Best Served Cold…

"… The night in Scorpion lands was filled with the sounds of men doing battle, battling men dying and the screams of the innocent women and children. Samurai or peasant, young or old, to the relentless gaze of Mirumoto Juroi it made no difference. With a sickening expression of glee he turned to his captive.

"No! I beg you! Spare my family, they have not harmed you!"

"Silence, Scorpion! I will not suffer any sort of revenge from your family: all here will die today and you'll be the witness of it all." Mirumoto Juroi turned to his soldiers and yelled, "Leave no one alive! Burn the castle as you leave it." With a foul smile Juroi then turned back to his captive. "Are you enjoying what we're doing for you? Well, do you, Sakuto?"

Shosuru Sakuto said nothing, he just mumbled something.

Frowning Juroi leaned in closer. When he was only several inches away he could hear Sakuto chanting mystical syllables: magic! Before he could react Sakuto stood and yelled.

"The Kami will protect my child!"

Helplessly Juroi saw how Sakuto's body changed into a whirlwind and entered the burning mansion. When the whirlwind exited again it carried a small form; one of his children, but which one?

"What shall we do, my lord?"

Juroi growled. "Nothing, we'll never catch up with him. The child is gone, but at least he won't survive this spell, he was too weak. Continue burning the house, one child makes no difference."

The night in Scorpion lands was filled with the sound of crackling fire. Bodies burned, wood burned, rice paper burned, but none of it made Mirumoto Juroi's undiscriminating eyes even flinch. He was sad too even blink, so much did he enjoy the scene of utter destruction and death. To himself he whispered.

"No longer shall this slight haunt my ancestral line."

* * *

[A decade later, in Otosan Uchi]

"Is this your first visit time to visit Otosan Uchi, Katoro-san?"

"Yes, it is, Shui-sama," Kitsuki Katoro answered. "It was decided I would represent my clan in the Imperial Court."

Otomo Shui nodded. "Quite an honor, I am sure. I hope you will enjoy your stay. We were told of your appointment and your quarters are ready. I will send several servants to bring your personal belongings, but for now let me give you a tour through the many hallways. It is easy to get lost, but most servants can show you the way."

"Please, lead on then, I wish to familiarize myself as soon as possible. I imagine I will need to learn a lot of names as well."

Shui smiled and nodded, "Yes, but let's take things one step at a time. First the tour."

* * *

"And finally, I would like to welcome Kitsuki Katoro to the Imperial Court of Hantei XXIX," Otomo Shui announced. "He will representing the Dragon Clan after the unfortunate and untimely death of his predecessor. It is his first visit to Otosan Uchi and he still needs to learn all our names, so if we remind ourselves of that before we take offense, everything should be fine." During his last words his gaze settled on several attendants in particular, but only few others noticed.

Court business continued as usual and Katoro tried to talk to several people and find out who they were. He discussed enlightenment with a Phoenix, talked about archery with a Unicorn and promised to have a drink with a rowdy, yet friendly Hida. Just as Katoro reminded himself to learn more about heraldry, the doors of the Assembly opened.

Through the doors stepped a woman dressed in silken finery. Her kimono was made to accentuate her graceful form, it was deep red with golden figures woven through the fabric. Her mask looked like a cat's nuzzle and it suited her almost feline grace. Her eyes appeared to have been magically given the same red color as her kimono. Her skin was as white as porcelain and looked just as smooth. Her hair was painted gold, the same color as the scorpions on her kimono.

Katoro never thought he'd ever understand how the eye of a Kitsuki magistrate observed the world, but he guessed he was getting pretty close as he scrutinized this woman. She was without doubt the most beautiful creature under the skies of Lady Sun and Lord Moon he had ever seen.

The young woman made a quick curtsey before the assembled courtiers and said, "My apologies for being belated, but I had several pressing matters to attend to."

"Fashionably late as ever," the Hida whispered into Katoro's ear as he nudged him with his elbow and snickered.

Katoro hardly heared the Crab's words. His heart raced, beating harder and harder as if it would jump out of his chest so he could present it to her. He heard the blood pumping through his ears and his mouth suddenly felt very dry. He could do nothing but look at the Scorpion.

"Oh my! I see we have a new attendant," the Scorpion courtier said as she saw Katoro and walked over to him. She bowed and introduced herself, "A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Kitsuki…?"

