Test of Honor
by Daidoji Gisei

    Gisei considered the five shabby and mismatched bandits who blocked her road. There had once been a Daidoji Gisei who would have flinched from a fight at five to one odds, but she had perished irrevocably in the Shadowlands. The Gisei who now stood in a neglected country road accepted the fact that she wasn't going to get past without a fight, drew her katana, and threw herself at the bandits.

    The leader lost his head without quite realizing he was under attack. The man beside him succeeded in raising his no dachi before her next cut opened his chest and he tumbled into the dust. The remaining three, armed with yari, nunchuk and club spread out in an attempt to surround her. Gisei launched a flurry of cuts that drove the yari-wielder too close to the arc of the nunchuk and while those two sorted themselves out she turned her back on them and killed the one with the club. She then spun back and caught a yari stroke with her blade, using her motion to guide the blow away from her. The yari-man pulled his weapon back to strike again but in doing so he opened up a gap in his defense. Gisei stepped in and cut off his head. The remaining bandit threw down his weapon and turned to flee. Gisei took two quick steps and sliced him in half.

    The fight's sudden end jangled her nerves far more than the fight itself had. Gisei inhaled deeply, trying to impose calm on her spirit. If they had brought an archer, or shown better tactics in their attack…but they hadn't, and so she was the one who lived.

    She shook the blood from her katana and slid it into its saya, wondering what her friends back on the Wall would say if they heard. First they would congratulate her on her feat. Then Yagamaki would say but of course a Crab samurai could hold his own against several ogres, and one of the Okamis would bring up the difficulties of fighting twenty or thirty goblins, especially after they had been set on fire. Gisei laughed softly at her thoughts and started down the road.

Long after she had disappeared in the distance, a figure crept out of the bushes along the road and ran off.

*    *

    The inn at the next town she came to was more than a little run-down, with meals scantier and plainer than she preferred, but the sake was good. Nightfall found her in the common room lingering over a bottle and thoughts of her future. At first the room was dominated by the local heimen-tradesmen mostly, with a sprinkling of farmers-but as the evening wore on more of the local toughs showed up. The heimen started slipping out and Gisei decided that it was time for her to do the same. To be a samurai in a crowd like this was to invite a fight, and she had chopped up enough riff-raff for one day. She had poured out the last of her sake when two men came into the room. They paused for a moment near the doorway speaking quietly to each other, then one of the men walked over to her table.

    Gisei looked up, prepared for anything, and then stared with open-mouthed astonishment at the man standing before her.

    "Gisei?" he said, looking astonished himself.

    "Mifune?" she replied. "But-I was told you had died!"

    "Maybe I did," he said cryptically. "Did you really kill five bandits this morning?"

    "Yes. How did you know? I haven't seen a magistrate yet."

    "There was a sixth hiding in the bushes."

    Gisei couldn't help but feel that some vital piece of information was missing from the conversation. "But why would he have told you?"

    Mifune sighed. "Gisei," he said in a patient tone she remembered all too well, "he told me because I am his lord. The bandits you killed were part of my gang, and we have come to kill the samurai who killed them."

    'We'. Gisei studied the implications of the word as she looked around the room at the dozen-or-so shifty and unkempt men who now occupied it. "Oh, Mifune," she said, "what happened to you?"

    It was not, perhaps, the reaction he had expected. He was silent for a moment, and then laughed a little. "Innkeeper!" he bellowed. "Sake for two! Now!" Removing the swords from his obi he laid them next to hers on the table and knelt down across from her.

    They had met as students at the Daidoji Academy. Like Gisei, Daidoji Mifune came from an ancient, if minor, branch of the Daidoji family. Unlike her, he had excelled in the school for bushi. There had been no lesson he could not master, no competition he could not win. Mifune had been worshiped by half of their class and hated by the other. Neither half had known what to make of his friendship with Gisei, who was widely regarded as just good enough to fill a spot in a pike formation. But Mifune had an inexhaustible hunger for stories of Daidoji heroes, and Gisei the bookworm had a near-inexhaustible supply.

