Always Coming Home:

Shigeyuki spent a moment studying the shogi board and then looked up at the woman on the other side of the table. "I thought the Daidoji were supposed to be good at war," he said.

"We are," Gisei said, moving her lancer. "I'm letting you win."

He raised an eyebrow at her. "Playing to lose is not normally considered a wise strategy...though I'll admit it served you well in your conflict with Yamadori." He moved one of his generals.

"My conflict wasn't with Doji Yamadori--it was with Kakita Unako. And I won." Won in the ways that mattered to her, at least. In the days that had followed her duel it had become clear that most of the visitors at Doji Hanoshi's winter court had understood what she had done, and some were impressed. Asahina Otojiro in particular had been moved by her show of restraint, and his open support had made neutrals out of a number of previously hostile people.

"That engagement. She is going to try something tomorrow."

"Hmm," was Gisei's comment. "Tomorrow" meant the storytelling party that Shigeyuki had insisted that she take part in, and she would have expected that Unako would see it as an opportunity. But the magistrate seemed to have acquired an informant in Unako's inner circle, and Gisei was becoming curious about who it was. "Your information seems quite complete."

"Hmm," was Shigeyuki's reply. He didn't say more until he had made his move. "So, what do you think of Yamadori?"

Gisei hesitated a moment. She spent far too much time thinking about Yamadori. The requirements of winter court meant spending large amounts of time in the same room with him, and it was impossible to be so close and not wonder what it would be like to run her fingers through his lush, glorious hair, or if the scent that clung to him came from little bags of fragrant stuff tucked into his clothing, or something laid directly on his skin, or what his voice would sound like late at night, after...she drug her mind back to the question. "He's everything the Crab hate about the Crane. And vain about it."

Shigeyuki laughed out loud. "You have a gift for turning a phrase, Gisei-san. But is that all?"

"What else?" Gisei said shortly. She picked up a shogi piece, tried to focus on the game.

"He's gathered quite the reputation, you know. And Benten favors him."


"So? So, you never think of him at night, never consider--"

Gisei slammed the shogi piece onto the board so hard it made the pieces and Shigeyuki jump. She glared at the magistrate. "Yes, I want him," she hissed. "I want him because he's beautiful. Would you like to know what happened to the last beautiful thing I wanted?"

Shigeyuki stared at her, wide-eyed. Then he recovered. "Clean your face and keep it clean," he snapped back. "An outburst like that in public could destroy you."

Gisei looked down, feeling herself shake. For just a moment she had seen fear in Shigeyuki's eyes, and she wondered what he had seen in hers. "I am sorry, Shigeyuki-san. You are kind to correct me."

"It is I who must apologize, Gisei-san. You have seen the ugliness of the Shadowlands--I should not tease you about beauty."

Gisei bit her lip before she could say something that really would destroy her. After a moment she spoke. "In the end, it doesn't matter what I think about Yamadori. He's on Unako's side of the board, and that's that."

Shigeyuki picked up one his lancers, used it to capture a knight. He gazed thoughtfully at the knight for a moment before setting it down. "You have picked out the story you will tell tomorrow?"

"Yes. The story of how Isawa Asahina joined the Crane."

"An excellent choice, politically," Shigeyuki said. "It flatters both the Asahina and Doji, and has no mention of the Daidoji. Unako will find no means to slander you with it."

Gisei nodded and smiled. She had chosen it because it was one of her favorite stories. Doji Kiriko had braved pain and death to defend her clan from Asahina's bitter hatred, and Gisei had always considered her the perfect model of a Crane samurai-ko. But if Shigeyuki wanted to think it was part of some grand strategy on her part she wasn't going to stop him.

"But that doesn't mean Unako won't try," he added. "She's acquired a number of allies, and we don't know all of them. Don't let anyone tempt you into doing something foolish. Don't give her an opening."

"Hmm," was Gisei's reply.

