his shoulder at Koshin, leaving for the gate. The tip of his spear wavered with the motion. He did not remember seeing this instructor before, though he had heard his name mentioned by the older students.

“Again!” He was closer this time. His voice was stern and sharp, but that was not unusual. But Toshiki felt nervous, nonetheless. He could feel his eyes upon him. He tried his utmost to get the thrust perfect so Shimekiri would pass by without comment.

“Again!” No such luck. He was very close to him now, standing to his side, that boken casually in his hand.

“Your spear point is shaking, Student!” Shimekiri snapped, his eyes boring down on him. There was something cruel and...personal...in his tone. “Again!”

Toshiki thrust the spear again, trying his utmost. But his hands began shaking even worse on their own. Shimikiri swung his boken lightly, knocking at the spear. It gave a sharp, wooden click. “I don’t think you’re paying attention. Are you paying attention?! Again!”

Toshiki felt awash with the malice in Shimekiri’s eyes. The rest of the students were not watching, determined to focus solely on their own strikes and avoid bringing the duelist’s wrath down upon themselves instead. He weakly thrust his spear again, trying to follow the form.

“A duelist must focus.” Shimikeri swung with the boken, the wind from the strike whistling to Toshiki’s left side. “Again!”

Toshiki’s thrusts grew wilder.

“A duelist must train.” He swung again, the boken cutting the air to Toshiki’s right. “You will /never/ be a Kenshinzen!”


Shimekiri roared the order, and Toshiki moved to obey. But before he could comply, another voice filled his head, a quick cry so beautiful and entrancing that his soul was captured completely, lost in one word. That voice became the center of the world, the only thing that existed.

< Bow! >

There was such utter surety of power, such perfect command, that Toshiki could not help but obey. He lowered his head in homage.

Shimikeri whipped his blade around. But Toshiki did not see.

“Not anymore.” Shimekiri whispered as he brought his boken cracking down on Toshiki’s skull. But Toshiki did not hear.

Toshiki only felt an explosion of pain as the boken struck the back of his head with lethal force. Then he followed that beautiful, perfect voice out into the darkness.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

“I apologize, Nikkan-san. I just want to make sure that my class has finished their set correctly. Then I will be happy to show you to the guest rooms.” It was not normal protocol, but the itch between Koshin’s shoulder blades had only grown worse.

“It is no problem, Koshin-san. I’d be happy to see a class of your legendary students.” The young Mirumoto smiled, his white teeth flashing beneath his broad straw hat.

There was a sharp crack just as the pair turned the corner into the courtyard, and Koshin’s eyes widened with horror to see Shimekiri standing over one of his students, a bloodied boken in his hand, and the student falling to the ground like a puppet with cut strings.

“What have you done?!” Koshin shouted, hurrying to the side of the fallen boy. Blood began to pool around his body. Toshiki. It was little Toshiki...the child he had corrected earlier. Nikkan came and knelt beside him.

Shimekiri stepped back. “It was his mistake. I was just correcting his careless spearwork, and he stepped right into my stroke.”

Koshin looked around at his other students’ faces, registering the expressions of shock and disbelief. They did not seem to know exactly what happened either.

Nikkan was running his hands across Toshiki’s hair. “If it had struck any other part of his head, this blow would have crushed the boy’s skull. As is, he may still die.” Blood was pooling quickly around the limp body.

Koshin gestured at the oldest of his students. “Fetch an Asahina. Hurry.”

Shimekiri’s voice and posture were perfectly sincere. “I was merely striking at his spear. He’s so distracted...he lets his attention wander to any little thing. I was calling him to focus, but he moved right into my strike.”

Koshin’s gut would not let him believe a word of it. “We’ll see what the masters say,” he bit out angrily.

The scarlet pool grew larger.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

There was a soft scratch at the delicately painted shoji.

"Enter." The man looked up from his writing desk, his eyes tired. Only constant discipline hid the lines of weariness from his handsome face.

The shoji slid open, and a man, robed in white, entered, pressing his face to the ground before the Crane daimyo.

"Yoshi-sama. I have come as you requested." His voice was hoarse, and its tone told Yoshi volumes. Ameterasu had left the sky many hours ago, and Onnetagu had followed her. The Asahina had labored hard.

"Hai. What can you tell me?"

The Asahina shugenja, a bland, innocuous man who had served Yoshi well for many years, sat up. "My Lord. She will survive, I believe, though it was a near thing. It was poison, as you suspected."

Yoshi's jaw tightened imperceptibly. "Could you tell the type?"

The Asahina lowered his eyes. "I regret, I could not. It was nothing commonly available. From the skin and eyes, I would say it was a rapid mix, and from the slight discoloration of her lips, I would say it was taken in food or drink. I believe it was a Shosuro blend. No other clan has access to such things, at least, not for varieties beyond my knowledge."

"The Scorpion are not a clan," Yoshi gently chided.

The Asahina bowed deeply to the floor. "Of course, My Lord."

The courtier sighed. "Has she given any indication about who might choose to do this to her?"

The shugenja shook his head. "My Lord, if you had not recognized the tells of poison on her, she would have died. We would simply have taken it as a childhood fever, or perhaps as a rapid case of the plague that afflicts the city. Even with our prayers, she clings to life by the barest of threads, and breath comes to her with great difficulty. It will be many days before she awakens. She will give us nothing for some time yet."

"Time we cannot afford. Hoturi-sama is missing, the Lion attack the Osari plains, and the Crab ally with forces of darkness. They are in Beiden Pass, and our lands will be next. Kachiko rules the courts. This small flower will be crushed if she stays underfoot in these times."

"Hai. If they were not successful in this attempt, it is possible they will strike again."

"And we cannot afford to punish the guilty, for there is no testimony on the girl's behalf. We cannot afford to make our position any worse with rash accusations." Yoshi waved his hand. "Very well. You may go. Arrange for this blossom to 'die'...at least in the eyes of the court. After enough time, perhaps, she can find new root and grow to grace us again."