    He had been the finest of them all, the one destined for greatness. Now Gisei stared at the bone-white scars on his forearms. "I didn't know they came off," she said. Mifune lifted his arms and examined the places that had once held tattoos proclaiming him a Daidoji bushi. "There's no end to Agasha cleverness. Especially after you've threatened their knick-knacks."

    Sake and fresh cups arrived, delivered by the innkeeper himself. In a show of his old graciousness Mifune poured her a cup and smiled at her. "You will like this. It's the inn's special reserve, the cask they keep on hand for visiting dignitaries."

    "Magistrates, lords, bandit chieftains…" Gisei said, raising her cup.

    Mifune laughed. "Just so."

    It was truly fine sake. They drank in silence for a few minutes, savoring the moment, until one of the men spoke. "Uhh, boss, ain't we gonna…" His voice trailed off as Mifune turned around and looked at him.

    "That's right," Gisei said, remembering the beginning of their conversation. "You came here to kill me."

    Mifune turned back to her. "Plenty of time for that. I wish it wasn't you, but it's a question of face, so I can't let you live." Gisei nodded her understanding. "But before then, we can trade stories. Do you wish to hear what I am doing here?"

    "If you wish to tell."

    He gave her a bitter, deaths-head smile. "Absolutely. It will be a unique addition to your collection of heroic tales." He paused for a drink and went on. "Well, you knew that I had been accepted into the Iron Warriors, and that my unit had been stationed in the north to keep the Lion honest."
"I did get that letter."

    "Very good. When Uji-sama was commanded to retake Shiro no Yogin we were ordered south to support him. We were almost out of Crane lands when one of Kuwanan-sama's less gifted vassals decided that it was his duty to stop us. He met us at a village called Akadashi."

    Gisei chilled at the name. Several times during the march to Volturnum a Daidoji had ignored the advice of their Crab guides and coolly gone into battle against oni whose touch burned and corroded flesh, or which spewed worms that burrowed into skin and devoured the body from the inside, or which wrapped around their victims and pulled them screaming into the Tainted earth. After each incident a whisper would go around camp. "Akadashi." "Akadashi."

    Mifune paused, noticing her reaction. "You've heard of it."

    "Just the name. No one would say what happened there."

    "Only this: A Doji force made up of ashigaru, courtiers, and boys still wet from their first shave placed themselves in the path of a Daidoji force trained and equipped to fight the Matsu. I'm sure you can imagine the outcome."

    Gisei could, and she closed her eyes in horror at the thought. "Sweet Lady Doji."

    "Was apparently not interested in her children's fate. We mowed them down like peasants harvesting rice." Mifune paused, picked up his cup and drained it. "That night I decided that if I was going to make my living as a remorseless butcher I could make more money as an independent. So I left."

    After a moment Gisei drained her own cup and poured them both more. Mifune was, by his own admission, a deserter and a bandit. Every honorless breath he took was a stain on her family, clan, and school, and the tattoos on her arms bound her to an inflexible obligation to kill him or die trying. She should have been burning with righteous fury. What she felt was a cold and bitter grief for a boy who had once befriended her.

    "I marched with Uji-sama into the Shadowlands," she announced suddenly, trying to turn her thoughts to a topic marginally less terrible.

    Mifune looked relieved at the change. "A great honor, to be sure. Only the finest bushi would have been included in such a mission."

    "The finest bushi, and those whose reading included everything the Crane know about the Shadowlands. My lord thought it was time my odd habits became useful."

    "'There is no weapon greater than intelligence,'" Mifune said. It was a quote from a text used in the Academy. "'Knowledge of your enemy's resources and disposition should be developed at the earliest opportunity and exploited to its fullest.'"

    "The armies of the Shadowlands have essentially infinite resources and are of foul disposition," Gisei said.

    "And yet you are here, safe in Crane lands."

    Only the Shadowlands, Gisei reflected, could make sitting in a room full of bandits who intended to kill you "safe."

    "I am here," she said slowly, "but I am…hollow. I lost something south of the Wall and I don't know what it is, or how to get it back."