Katoro blinked several times as the realization that she was actually speaking to him hit him. "Ah, uhm, er… Katoro. Kitsuki Katoro! Yes, that's who I am."

The other courtiers snickered behind their fans at the young man's tangled tongue.

The Scorpion maiden just nodded, but at this distance Katoro could notice she smiled behind her mask. "Well, I am Bayushi Mariko. I hope you will enjoy your stay with us, Kitsuki Katoro-san."

Katoro was amazed that he had the presence of mind to bow to her and said, "I am sure that it won't be too hard, Mariko-san."

As Mariko headed towards the other Scorpion courtiers the large Hida nudged Katoro again and said, "I see someone's already taking a liking to another someone, neh? Can't say I blame you."

Katoro just nodded as his eyes followed Mariko. He wished his eyes wouldn't get dry, even blinking while looking at her would seem a waste of her beauty. Katoro sighed to himself, never had he fallen in love so easily. He bit his underlip in doubt, because even though he knew his heart had fallen for this woman's beauty, his father's words echoed through his mind: 'Never trust a Scorpion, son, they'll stab you in your back when they have the chance.' But surely not this beautiful, fine, graceful, delicate, young Scorpion?

* * *

Later that night Katoro was sitting in his quarters. He was trying to remember if he did anything else that other than staring at Mariko, but he couldn't think of anything. Thoughts raced through his mind: did she notice? Would she like him? Should he tell her? What would his father think? By the Kami, his father! If he would hear from anybody he'd fallen in love with a Scorpion… He would probably kill his son with his bare hands. Katoro swallowed. To himself he promised that he would approach her the very next day.

Katoro laid himself to rest and closed his eyes. Sleep didn't seem to be able to catch his fleeting thoughts. For hours he must've been thinking about Mariko, when a sudden sound alerted him. It sounded like a fight! Quickly he grabbed his daisho and ran into the hallway.

In the dim lantern light Katoro could see two forms fighting in the small courtyard garden that was surrounded by courtiers' quarters. "Who goes there?" he yelled. It seemed as if both forms looked at him, but one quickly cut down the other and advanced upon Katoro.

Katoro drew his sword, took stance and said, "Whoever you are: stop and explain yourself! Or I will cut you down where you stand!"

The killer responded only with an almost maniacal laugh and lunged at Katoro, his sword aimed at Katoro's head. Katoro barely deflected the blade and hit the killer in the stomach with his saya. The man barely responded to blow and sweeped Katoro's legs from underneath him.

Looking up, Katoro saw the flash of light reflected by steel as the killer brought his sword down upon the helpless Dragon. Katoro closed his eyes and prepared to seek peace with his ancestors… But the strike never came, instead a loud clang reached Katoro's ears followed by a loud exhalation.

When he opened his eyes Katoro saw his attacker lying on the ground, dying from a large wound in chest. He looked up and what he saw made his entire body tingle. His heart pumped with deafening pounds and his mind raced as he saw Mariko again. The fact she held a bloodied blade in her hands and that her face was grim, with eyes focused on the now dead assassin, hardly did anything to diminish her beauty.

She must've been alerted to the sounds as well, Katoro thought, since she was not wearing her mask. Katoro found himself scrutinizing her again, but now his eyes fell on Mariko's shoulder. Her kimono had slid off slightly and revealed the porcelain skin underneath.

Suddenly Mariko turned her head to Katoro, as if she didn't notice him before. Her eyes were hard, but when she looked at him they changed into the lovely orbs he had seen earlier that day. She gracefully, but to Katoro painfully slowly, readjusted her night dress. "Katoro-san, we meet again," she said with her voice as sweet as honey and the loveliest smile Katoro ever saw on her face.

Katoro slowly stood, hardly taking his eyes off Mariko and bowed deeply before her. "You saved my life, Mariko-san, domo arigoto gozaimasu. I do not know if I can ever repay you."

"Do not worry about repaying me yet," Mariko replied. "Just go back to sleep, I will take care of the miharu and settle these matters. I am sure we can settle something at a later time."

Smiling sheepishly Katoro nodded and returned to his chambers. 'Tomorrow', he thought to himself, 'definitely tomorrow.'

* * *

[Several weeks later]

"Katoro-kun! How have you been, my little cousin?"

"I've been… fine, aunt," Katoro said as he allowed his aunt entrance to his quarters.

"Now, now. You know better than to lie to your aunt, don't you?"

Katoro looked away. "I have no idea what you're talking about, aunt."