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

There was frost glittering in the courtyard, and the breaths of the palanquin-bearers formed clouds of mist in the early morning air. They lowered the covered couch to allow the revered Asahina to climb in.

Yoshi watched from the open balcony.

As expected, a handmaiden of Kachiko's sidled up next to him. 'Asami' he thought. There weren't any fewer Scorpions in the court. They were just harder to see.

"Good morning, Lord Yoshi." The seductively-dressed handmaiden bowed deeply. A pretty gesture. "A beautiful morning, is it not?"

Yoshi returned the bow as was befitting her station. "Indeed. Out of chill mists do Heroes ride, seeking rest in These warm winter halls."

Asami fluttered her fan in gracious appreciation of the haiku. "Is inspiration all you seek in this cold morning air?"

A pair of eta, carrying a large urn, hurried out. They bowed deep in obeisance, and placed the urn in a special, covered area in the back of the palanquin. They hurried away.

Yoshi glanced down at the courtyard. It was easy to let slip some of his melancholy, drawing it back just enough so that Asami would not believe he was allowing it to show. "Reflection is enough for a troubled morning in these times, when plague and illness touches even the heart of the Forbidden City. Winter is on the bough. Though the Kakita gardeners are the finest
in the land, we cannot save every blossom from Winter's touch." His words were thoughtful and reflective, sad. The inference on the Emperor's condition was sufficient.

Yoshi glanced over at the woman beside him. He saw her shoulders lift imperceptibly, the twist of her neck straighten with accomplishment for a second before she lowered it again. "We all pray that it does not wither the root. Good day to you, Yoshi-sama."

Yoshi bowed slightly and turned back to the courtyard as Asami hurried away. His face and body showed only faint melancholy, but one thought stirred in his heart. 'I cannot save them all, Kachiko. But I have saved one. For the moment, it is enough.'

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

"Master. I am sure Shimekiri acted intentionally. There was no reason for him to be using that kind of force. Toshiki was not doing that badly."

"Toshiki was not doing very well, either, was he?" Kashiwa's voice was grave, completely without emotion. To Koshin's eyes, he looked like a man carved from the same white stone as the walls of Kyuden Kakita.

"No...but...Master...he's your son." Koshin protested. Surely Master Kashiwa will take his report to the Council of Masters. It was his own son that lay on the verge of death, after all.

"Then even you cannot testify against Shimekiri."

"If I cannot, Nikkan-san can. He says that blow was of killing strength. He will testify against Shimekiri."

"Did Nikkan see the blow as it was struck?"

"No. But he could tell by examining the wounds. Dragon can look at such things and determine what happened. It is called evidence." The concept had seemed so simple when Nikkan was describing it, but now that he was called upon to explain it to the iaijutsu master, his words were weak. "It means looking at the pattern of things left behind, to determine the truth of what happened."

Kashiwa frowned. "The Dragon accept such remnants over the testimony of a man's own word? Shimekiri has said what has happened, and no man can testify against him. No one will ever accept this Dragon evidence."

Koshin felt the blood rushing to his face in guilt and fury. He had abandoned his class to Shimekiri, and for that his student was near death. And now the boy's own father would not support him, and he had no way to prove his case. The evidence of the Dragon was more solid than the word of a dishonorable beast like Shimekiri. "Then /I/ will testify against him, Kashiwa-sama. And when he challenges my testimony, I will fight him and prove the truth of my words in his blood!"

Kashiwa stood in front of Koshin. His presence filled the small chamber. "No. You will not." His voice was angry and grim. "You wish to give your life on the strength of this Dragon evidence. I would not watch you die when you do not even know what it is you are dying for. You believe that the Dragon ways are better? Very well! You shall return with Mirumoto Nikkan to Dragon Lands and learn their path. I would not have you fight for that which you do not even begin to understand."

Koshin was frozen in shock, the words barely registering.

"When you have learned the ways of the Dragon, and the ways of the Crane, then, and only then, can you return to this Academy and give your testimony against Shimekiri. Now go! You will leave at sunrise." Kashiwa then turned his back to the young samurai, indicating that the meeting was now over, and there would be no more debate.

"Hai, Kashiwa-sensei," Koshin said softly. He bowed deeply, turned, and left the room, sliding the screen closed behind him.

In the darkness, Kashiwa watched the guttering stick of incense burn in the shrine alcove. Incense for his son. "I have lost one student to Shimekiri's blade. I will not lose another."

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

"...Unicorn lands, you must look at my horses."

"I have a fine horse. Why would I need a second?, Nat'Tihn-san"

"Why does a samurai need two swords, Tsumen-san? Imagine the honor having two steeds of such beauty would bring to you..."

The sound of hooves and easy conversation filtered down into Kaori's consciousness like sunlight filtering through the leaves. She tried to stir, but found her body stiff and unresponsive, her chest heavy and hard to lift, even to breathe. Her eyes fluttered open. Even that tiny act took effort.

It was dim. She could feel a rocking motion, and could see the heavy curtains that surrounded her sway with the movement. A palanquin. Her head hurt. “Toshiki...” The name, like a sigh, escaped her lips as she closed her eyes again.

"Rest, Little one." The voice was warm and kindly, though there was a hint of steel behind it, a resolve born of years of experience. Kaori did not have the strength to answer.

She heard a brief, strange chant, and the sounds of conversation and hooves outside stopped suddenly. She tried to move her head and see who was with her, but the effort was too great. She relaxed into the pillows beneath her.

"That's a good girl. My name is Asahina Dairu. You should know that you were poisoned by some enemy, but Lord Yoshi recognized the poison and brought you to me for healing. Lord Yoshi has arranged for it to seem as though the poison has killed you, so that you will not again fall victim to your assassin. We are returning to your Father's house, where you must stay quiet and not draw attention to yourself until you are older. For now, lay still and silent. Our guards, friends from the Unicorn clan, will not ask many questions, but there is no need to force them into a lie they do not need to tell. Do you understand?"

Kaori forced herself to take another breath, though her whole body ached. "Hai, sama."