    Mifune's eyes narrowed and his posture changed ever-so-slightly. Gisei pretended not to notice that he was in a position to draw his katana, and a heartbeat away from doing so. "What do you mean? What happened?"

    "In the final stage of the battle, my unit was sent out as part of a screening force for those going to Volturnum. We weren't the real screen, you understand, but a feint intended to pull some of the Shadowlands forces away from our main force. It worked, I suppose-at least we were surrounded quickly enough by our enemies." She was quiet for a moment, then cleared her throat and continued. "They were undead mostly, zombies and skeletons, with some ogres to help break our lines. We didn't break, but they kept coming, and coming, and coming, and every bushi who died got back up and fought against us. Slowly we were cut down." Gisei looked down and studied her tattoos. "Some days later I was found wandering alone in the Shadowlands."

    "What? How did you get away? What happened to the others?"

    Gisei looked up and met his eyes. "I don't know," she said quietly.

    Mifune stared at her a long minute. "You don't know."

    "I remember the battle. I remember a little about being found-I remember begging for water. Between those times, nothing."

    "And they let you back over the Wall?"

    "They saw no reason not to. To the Crab, battle shock is neither uncommon nor dishonorable. I had no problems handling jade, and the Kuni have declared me free of Taint."

    Mifune leaned back, considering. "No one knows more about the deceits of the Tainted than the Kuni," he said, his tone giving the words a double meaning. "But surely jade never lies."

    "Surely," Gisei said.

    Mifune poured out the last of the sake. He drank it slowly and then announced, "It is the fact that you are honorless. That is the emptiness you feel."

    "Honorless?" Gisei said, puzzled. "I am not honorless."

    "How can you think to deny it?" he replied. "To abandon your commander and comrades in a battle is to fail the most basic requirement of Bushido. You have no more honor than I."

    The anger that she had missed earlier now roared into life, ignited by the lingering suspicion he might be right. Gisei found herself gripping the table edge to keep her hands under control. "I did not abandon them!"

    "How else could you have gotten away? You certainly didn't fight your way out-you barely passed the Academy trials."

    "And you?" Gisei shot back. "You passed as a boy and failed as a man!"

    Mifune leaned over the table. "My comrades were alive and safe when I left them."

    "And that gives a bandit leave to speak of a samurai's honor? You don't know the first thing about it!"

    "'Honor is the heart of the duel-the breath and the blood of the sword.'"

    It was Kakita himself that Mifune quoted, and the words-and the challenge implicit in them--rang in her head. Once he had been the finest of them all, and challenging him to a duel had been as unthinkable as challenging the moon. Now Gisei turned the matter over in her mind and realized that it was the surest way she had to kill him. The moment she made her decision Gisei felt something change within her. It was like the first blush of love, or the slow return of blood to a limb gone numb, and it took her fury and transformed it into a cool, deep stillness.

    "You think you can die like a samurai?" Gisei asked quietly.

    Mifune smiled. "I can kill like one."

    There was nothing more to be said. Gisei picked up her swords, rose to her feet and walked to the door, slipping the swords into her obi as she went. The bandits parted before her, most looking pleased at the thought of bloodshed. Gisei ignored them. There was no reality save the stillness within her, no time save the eternal now.

    Moving without haste Gisei walked to one side of the village square and turned to face Mifune. The moon had risen over the trees and Lady Hitomi bathed them both in her cold and tender light. Gisei bowed to her opponent, drew her katana, and assumed her stance. The stillness flowed out of her until it filled the square and she felt the small shifts in Mifune's stance, the beating of his heart, the moonlight that silvered his katana. She felt the beginning of his move before he did and flowed with it, the momentum of her rush carrying her past as their swords swept smoothly in to cut.

    Gisei came to a stop and waited. She could feel the cloth of her kimono hanging free, and the skin of her abdomen tingled where the cool night air touched it. From behind her she heard a soft rasp of breath, and the muted thud of a body collapsing. Slowly she turned her blade and studied the thin line of blood that trailed down its edge.
"'You must practice diligently,'" Gisei murmured to herself. Kakita had said that, too.