Katoro's aunt, Yuziko, took her cousin's chin and turned his face towards her. "You look terrible. Have you been sleeping well? Or are you sick?"

"No! I am okay. It's just that…"

"What is it, boy? Don't leave your aunt worried."

Katoro looked at his aunt sternly and it made her realize that he no longer was just a little boy, but a mature man. With a sigh he said, "But only if you swear you will not tell anything to my father."

Yuziko smiled and said, "In all our years together have I ever betrayed you to your father? You know I like him as little as you do. You can trust your aunt. Now tell me, what is it that troubles you?"

"Perhaps I was wrong. I am sick," Katoro said and his aunt's face only became more worried. "I suffer from the ailment which knows no cure. The disease that can't be healed. I am sick and there is but one medicine to sooth my soul. A medicine nobody can give me, a medicine so rare and curious that I and only I can acquire it…"

"…Aunt Yuziko, I am in love."

The aged woman smiled and comforted Katoro. "Now I see. I wonder why I didn't notice it immediately. And this 'medicine' of yours, does she share your feelings?"

Katoro held his head in his hands and shrugged. "I have no idea, aunt. Every day I see her in court, but I do not have the courage to step up to her and talk to her! It is terrible! She is so close that I could touch her, but so far that she is practically unreachable! Aunt, what am I to do? I feel as if I would fight armies just to be with her, but I can't even speak when she is looking at me! What kind of man does that make me?"

"A very mortal man, young Katoro. Perhaps you should start differently? A poem perhaps? You know you have a way with words that many Crane would envy, if you would just use it!"

Katoro laughed cynically, "Of course, and then my father will hear how famous I have become as a poet and feel ashamed. You know how he is."

Yuziko smiled, "I did not say you would have to present it to her publically, or even personally. You know as well as I do that your way with the sword is only rivaled by your way with words. You were not sent here without reason. You should learn to listen to your heart more often. Who is the lucky woman anyway?"

"One of the courtiers, Bayushi Mariko. Ironically enough, her quarters are next to mine. If my father finds out I am in love with a Scorpion… Well, you know father."

"A Scorpion? Then you'll need an entirely different approach, my cousin. You'll have to show her you're worthy of her attention, but most importantly you must remember these words: all is fair in love and war."

"Perhaps, perhaps you are right, aunt," Katoro said as he looked up at Yuziko.

"I was not finished. All is far in love and war, because love is war."

"But don't they say that war is hell? Doesn't that make love hell?"

Yuziko laughed, "Katoro-kun, you are far too clever for you own good. I will tell you that at sometimes in your life you will certainly feel that way, but trust me, it is hardly ever so!"

"Thank you, aunt, for everything. I think I will sleep well again tonight."

"Well, luckily for you I will be in Otosan Uchi for two weeks, let me know if anything happens."

* * *

Katoro as he was, bent over the flat stone and mumbling to himself, could not hear even the approach of the Crab 'courtier', Hida Habumoto. Only when the elderly warrior spoke, did he come to Katoro's attention and clumsily hid what he was working on.

"What is it you're doing? You've been here all day, young Dragon… I could swear that I saw you writing when I approached, but now the paper seems to have disappeared."

"Yes, I was writing, Habumoto-san, but it is something personal and I would not want to bother you with it, of course," Katoro said, his voice a bit hoarse from the long stretch of mumbling without pause.

"Oh, I see," Habumoto said slowly as he paced around Katoro. "Now this wouldn't happen to be written for a special person? A mutual acquaintance of ours?"

"Habumoto!" Katoro spat suddenly. "I respect you, but you are testing my resolve! What is it you want of me?"

"I was just seeing to it that you had everything you needed," Habumoto apologized as he took a step backwards and held out his hands as if to defend himself. "I merely wished to help."

Katoro sighed and calmed himself. "I am sorry for my outburst, but the past few days have been quite taxing for me. I am afraid that, unless you're a poet, you can't help me."

"I might not be a Crane, but you could always show me what you've got so far. I have heard enough people rant to know what is decent poetry and what is rubbish."

Slowly Katoro took the sheet of paper he was working on out of his sleeve, where he had hid it. With a considerable amount of hesitation he handed it to the Crab and awaited his response.

Habumoto allowed his eyes to carefully read the words on the paper and stroked his small, greying beard. He looked up at Katoro for a moment, but immediately continued reading and re-reading the haiku. Slowly he started to nod and then to smile and finally to laugh.