"Good," the Asahina murmured with satisfaction. "Can you tell me anything more about why someone would wish to do this to you?"

"No..." Kaori's words were so soft, Dairu could barely hear them. "My brother...."

Sleep once again claimed the girl.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

Nishoko knelt at the tiny shrine, attaching one more prayer strip to the number that hung there. Incense filled the air with a smoky perfume, and the twin swords of Kashiwa's father, Masurugi, were carefully stored in the sword rack. Swords that should be Toshiki's one day.

"Please save my children. I beg you...I would do anything...."

Behind her, two small forms lay side by side, covered by thick blankets, resting on soft futons. Two. Her son, Toshiki, had been unconscious for three days. If he did not awaken soon, he would starve to death, despite all the healing the Asahina could provide. His white hair was completely covered in heavy bandages, his hand was pale and still on the coverlet. Only the Fortunes knew if he would awaken in time. Her daughter. The Asahina had brought her in great secrecy only just that morning; Nishoko had not known. Now, she slept mostly, though sometimes she would awaken to terrible, twitching spasms as the poison that had paralyzed her slowly lost its grip. She watched as her daughter reached out to her brother even in her sleep, but Toshiki did not respond.

She heard a footstep behind her. Firm. Strong. Her husband. She turned, wiping the tears from her eyes as she bowed to greet him. She did not trust her voice.

Kashiwa knelt beside her at the shrine, looking at his children asleep. "Praying, my wife? I hope the Fortunes hear your prayers."

Nishoko lifted her head, but did not answer.

"All my life, I have prayed for one thing only...a son to follow in my footsteps, in my father's footsteps, and keep our family name forever amongst the ranks of the Kenshinzen, as it has always been." He reached out tentatively to brush her hand with his, but then pulled away. "You answered my prayer twice over...giving to me a son to carry my name, and a daughter that would win us a fine match, perhaps an Imperial match, and increase the honor of my house tenfold."

Kaori stirred and murmured in her sleep.

The emotion drained from Kashiwa's voice. "Now, my daughter cannot be seen before court, else she will be killed. Our instructions are to say that she made a fool of herself, and now must never be seen in such circles until Yoshi orders otherwise. And my son...may never awaken. Even now, the other Masters say that the boy has no talent for the sword, that this wound is a sign."

Nishoko lowered her eyes. She too had heard the rumors.

Kaori fell silent, and the room was still, save for the sound of breathing.

Kashiwa finally broke the silence. "We have been cursed."

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

The white stone stood out against the gray clay. It was buried too deeply to pull out. So the boy tore at the ground. No blood flowed from the wounds opened by the sharp earth.


He did not look up.

"Child." The voice carried in its song a lilt of command. Still he did not look up.

*Smack* Startled by the blow, his head jerked around. Then he looked back down, unable to bear the brilliance before him.

"Hold out your hand." He did so, still looking down.

A gentle weight nestled into his palm. Toshiki could feel cool wetness. The scent of new cut flowers struck him, stronger than anything he had ever felt. His eyes opened wide...

The golden chrysanthemum stood out against his pale hand, cupped as it was in hands so bright they outshone the stars.

"Child of my husband, the Empire will need you after this nightmare is over. You must go back." He shook his head. Around the blossom, tiny red drops began to well.

"Toshiki, this is not what my brother and I wish for you." Red blood stained her hands, dripping down from his fingers, but his mute resolution did not waver.

"Your sister needs you."

Toshiki stood up, his eyes shining. He turned and headed out into the dark mists, a glowing figure by his side.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

The drums pounded as the actor stalked onto the stage. His face was painted white and red, and a great mane of white hair hung about his head and shoulders. His kimono was elaborate, draping off his arms and scraping along the ground, and held wild patterns of tempestuous black and blue. Over the kimono, black armor, beetle-like, formed a carapace. Glaring fiercely at the audience, he rattled his over-sized wooden sword, and swore vengeance on the beautiful princess who had spurned him.

A soft chuckle arose from the audience. The villainous daimyo was a caricature, and this was a particularly bad kabuki play. Of course, it amused small children with its fantastical scenery and grand action, and the hero, the Peach-Pit Boy. But for adults it was a fond, foolish memory. Still, this kabuki troop was quite well known, and most of the students of the Academy and some samurai from the nearby towns had come out to see it.

Shimekiri stretched out, making himself comfortable as the kabuki actor offered his soul to the Dark Lord in order to gain the power to defeat his nemesis. The fire of his recent rage had worn down to a soft glow that he lovingly nourished. But the glow was enough to keep him warm. He felt...content. More content than he had been in a long time. Across the crowded courtyard, he could see the face of Master Kashiwa. He sat rigidly, his face stern and emotionless. But Shimekiri had learned how to read much of souls after many duels. He could see the lines of pain and grief around Kashiwa's eyes. The fear. He was glad that Toshiki hadn't died right away. The boy was not his true target anyway. It was much better to see Kashiwa suffer.

He had not expected the boy to live, of course. The act had been rash...born in anger. But Shimekiri had some friends, and there were others who could be bullied into helping him. With their assistance, he was able to not only get away with it, but cast Toshiki as the bumbling little fool he was. He could put the blame squarely on the boy's shoulders, and thanks to rumors and the unforgiving nature of the a school that dedicated itself to excellence, make everyone see what a poor teacher Kashiwa had been, to raise such a weak son. Couple that with the reported disgrace of his daughter in the Imperial Court...there was much of Kashiwa's suffering to enjoy.

The play had progressed. The evil daimyo now dueled the Peach Pit boy for the hand of the Princess. The wooden swords cracked against each other. Shimekiri smiled smugly. Soon, perhaps, the boy would die, completing Shimekiri's revenge. Or, if not...Shimekiri would find a way to remove him from the Academy for good.

Looking up at Kashiwa again, Shimekiri saw Nishoko, his wife, hurry from the gates to her husband's side. Her hair hung free, tangled about her...a sign of great grief and mourning. She whispered something to her husband, who stood. Perhaps, the death? As Nishoko turned to leave, Shimekiri knew the truth. Her radiant smile. He would have to further his revenge another way.