The game between them finally drew to a close, with Shigeyuki claiming the victory. Gisei bid her guest a good night and sat for a while, sipping the last of her sake and considering what to do about Unako. She certainly agreed that the woman was hostile, but she considered Unako to be more clever than smart. She'd trapped Gisei into that duel neatly enough, but had been completely caught off guard by the Daidoji's deliberate failure. Gisei knew that for a certainty--Master Otojiro had balked at using the air kami to spy for her, but he had agreed to confirm something she could have seen for herself, had she not been having her wounded arm tended to. Kakita Unako had been a very unhappy woman that day.

She could understand why neither Shigeyuki or Yamadori had guessed her plan--they patterned their lives after Kakita's Sword, and losing was not an option for men like that. But a Daidoji grew up knowing that not all battles could be won, and sometimes one had to accept a loss in one area to gain a more important victory somewhere else. And if Unako had really started a fight with a Daidoji, without first studying Daidoji tactics...

Gisei sighed and put the shogi set back in its box. She was going to have to start winning some games against Shigeyuki, or he'd think that she wasn't paying attention to his advice. Some days, she thought with a yawn, managing your allies was as difficult as out-plotting your enemies.

* * *

"...and so Asahina laid his hand in Kiriko's, and together they went and sought her father."

Gisei finished her story and looked over the crowd, waiting for the response to her performance. Most of her listeners, she was pleased to note, were nodding and applauding. Master Otojiro and Shigeyuki were both openly approving. Doji Junichiro looked more reserved, but with a flick of his fan he gave her the signal for "success", so she knew she had done well. The Dragon, Mirumoto Nikkan, seemed more interested in something across the room, and when Gisei followed his eyes she found Kakita Unako and Doji Yamadori. Unako looked politely interested, Yamadori looked politely bored. Gisei wondered if he was going to try and pick a duel with Shigeyuki today. The rivalry between the two men had settled into an exchange of catty letters, but there was no telling how long that would last.

"Daidoji-san, that was a wonderful story!"

Gisei turned towards the speaker and smiled, bowing slightly. "I am pleased to hear that you enjoyed it, Rokujo-sama," she said. Rokujo, Gisei thought, Doji Hanoshi-sama's youngest daughter. She should have guessed.

"Could you tell another story? Please?"

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Yamadori's attention sharpen and focus on her. So here it was, the maneuver Shigeyuki had warned her of. But Rokujo was young, and not very smart--there were a dozen different polite excuses that Gisei could use to evade such a request without giving offense to her host. But Unako would be prepared for that.

"What sort of story would you like to hear, Rokujo-sama?"

The girl smiled. "Tell a story of your family. Tell a Daidoji story."

Gisei tapped her fan against her hand, pretending to think. "You wish to hear about an Iron Crane? Some great hero whose name the Daidoji revere?" Shigeyuki, she saw, was fidgeting with his fan, frantically trying to warn her off. Junichiro was scanning the crowd, trying to figure out who had put his lord's daughter up to this stunt. Yamadori was staring at her with an intensity that he never managed during his duel with her. Unako was still looking polite.

"Oh, exactly," Rokujo said. "Please, Daidoji-san?"

"Certainly, Rokujo-sama." Gisei looked around the room, making sure she had everyone's attention. "Once upon a time, a samurai of the Crane went into the Shadowlands, driven by love to save a Thunder's soul. Brother of Thunder, youngest son of the Crane Champion, son of the Emperor's own champion, he was a man mighty in war, who had proved himself in countless battles against the denizens of the Dark Land."

The story of Hayaku, founder of the Daidoji family, was known to all Cranes and every white-haired Crane in the room was a testament to the power of that story. Better still, he was Doji's son, the rescuer of the soul of the first Crane Thunder, and had been dead a thousand years. His story was, politically speaking, completely and utterly safe. And thus, predictable. Gisei noticed Unako settling back with a contented look on her face and struggled against a smile.

"The samurai's name was Doji Kuwanan."

Gisei's voice was loud, but not overly so--it was the sudden silence of her listeners that made her voice echo oddly throughout the room.

"And this was how he fell at the battle of Oblivion's Gate."