"I must hand it to you, my young friend, you really know how to capture and put into words Mariko's most captivating trait. You can hand this to her without having to feel unsure about its effectiveness. It will depend on her to like it or not."

Katoro swallowed and looked straight at Habumoto. "I can trust that you will keep this between us? The other courtiers have not yet proven themselves observant enough to notice this. I would greatly appreciate your discretion in this matter."

Habumoto bowed and said with a grin, "You can trust me, young Katoro. I shall utter a prayer to the Fortune of Love for you."

Katoro returned the bow and accepted his work from the Crab and left for his quarters.

* * *

Mariko opened the fusuma to her quarters when something caught her eyes. She kneeled to examine it closer. 'A note. How strange,' she thought. "I wonder," she whispered and opened the folded sheet of paper.

If looking into
Your eyes is to die then why
Would I want to live

With her eyes fixated on the words, Mirako closed the fusuma and walked over to a tatami mat and sat down confused. Was this what she thought it to be? A love poem? But from whom? Mariko went over everybody she could think of, but she never indulged any advances from them. Could it be that…? Not the new Dragon representative! He was the son of that foul bastard, Juroi, who had killed her family… Surely he could not be…? But, then again, he didn't know her lineage either. Perhaps. Perhaps she could turn this to her favor. If she played the game right, this would work to her advantage. Smiling to herself, she read the poem again, yet a small part of her didn't know if she smiled because of her cunning or the poetry.

* * *

The next morning Katoro entered court and saw that most of the courtiers had gathered themselves around Mariko. Cautiously he closed in to listen what was going on.

"…and that's when I found the letter on my doorstep," Mariko seemed to conclude.

"What did it say?" one of the courtiers asked with seemingly limitless interest.

"It was a poem!" Mariko exclaimed, as if the letter had been actually dangerous.

"How did it go?" asked a young Crane ambassador.

"I will not recite it to you, but believe me: it was an exquisite piece of poetry. One worthy of the finest Crane poets of history!"

"That is quite a claim, Mariko-san," the young Crane ambassador remarked with feigned and honest insult. "Perhaps you should recite the poem after all."

"Have you forgotten that tomorrow there will be a poetry contest? Certainly the mysterious poet will represent himself there!"

The assembled courtiers 'ah'ed and 'ooh'ed as if Mariko's suggestion had been the most brilliant idea ever devised. Katoro sighed: what would he do? If he didn't attend she could discover it was him and if he did attend everyone would know! At least she didn't publicly announced the intentions of his poem. Katoro slowly started to back off from the crowd and turned around. He almost bumped into Habumoto on the way out.

"Well, Katoro-san? What will you do now?" the aging Crab asked.

Katoro sighed. "I have an entire day to think about that. You will see tomorrow, I guess."

Habumoto smiled and said, "We shall see what tomorrow brings us then. Good luck, whatever you choose to do."

* * *

The public gave a polite applause after another Crane poet had shared his words with the crowd.

Hida Habumoto strode forward and addressed the on-hearers; he was asked to be the one who would announce the poets. "Well now, good audience, I hope your eyes aren't too adjusted to the powder blue and crimson red we've been seeing today! Our next contestant is Kitsuki Katoro."

The audience applauded with a hearty laugh over Habumoto's humor and Katoro stepped forward. He cleared his throat and looked around the small courtyard where the event had been taking place. His eyes suddenly met with Mariko's and time seemed to slow. What must've been one or two seconds, seemed to become an eternity as his gaze lingered on the beautiful, young woman. The pounding of his heart drowned out the whispered speculations behind the fans and it made Katoro oblivious to everything, except for the sound of his own voice.

Secrets and wisdom:
When they gather and become
One, the world trembles

Everybody was silent. Katoro knew they were most likely thinking of how to interpret the poem, or how to insult him because of it, in the most fitting manner. Suddenly one person stood and applauded: Bayushi Mariko. The others followed quickly after and even though Katoro wore a warm and thankful smile, he wondered if Mariko had guessed what the poem had really meant. He knew that the other courtiers would probably see him as the 'mystery poet', he would need to prepare himself for embarrassing situations that might arise.

Apparently the judges liked his work just as much as the audience seemed to and Katoro received an exquisite calligraphy set for winning the contest. After receiving the prize and many congratulations, Katoro left for his quarters. He took the longer route, to diminish the chance of running into Mariko.