The evil daimyo fell to a single blow of the Peach Pit boy's sword.

Shimekiri's one desire had been to be a Kenshinzen. Kashiwa's one desire was to have his son follow in his footsteps and become Kenshinzen. If Shimekiri could not achieve his goal, Kashiwa never would either.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

It was the colors that drew him through the mists. Colors, and the sound of a voice he seemed to know. Doji Hamachi looked down at himself, and gave a small smirk. The same ink-stained blue robes. The same smudged fingers, worn with time and calluses, bent from too many years of holding a paintbrush.

"I'm dreaming," he said to himself, but the voices in the dab of color amidst the light continued their merry conversation without noticing.

It seemed a reasonable and normal assessment, as did his presence here. After all, it was a dream like this one, forty years ago, that made him beg his parents to allow him to attend the Kakita Academy, abandoning the path of the Doji Magistrates before him to follow a calling that was in his blood. Since then, his road had taken many turns, leading him, finally, to his position of Master Painter.

Even now, when his inspiration failed, and all he could see in his mind's eye were the bloody battlefields of the Crane and Lion, the horrific stories from Beiden Pass, his dreams gave him new ways to find beauty. From there, the brush knew the way.

Doji Hamachi was a man who listened to dreams.

The white mists about him grew colder and more ominous, so Hamachi hurried up the path towards the blob of bright color in the distance. There, a heavy stonewall rose out of nothing, though Hamachi could see trees reaching over its walls. A golden gate shone in the nothingness. He laid his hand against it and pushed.

The gate swung open easily, revealing a garden beyond. Hamachi walked in, letting the gate fall shut behind him.

The garden was a profusion of life. Flowers burst into fragrant blossom, mindless of the season, for patches of snow lay on the ground. The treetops grew close overhead; green pine and cherry blossoms together.

Hamachi made his way past a stand of brilliant red peonies, and out into a clearing. On one side of the clearing, he saw a young girl, kneeling at a Go board. She cautiously touched a piece, then looked up at her opponent questioningly. Opposite her, a great man, clad in armor, shook his head and pointed to a different piece. He seemed to have contained within him the potential for great violence, but it was as though he had come to this garden to rest for a while before returning again to the battlefield.

Nearby, a figure, blindingly bright, though Hamchi could tell it was a woman of surpassing beauty, guided the hand of a little boy. Before them rose an easel, and she held his hand as he moved a paintbrush across the page, leaving a line of black ink. A simple, pure line, the base of a storm-tossed cloud, perhaps.

The Master Painter took a step forward to see how the painting would develop when the boy looked up.

Suddenly the pretty vision dissolved into harsh reality as sunlight filtered through his eyelids, warning him of the arrival of a new day.

But the dream was not lost. "The boy. I know that boy," the painter muttered as he climbed off his futon and pulled his kimono tight about him. "I know that gift."

And Doji Hamachi was a man who listened to dreams.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

War was coming to Crane Lands. There were rumors in the students' quarters after the oil lamps went out. There were rumors in the kitchens among the cooks chopping vegetables and making sauces. War was discussed in the Council of the Masters and amongst the ranks of the Kenshinzen.

The Crab were attacking Beiden Pass. War would come to the lands of the Kakita. It was only a matter of time.

But, amidst the tension and planning, a war of a very different sort was occurring within the walls of the Kakita Academy itself.

Kaori’s first battle was fought with fans.

It was a subtle war, one that began strategically.

Shimekiri had the head start, and took advantage of it, using the threat of the Crab and Lion to bring him friends, others who saw the threat of battle as a need for a tougher, more ruthless type of Kakita.

The duelist made his move early. His allies from amongst the Academy jesters called Kashiwa’s virility into question and speculated as to why he did not have any other children. Songs of lost families without heirs were played with frequency at the meals where the Masters met, and more than one bushi wondered why the Kenshinzen were spurning new members when it was clear that every samurai that could draw a sword would be needed. The rumors grew and changed in his favor, from Toshiki's incompetence preventing his future as a swordsman, to devastating injury that would prevent his lifting a sword, brought about by that incompetence.

Kaori’s first moves on the go board were more tentative. A winsome smile at the head gossip in the kitchen. A thoughtful question to a duelist with aspirations toward wisdom. She was still delicate and tired quickly, but she turned her pale skin and deep-set eyes to her advantage as pity turned to sympathy, which turned to friendship.

Still unable to walk, her brother Toshiki guided and collaborated with her from his futon. He knew everybody, it seemed, and had been friends with everybody. He knew where to plant the seeds that would blossom like fireworks in a summer sky. The two would whisper long into the night about how to bring Shimekiri’s dishonor into the light.

Soon, the ripples of battle could finally be felt by their targets. Kashiwa grew more and more angry with each subtle jibe, too busy with preparations for the upcoming war with the Lion and the Crab to track the rumors to their source. He took the expressions of pity for the end of the family tradition stone-faced, quickly changing to a different subject. Shimekiri watched him constantly, enjoying every moment of the sensei's anger and pain.

Shimekiri saw his blows take with satisfaction, but soon began to realize that he was also receiving curious looks as he moved through the dining hall. Heimen whispered among themselves, but quickly fell silent as he passed. When he entered the village market place, he heard the name of Matsu Kimura again…a name he had not heard in years.

In anger, he beat a peasant who had not stopped whispering soon enough. It was a mistake, and the comments grew worse. Another contender fought on his battlefield.

But time was running out for both sides.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

The council chamber of the Academy Masters churned with worry and debate, much like the thoughts racing through Kashiwa’s mind. The Crab were marching on Kyuden Kakita. The Daidoji had already engaged them in a few demoralizing skirmishes, and brought back reports of the horrors that marched at their side. “The Crab have allied with Darkness. They are in Beiden Pass. They will strike at the Crane.” Kashiwa remembered the Asahina’s words, a message from Yoshi, carried, like his ailing daughter, out of the city of Otosan Uchi.

That day had wrapped iron bands around his heart, and though he tried to feel joy at his son’s recovery, they never left. He had no time to address them, or the infuriating rumors that were growing around him. He had a school to save. He locked his face into impassivity, and waited to, once again, outline the reasons the Academy could not be defended to the end if Kyuden Kakita should fall.

A Daidoji entered the Chamber. “Kashiwa-sensei,” he said, affection in his voice. “It has been too long.”

“Toshi,” Kashiwa responded curtly, dispensing with the formalities. He had known the young man as a child, but it had been several years. Now was not the time for reminiscing. “You have most recently served on the Wall, more recently than any of us. Do you have any explanation for the Crab’s madness? Any reason that we could use?

“I would be serving on the Wall still, a hundred times over, if it would give me those answers. But I have none.” The young man lowered his voice, his head bowed sincerely. “I am sorry, Kashiwa-sama. I know that this, with all of the other bad fortune that I have heard has befallen your family, offers little comfort."

A great pressure built in his chest. It was an innocent remark, but to believe that this political nonsense had spread beyond the walls of the Academy, into the clan at large. His jaw tightened as he bit out the words, “What do you know of my family's fortunes?”

Toshi drew back, as though realizing he had caused offense, but not knowing the source. "I had merely heard that your son had been crippled in a training accident, and your daughter had caused some insignificant offense at court. My apologies, Kashiwa-sama. I did not mean anything by it."

Kashiwa did not answer. Such foolishness did not belong in an important meeting. This place was for logic, not anger and other weaknesses. He took a deep breath, and rejoined the planning session of the Council of Masters, leaving a bewildered Toshi gaping at him in surprise.

The meeting was ending. The lanterns that lit the many pillars of the Council Chamber were beginning to gutter. Senior students lurked around the edges of the gathering, ready to carry orders to the Kenshinzen and those bushi past their gempukku. Orders that would assign some to defend Kakita Castle, others to defend the escaping women and children should Kyuden Kakita fall. Fury at the Crab’s disgrace again burned in his heart, and it did not cool when he saw Shimekiri enter the Council Chamber and slink into the shadow of a pillar.

It was a weakness. A Master must be in control at all times. He bowed deeply to the old man who also entered the Council Chamber, pushing such thoughts aside.

Doji Hamachi was an older man, his white hair thin and wispy. He was Kashiwa’s equal in formal rank, but Hamachi had the respect of his years and properly lauded skill. Still, it was most unusual to see the aged Master Painter at a council of war like this one. The Master Painter approached Kashiwa’s table and bowed before him, his posture a stance of supplication.

"Kashiwa-san." The aged painter's voice sounded...amused. 'I apologize for disturbing you. I was hoping to find you after the council ended."

"We are finished, Hamachi-sama. Please do not be concerned," Kashiwa answered politely.

Hamachi straightened. "I have come to ask permission to make your son, Toshiki, my apprentice."

Fresh anger welled out of his bound heart. "No!" the Iajutsu master snapped. The other Masters looked at him in askance, surprised at his rudeness, but Kashiwa didn't care. He forgot the tall, lean young duelist hiding behind a pillar in the hall.

Hamachi raised his hand, a gesture to sooth the Kenshinzen's anger. "Kashiwa-san. I know that you grieve to see your family's tradition of Kenshinzen and Iaijutsu Masters die. For five hundred years, your family has provided the greatest teachers in the dueling school, a lineage few save Toshimoko-sama's can match. But your son was injured in practice, crippled, they say, from the blow. All say he has little future with the sword. With me, he has a future that will bring your family much honor, and may well lead your line to yet another field of mastery at the Kakita Academy. Your son is very gifted."

The bonds that had held Kashiwa's emotions rigidly caged for many weeks burst. The rumors were bad enough, muttered by his subordinates, but this, on top of all, uttered by a fellow master? He surged to his feet. "No! Are you trying to destroy me?" he roared. "My son is no cripple! My daughter did not dishonor herself in the court. My child /will/ be a Kenshinzen! I swear it, upon my honor and the honor of my family!"

The Masters looked at each other in horror at the gravity of Kashiwa's emotional outburst, and his great oath before the council. But Hamachi's voice was calm and pitying as he dropped his words, one by one, into their silence. "I am sorry, Kashiwa-san. But that cannot be. You do not understand. I have been given a vision, as those of the Asahina. I saw your son's brush guided by the hand of the Lady Doji herself. It is her will that I ask this of you. Not mine."

Kashiwa's anger diminished with each breath, as the Iaijutsu Master realized that his focus, his control, everything he had prided himself on, had slipped away in that terrible moment. What had he said? The realization dawned, terrifying. He could recant his oath, bring great shame on himself and his family for the oathbreaking and destroying his credibility in the council. He could hold firm to the oath, claiming Hamachi was lying. It would lead to a duel, or dissent among the Masters, for Hamachi was accorded much respect. He could say he would defy the will of Lady Doji, striking him out of the Crane Clan. Or he could commit seppuku and wash the oath away with blood. And there, lurking in the shadows, a triumphant smile, glimpsed only for an instance before the shadows hid it.

Before he could speak again, a rush of small footsteps broke the shocked silence. A tiny form, a young girl, darted in from the doorway, throwing herself on the ground before him and the other masters. The bow of her dark blue obi nearly covered her as she knelt, face pressed to the tatami. Kaori. Kashiwa shook his head in confusion.

"Father, I beg of you. Please permit me to join the Dueling School. I will become a Kenshinzen. I will serve the Crane in my brother's place. Then we both can follow the destinies the Lady Doji has set for our family."

Kashiwa looked down on his precious blossom, kneeling on the ground before him. His shoulders trembled as he realized what she had done, what it would mean for her, and their family. The Masters around him murmured amongst themselves, surprised at her understanding of her family's honor. Kashiwa settled heavily on his knees, laying his hand on the girl's shoulder. "Very well, Kaori. You shall carry my father's sword."