* * *

"One wonders what you really meant with those words, Katoro-kun." It was the warm voice of his aunt that addressed him as soon as he entered his chambers.

"I expected you might be here, aunt Yuziko, but I have no idea what you will ask me."

"Do you think that it was wisdom that made you plan this?" Yuziko's voice was stern, sterner than Katoro could remember.

"I don't understand. What do you mean by that?"

Yuziko sighed and shook her head, then she looked into Katoro's eyes and said, "Your father, Katoro-kun! This news could reach him and then what will happen?"

"One way or another, by the time he arrives this will be over."

"And when your father arrives? What then?"

Katoro's eyes hardened as he turned his face away from his aunt. His entire posture seemed to change: one moment Yuziko was looking at a young man in love and the next she saw a samurai with relentless focus. Katoro straightened himself and turned his piercing gaze of determination towards his aunt.

"I have come to realize why I have been sent here. It is so very simple… At first I wondered why my father didn't try to stop me from going here, but now it is clear to me: my father fears me. If I would remain in Dragon lands, the peasants would come learn who I am. They would see who I am in the stark contrast of who my father is. How my father treats them is terrible: the people under his supervision are terrified of him and if they would learn how a potential successor could be… No, aunt. My father would not stop me then and he will not stop me now. If he comes here, it will be on my invitation, if you know what I mean."

Yuziko was barely able to nod to her cousin. She recognized some of Juroi's traits in the young man before her, but only for the best. Looking at Katoro undergo such a transformation made Yuziko feel sure that Katoro would not need her help to face his father. Not anymore.

"I shall return home, Katoro-kun. I will do everything in my power to stop any news about you reaching your father, at least, the news about your poetic efforts. You won't need me anymore."

"Then I must bid you farewell, aunt. I hope you will have easy times ahead of you. Easier than I will at the least."

* * *

Slowly Lady Amaterasu's ray began to dawn over Otosan Uchi.

The small dojo was perfectly silent, except for the short second in which a blade was drawn. After only moments, the light from the sun made Katoro's blades shine and, to the pair of on-looking eyes, they looked like strikes made of pure lightning.

"I always train," Katoro remarked between iaijutsu draws, "to find focus and center. Especially before I have to endure hardships or face enemies."

Mariko smiled pleasantly, she hadn't been aware that Katoro had noticed her through all of his concentration. But when Katoro mentioned 'enemies', her smile disappeared. It made her uncertain about his knowledge of her.

"Hardships, Katoro-san? I never thought you would define the Court as a hardship, let alone speaking of your fellow courtiers as enemies."

Not answering the question that was posed to him, Katoro said, "Do you know why so many samurai prefer war over politics?"

"I do not, Katoro-san. Please, enlighten me."

"In war you know where your enemy is and you can die only once. In the Imperial Court you don't know where to look for your enemies and you die every day."

Mariko was amused, not so much because of the wisdom of the statement, but because of the reply she immediately thought of. "Then coming here is only for those who do not want to live? Besides, samurai do not fear death, remember?"

Katoro eyes widened and he grinned, but with his back to Mariko, she couldn't see it. He was amazed at the Scorpion's quick wit and how she added so much weight to a simple question, simply by using what he wrote in the poem to her. Yet she could pose the question as if it was meaningless and disguise it with another question.

"You'd never hear me say that I fear death, Mariko-san. And neither have you ever heard me personally admitting that I longed to die every day."

Now it was Mariko's turn to smile. The Dragon was playing the game quite aptly, even though he was relatively inexperienced. However, she was also comforted: he probably didn't know anything about who she truly was, else he could never have been so at ease.

"So what are the hardships you must endure? Who are the enemies you face today?"

"I shall not burden you with my daily troubles, but it suffices to say that I am not in the mood for more poetry… in public. And my enemies? Who shall say? It might be you. It might a Kakita or a Shinjo or it might be an Isawa."

"Then it will be quite interesting to see you fend of your enemies today, Katoro-san. Perhaps, today, one of us won't die."

"Perhaps," Katoro responded and turned around. Mariko was already gone.

* * *

As soon as Katoro entered the Imperial Assembly fans snapped open and whispers filled the air. Luckily, but only barely, Katoro was able to act unaffected and sat down to enjoy a cup of morning tea. He was quasi-lazily sipping his tea, when suddenly the court was suddenly shocked by an explosion of sound.