From the shadows, Shimekiri's triumph turned to disgust. He stalked out of the Council room.

Kashiwa allowed himself one small smile.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

News of what happened in the Masters' Council Chamber spread as fast as the news of the Crab's attacks. Shimekiri had stalked the halls, and every whisper and shred of gossip that he had put into place had been blown away. Oh, they spoke of Kashiwa, certainly. They admired his good fortune, the blessing of having a son chosen by the Lady Doji. They praised him for his daughter's honor. And they credited him with the decisive action of the Council of the Masters, whether he deserved it or not. And any seeds of doubt that Shimekiri tried to sow were forgotten in the far more important events that were descending upon the Academy.

The Kenshinzen had left. They would take the field against the Crab on the grounds of Kakita Castle, if they could reach it in time. The older students were preparing themselves to cover the retreat of the women, children, and more aged masters. Some would flee to Doji Castle, some further south, to the lands of the Asahina. The knowledge in the minds of the teachers and students was the most valuable asset of the Kakita Academy, and the Masters would not permit it to come to harm. Some masters of the Iaijutsu School led the Kenshinzen onto the field against the Crab. Others led the retreating groups, coordinating the older students and leading the Academy's forces.

'Kashiwa is fleeing to Doji Castle,' Shimekiri noted sourly. 'Cowardice.' That Kashiwa was the father of two young children, and that Shimekiri himself had been ordered to assist in the retreat to Kyuden Doji did not trouble the duelist's judgment in the least. Every day presented a fresh reason for him to hate Kashiwa and his family.

He heard the sound of laughter from one of the boys' bed chambers, an unusual sound given the anxious times. It grated. He pulled open the shoji screen to look in on the large room.

Twenty futons, each neatly rolled up, lined the walls. Beside each futon was a lacquered chest, all the possessions each child could call his own. A cluster of boys, between ten and twelve years old, were clustered to once side of the chamber, giggling, looking at something they shared between them. When Shimekiri pulled open the screen, one boy looked up, blanched, and his hand darted underneath his futon. The other boys stopped laughing, and drew themselves to their best attention and posture. As Shimekiri approached, they bowed.

The older student approached, scowling. "What are you laughing about?"

The boy who had first seen him grew even paler, but did not answer. The other boys also said nothing. Shimekiri reached down under the futon and pulled out a roll of paper. He could feel the boys nervousness as he unrolled the scroll.

It had been painted with extraordinary vividness, in a strange style that made the images seem to come out of the paper as though they were not just lines from a brush. It was a scene from a Kabuki play. The evil daimyo waved his menacing sword over the Peach Pit Boy and the beautiful Princess. But in this picture, the Peach Pit boy carried a brush and wore a mocking smile on his face. It was the beautiful Princess that carried the sword, her expression determined and confident. And the Evil Daimyo's face...was his own.

He crumbled the paper angrily and cast it aside. The boys took a step away from the man. Shimekiri lifted his arm to strike at the boy who was nearest him, and the boy covered his face with his hands to protect himself.

Just then, the great bell of the Academy Shrine rang, its peals echoing throughout the halls and chambers and gardens and courtyards of the school.

The Ancestral Home of the Kakita Family had fallen. The armies of Shadowlands and Crab were on their way. The Academy was being evacuated.

War had come.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

Betrayal. There was no level on which the Crane had not been betrayed. The Crab, sworn to defend the Empire from the evil horrors that haunted its edges, had allied with those horrors, leading them into the very heart of the Empire. The rich fields that supplied the Academy and Kakita Castle were a tainted blight left in their wake. The Lion, sworn to fight against the enemies of the Empire, did not rally to turn back the Crab. Instead, they betrayed their duty to attack the already-embattled Crane. The memory of their duty was as easily forgotten as their Champion had been. And, worst of all, this betrayal from within. The taste was bitter in Kashiwa's mouth as he muttered the word. "Hoturi. Hoturi has betrayed us all."

Around him, the walls of Kyuden Doji were cracked. Parts of the castle already burned. The gates, gates of mighty hardwood bound with iron and silver, were torn down, and Hoturi paraded his army of dead men in the outer courtyard. Kyuden Doji had protected hundreds of refugees, women and children from the outlying villages, and those who had come further, from the Academy, and from the Kakita Palaces. Many of the buildings were burning. The body of the Daidoji defenders had died in the outer courtyard or the cliffs below, as had Lord Kuwanan and Lord Uji. Kashiwa commanded a small pocket of the most senior Academy students, but the battle had driven them further and further into the compound. There was no way out, save through Hoturi's demonic army.

Kashiwa crouched in the shadow of a wall, trying to block out the screams of artisans and poets torn from their hiding places and butchered. He gestured, and the surviving students drew close. All save one. Shimekiri stood on the opposite side of an archway. He was drenched in blood and gore, a testimony to the many enemies, living and dead, he had destroyed in the battle against the Lion, and Hoturi's troops. He glowered at Kashiwa darkly. Kashiwa raised his voice so he could hear also.

"The madman..." Kashiwa could not bear to say his name again. "The madman must be destroyed at any cost. There is hope that without him, these undead minions will fall apart, and then the tainted Scorpion who fight with them will flee. He must not be allowed to live!"

The students nodded grim agreement, hands gripping their saya. Shimekiri's eyes were cool.

Kashiwa continued. "We saw him fight Kuwanan-sama, and yet defeat him easily. We have seen him cut through our men. But he has not yet faced his equal on this battlefield. He has not yet faced the ones who trained him, who taught him all that he knows. He has not yet faced a Master. I have seen him fight. I can defeat him. But I cannot do this if I am wounded. His monsters surround him. I must get closer."

A glimmer of hope filled the eyes of the students, as their fear became focused. One of them, a broad-shouldered lad with the face of an ashigaru whispered, "Then we will get you to him, Sensei. We will cut a road to him." The others nodded in agreement.

Kashiwa laid his hand on the young man's shoulder and stood. "Your courage will be remembered by the kami when the moon falls from the sky."