"How dare you! You… You harlot!" It was the young Crane ambassador, Doji Kinji, who was yelling at Mariko. "My brother is not an assassin!"

Mariko's voice was cold and sounded honestly hurt by the insult. "Oh, but I must contest, Kinji-san. I saw his voice quite clearly after I had to kill him."

"And we are to believe you word, Mariko-san? You are a Scorpion!" Kinji's face reddened with anger and he clenched his fists in anger. He was no fighter and the display almost made him look silly, were it not that the situation was very serious.

"If you don't believe the word of a Scorpion, then perhaps you will believe a Dragon? Katoro-san saw the body of the assassin after I killed him. I am sure that if he describes the man, we will all hear that he bears a striking resemblance to your brother. Your brother, who has been missing for the past week, if I am not mistaken?"

Kinji turned around and looked at Katoro. From his eyes shun nothing but unbelief. Unbelief and unbelievable despair. "Is this true, Katoro-san?" Kinji asked, his voice a mix of hope and despair.

Katoro swallowed and nodded. "I have seen the attacker. But I do not know what he was doing, or why he attacked me… All I know is that he struck down someone and then came after me…"

Mariko smiled and said, "If he had just reasons to kill my nephew, why would he attack Katoro-san? He could've explained the situation. Why don't you describe the man, Katoro-san?"

Katoro knew that Mariko was playing a dangerous game with him, but he could not afford to lie. As he slowly described the man he had seen dying on the floor before him, he could see Kinji's last shreds of hope being torn from him and shred to pieces. When Katoro had finished, Kinji's face was like a rock and his eyes only showed the lust for death: the death of Mariko.

"The fact that we do not know his intentions, Mariko-san," Kinji said with a grim voice, "leaves me with the option to call for a blood feud!"

"Revenge, Kinji-san?" Mariko said with her honey-sweet voice. "Correct me if I am wrong, but wasn't it a Crane who said: 'In the courageous heart, there is no room for revenge, only forgiveness?"

"How dare you insult my ancestors as well?" Kinji spat franticly. "I will make sure you shall pay with your life!"

"No! Impossible!" Otomo Shui suddenly protested. "We do not have the approval of your daimyo!"

Kinji shot Shui an angry glare, then looked at Mariko and said with a morbid grin, "This has happened within the walls of Otosan Uchi. This is the Emperor's city, it is his concern. He can approve."

Shui sighed and shook his head, knowing Kinji was right. He could not stop them from taking this collision course. "Then, before I shall speak to the Son of Heavens, we must settle the matter of your representatives. Or do you wish to settle this by yourselves?"

"Of course not, Shui-sama," Kinji said calmly, counting on the fact that somebody would not let the chance lie to take care of the treacherous Scorpion bitch and whoever would be her champion.

Shui looked around court and said with a heavy sadness in his voice, "Very well. Who shall be the one to fight for Mariko-san's life?"

A Scorpion samurai stepped forward and was about to announce himself, when suddenly the words 'I will' came from Kitsuki Katoro, who walked over to Mariko and stood next her.

Kinji's eyes widened. This was something he had not foreseen: a Dragon swordsman, known to be trained in the ways of Mirumoto's 'niten'. He quickly scanned the court, but none of the resident Kakita were present to defend him. Surely no other would dare to take on a 'niten'-duelist?

Shui nodded at Katoro and continued, "And who shall fight for Kinji-san?"

As the moments passed and silence took over the Assembly, tension rose to a point where someone could've taken a knife and cut it. Kinji felt all hope drained from him, until someone spoke.

"I will defend him."

Courtiers stepped aside to reveal who had spoken and Katoro felt his heart sink. It was Habumoto! The aging Hida slowly stood and took his place next to Kinji.

With a final nod Shui said, "Then it will be arranged."

The court quickly emptied of its attendants as all were eager to pass the news of this terrible, but still very exciting, event. Habumoto walked over to Katoro who looked at him in disbelief. Habumoto smiled wryly and said, "The others think you're defend your word through her, but I know better, Katoro-san."

Katoro swallowed and blinked a few times before he could speak. His words came with much difficulty and his mind was mostly absent. "Why… are you doing this… Habumoto-san?"

"I have known Kinji's brother, Katoro-san. I do not believe that he is what Mariko says he is. I know you want to protect her because you love her, but I protect Kinji because of what I believe is true and false." After these words, Habumoto bowed and left Katoro.