As his few remaining students tightened the straps on their armor and focused their spirits, Kashiwa pushed past them to Shimekiri's side. In a low voice the others could not hear, he said, "Shimekiri. Please. I know that you have felt much grief towards me. You have, you have always had, a raw talent that burns like the sun. But it has always been intertwined with impatience and ambition. I had hoped to teach you patience, to allow the opportunity to gain wisdom and honor to match your skill with the sword, for in you I have seen the potential to be the greatest duelist who ever lived. " Lines of worry, exhaustion, and pain creased his weathered face and marked the edges of his hawk-sharp eyes. "Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps the methods I used were not the best for you, not the way I had hoped. You are a man now, and you have the right to contest them. Please, join us in this struggle. Help me bring down this...traitor. Then, if we both live, we may contest the past on the dueling grounds if you wish, and end this feud between us with honor."

Shimekiri slowly raised his eyes up to meet Kashiwa's, pale, watery blue eyes that were as dead as the carnage they had both lived through. He bowed curtly, his eyes never leaving those of the Master. "Of course, Sensei-sama. My honor belongs to the Crane Clan."

Kashiwa nodded back, and, surrounded by his remaining students, raced through the arch, broke out of the inner courtyard, and drove, like a single strike, to the heart of the enemy. Towards the madman himself. Hoturi.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

Shimekiri moved as if in a dream, a dream of smoke and blood and death. The screams of his fellow students as they fell, one by one, on the blades of undead samurai, they were muffled, distant. He could see them fall around him, sacrificing their lives to get the Iaijutsu Master to Hoturi. They fell softly to his eyes, no more than puppets, or actors on a stage, reciting their lines and dying on cue. He, however, he was real. He could feel with his entire body each corpse as he sliced through it. He could
feel the same rush, the same joy of the duel, as each deadly spear tip and chipped sword closed on him, and was cut away. There had been many fights in the last two weeks, and he felt the blood that drenched him.

Not blood. Glory. He alone lived. All of the finest students, all of the great Kenshinzen. Where were they now? Scattered about this open stage, props. Empty bags of flesh. They had not survived, and he had. He was blessed by the Fortunes with a gift. They all had known. He alone ruled the stage...the battlefield. He alone!

No. Not alone. There were two others on the stage with him. He could see them now. Kashiwa. The man who had held him back. Who had held him down. Who had kept the world from seeing his true skill and power. The man who had made him the fool. Hatred, a hatred that had never died, burned in Shimekiri's heart.

And one other. His eyes were as red as flame, but his face was as handsome as a hero of legend. White hair blown on an ash-frecked wind tossed about him, and his armor shone purest silver and blue. In his hand he held a great katana, blood and steel. And in his casual gaze, he held death.

His eyes, full of pride, full of fire, locked on Shimekiri. He seemed to dismiss Kashiwa as insignificant. Though a dozen animated corpses lay between them, Shimekiri knew that Hoturi's eyes were for him alone. And in his heart, he could hear Hoturi's voice beckoning.

"I recognize you, Shimekiri-san. You have power. You are not weak. You know what a warrior must do to achieve power. To achieve glory! Join me! Show me now your skill, and I swear to you, the Empire will tremble at the sound of your name. All will recognize you, recognize the truth, as I do. Show me!"

The words rang clear, in a way that Kashiwa's muffled challenge did not. The Master reached Hoturi, and cried out "You have betrayed the Crane clan and dishonored the name of your ancestors! I serve the Lady, and in her name, I will strike you down! I am Kashiwa , son of Masurugi, and I will defeat you!"

Hoturi waved back the minions scrambling over the mounds of corpses the Academy students had left around them. He nodded a response to the challenge and assumed his stance. Casual. Easy. Assured. A smile curved his lips. A smile for Shimekiri alone.

Shimekiri knew then what he would do. In one smooth, perfect draw, he pulled his sword and struck. The blade bit deep into Kashiwa's back, shearing through muscle, tissue, and bone. Kashiwa's stroke was half-completed, but never fell. Hoturi had not even raised his blade.

Shimekiri stood, breathing heavily, his sensei's blood dripping from the curved arc of steel in his hands. Part of him recoiled in horror at what he had done, but that part of him fled deep into the recesses of his being, lost in the flood of joy at vengeance finally achieved.

Hoturi gestured at the door of the remaining unburned building, where a debased Scorpion bushi emerged with a screaming infant hanging by the foot, which he then threw to the undead masses to be torn apart. "They are yours."

Shimekiri dipped his fingers in the pool of blood in which he stood. He ran them, wet, across his cheeks, his chin, his forehead, using it as paint, Kabuki-style. Even a child would know that kabuki mask. The Evil Daimyo.

"You wanted a villain? You have created one."

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

The room was dark, the air filled with smoke and the sound of screams. Only the faintest light filtered into the tiny, secret armory in the bowels of Kyuden Doji, but the sound managed to work its way into every crevice.

Inside, a mother and her two children waited, terrified in the darkness. They had barricaded the door with weapons racks, but the armory's resources had be used up long past in the battles with the Lion. That was the only entrance, but it led straight back to the main guards’ quarters of the palace. In their desperate flight, they had seen what horrors lay beyond that door.

In the darkness, Nishoko turned the aiguchi in her hands. She knew what she must do. There was only one right and honorable thing to do. Soon, the monsters would also find her hiding place. It had been the grace of the ancestors that had led her daughter to find its secret entrance, for she was blind to it in her fear, but there were living followers amongst those attacking the castle. The Scorpion would know every hidden door. The shugenja could tell. Hoturi would know. Nishoko had heard the cries.

Soon they would come for her and for her children. They would die dishonored, in terrible agony. She must kill them both, strike them once, painlessly. Send them to sleep. And then she must perform jigai. To die like a lady. It would be all her Lord would have wished.

But she could not do it. She could not draw the knife across Toshiki's pale skin. She could not close Kaori's eyes. She cursed her cowardice. She prayed to the kami, but all around her were only kansen who howled and screamed for blood. She was too weak to draw the elements to her in this place of horror.

Kaori held her grandfather's sword, resolutely watching the door and ready to attack any who came. Its tip dropped low; it was almost beyond her strength to carry it. But her grip did not waver. Beside her, a mirror image, Toshiki carried her husband's wakizashi. He had given the boy the blade before entering battle. Nishoko could remember his last words to him.

"You are my son. Whether you are a painter or a warrior, there will always be the need for courage. Even as a painter, you can protect those around you. I will not have you die in battle without a blade in your hands. Take this. You, and Kaori, you hold with you the honor of our family. Our clan. Our Empire. Serve them well."

Then her husband was gone, to rally the last forces of the Crane and hold the gates.

He did not return.

The gates had fallen.

Outside, the screaming stopped. Toshiki shot an uncertain look back towards his mother, who raised a finger to her lips. The three hardly dared breathe.

They could hear footsteps outside their hiding place. The hand pulling at the door. And then the crash as a heavy weight slammed into it. Once. Twice. The door burst open, the weapons racks that had held it shut splintering.

For a second, Nishoko almost felt relief at the long mane of white hair, the blue and silver armor. But it was short lived. Outlined by the flickering fires beyond, she saw a face marked with blood, with eyes filled with madness. Kaori sucked in a breath. Shimekiri.

The bloody Crane smiled, leering. "I have found you. He has said you would be mine, and here you are, waiting for me. Just as he promised."

With a casual flick of his sword, he knocked Kaori's blade aside. She managed to keep a hold of the hilt, but the tip clattered against the ground. "What a pretty picture this is. Do you recognize it, Toshiki-kun? It is too bad you do not have your brush. It would be more useful than that." He slammed the hilt of his katana into Toshiki's shoulder, sending the still-unsteady boy tumbling to the ground at his mother's feet. She gathered him close to her.

"Nishoko-san. What charming children you have. So much like their father, don't you think? I'm sure that he would be proud of them now. Or would have been, if Hoturi-sama were not outside now, watching his creatures tear apart his corpse. He will not come to save you. And you, Lady Nishoko, have no place left to run."

Tear. Run. A cool wave washed over Nishoko. Around her, the kansen screamed, the spirits, torn and corrupted. They cried for blood. There were secrets amongst the Phoenix. Secrets that were never spoken of, but secrets that had a way of seeking you out. She had been a weak shugenja, and had, at one time when she was very young, wished to be stronger, to be strong enough to make her parents proud. It had only been a glimpse, quick before she turned away, before she realized that this was a bad thing, something too terrible to consider.

But nothing was too terrible a price to pay to save her children from this man, this monster who had almost killed her son. She did not know how much it would take. She did not care. The kansen would have all. She quietly drew her aiguchi down the length of her forearm.

A high-pitched, angry shout was Shimekiri's reply as Kaori leapt at him, swinging her blade. He whirled, quick as the wind, to block her strike with his own, but he held his sword too high to defend against such a small girl. Kaori's blow connected, biting deep into his leg. Not a debilitating wound, but one that would leave a scar, nonetheless. He kicked her fiercely, his foot to her stomach, and she was knocked heavily back into Nishoko. Somehow, she still kept a hold on the sword as though more than her life depended on it.

Nishoko used the strike to seem to draw Kaori to herself protectively, but in truth, it hid her actions. She dug the knife into her other arm with what strength she had left. Her lifeblood poured freely from the great gashes, hidden from Shimekiri's gaze by the drenched kimonos of her children. Toshiki and Kaori's eyes were fixated on Shimekiri as he stepped closer.

"My, Kaori-chan. You clearly haven't learned nearly enough iaijutsu yet. I was going to just kill you, but I think, for that blow, I'll just kill the others, and keep you as my little doll. My toy, to come and go as I please? I hear you were once quite the little dancer in Otosan Uchi. I could make you dance for me. Who shall I kill first, Kaori-chan? How should I do it?"

Nishoko dropped the aiguchi and buried her face in Kaori's white hair, her words a desperate whisper. The blood flowing from her arms flowed in lines and patterns across the floor, but in the shadowy room, only she could see them.

Shimekiri kept his blade in a low guard, should Kaori attempt another attack, but Kaori's eyes were wide and terrified as he took one more step forward. "Praying, Nishoko? The Fortunes can't hear you now. Or, perhaps you are advising your daughter to be a good little girl and do as I say? One man is much like another, after all. You should know. You married Kashiwa, after all."

The lines of blood traced their kanji across the floor, until left and right met. The lines began to shimmer with red fire. A tearing sound rent the air behind her, and Nishoko could feel the cold void touch her skin even as her vision clouded and her face drained of blood. "Yes. I married Kashiwa. And you are nothing like him. You are nothing at all!"

Clutching her children to her with the last of her strength, Nishoko threw herself back into the tear she had opened into the void, a rip in space made by the kansen feeding on her own blood. The rip sealed behind them as Toshiki's foot slipped past it into the starlit void.

The closing rent stopped the sound of Shimekiri's howl of fury.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO

In the courtyard of Shinden Asahina, a bell was tolling. Each pure note floated across the cloudy evening sky, carrying with it a prayer for the unfortunate souls lost in the fall of Kyuden Doji. A novice, robed in white, walked slowly along the temple wall, schooling himself in patience and calm despite the desperate news that had arrived on the wings of doves early that morning. The novice glanced down towards the temple doors to see, beyond them, a sight to shake even a high shugenja's calm.

A young girl, her white hair flying free in the evening breeze, her fine kimono stained with blood all across the back, stood, an unsheathed sword held in her hands. A young boy, holding a sheathed wakizashi, knelt at her side, clutching his mother's hand. And at their feet, the body of a noble woman, her black hair streaming around her, her blue and white garments drenched in blood, lay peaceful, as if settled by the kami to die as a high lady should.

The last strike of the bell shivered the evening breeze, and, like many things, was gone.

Oooooooo OOOOOOOOOO oooooooooooooO