"Why are you so worried, Katoro-san?" It was Mariko who had snuck up on him. "Surely you do not fear his technique?"

"He is a friend, Mariko-san," Katoro said angrily. "Then we'll see how strong your friendship really is, no?"

Katoro slowly turned his head around and looked into Mariko's beautiful eyes. This time they could not take the horror of what was happening from Katoro's mind. As he looked at her, she smiled slightly, bowed and left him as well.

* * *

Katoro found himself in the same courtyard where had been last evening. But now he would have to face off against Habumoto, with whom he had become good friends during his stay. Katoro looked around and noticed that there were far more people present than at court this morning. Suddenly all faces turned to something behind Katoro and he looked as well.

Otomo Shui and Hida Habumoto entered the courtyard. Habumoto walked past Katoro and held pace long enough to whisper, "Now we shall see how strong your love for her really is." When the older warrior reached his place opposite of Katoro he drew himself up and readied himself.

Never did Katoro see a man with such dignity and honor, that he would die for his beliefs. He looked at the true Hida Habumoto for the first time since he had arrived: a large and proud warrior, who still retained much of the strength and endurance of his youth. Though the Hida were not renowned for their dueling skills, their techniques were usually unorthodox and unpredictable. Katoro could even imagine one entering a duel with his tetsubo.

Otomo Shui addressed the crowd. "We are here to settle the blood feud between Bayushi Mariko and Doji Kinji. Those who shall fight for them are Kitsuki Katoro and Hida Habumoto respectively. Let us get this over with."

Both warriors bowed and took their stance.

Katoro noticed that Habumoto was moving much more supple than he usually did, he deduced that the aged Hida must've been training morning and early midday. His stance was far from anything perfect, but it was not truly a familiar one.

Habumoto slowed his breathing as he watched the young Dragon before him. Katoro had taken one of the stances of Mirumoto's 'niten' and there was little fault to be found in it. However, Habumoto had seen it before and beaten it before. Little did Katoro or many others in court know, that Habumoto was an accomplished duelist in his days. Something in Katoro's eyes, though, told him that Katoro was not relying on what he saw from Habumoto. The boy would kill him; his love gave him a determination not even a Hida could break, that much Habumoto now knew, but he would not make it easy.

Suddenly, Habumoto's left foot shifted. Katoro prepared himself, but did not move. Habumoto didn't take a step, but launched himself into the air and brought his blade down on Katoro. With great physical effort, Katoro deflected the mighty blow with his katana and took two steps back. Looking at his opponent, Katoro found that Habumoto was actually smiling at him, but why!

Habumoto did not allow Katoro a chance to think and advanced again, attacking with a speed and ferocity akin to a Mirumoto. Katoro deflected several blows and dodged another, he spun away from Habumoto and managed to cut him in his thigh. Habumoto did not take notice of the wound, quickly turned around and managed to wound Katoro's left arm.

Katoro did not drop his wakizashi, though he held his arm limp by his side. Habumoto advanced and attacked again. Though Katoro managed to deflect the blows, he could feel his muscles starting to ache from the force of the Hida's attacks. As Habumoto advanced, Katoro began to realize that he was coming dangerously close to a wall.

Habumoto saw that his opponent was nearly pinned to a wall and yelled, never relenting his attack, "Come on! Give me a fight worthy of a true warrior! Do not shame both of us with this display! Even with one arm you have more weapons than I! You are not fighting to your fullest!" After his words Habumoto's attacks become more violent and powerful.

Katoro's jaw clenched and he felt anger well up in his body, not because of Habumoto's words, but because he had to kill him. Suddenly, after deflecting a blow, Katoro turned around and took two small steps towards the wall. With the third he placed a foot against the wall and pushed back, turning in midair to land a kick to Habumoto's jaw.

The large Hida staggered from the sheer speed and surprise of the attack. Katoro landed and crouched low, allowing his leg to sweep through a little. He shifted his weight to his back leg and then launched at Habumoto. Now it was Habumoto's time to deflect vicious attacks.

One attack, two, three and a forth were deflected by Habumoto's blade, but Katoro pressed on. When his fifth attack had been deflected, he feigned making a sixth; he raised his arm as if to strike, but did not continue the movement and instead landed a blow with his elbow to Habumoto's side.

Habumoto brought both of his hands down on Katoro's back, knocking out all of the air in Katoro's lungs. Again he brought down his arms, but this time to land the killing blow. Katoro managed to deflect the blow with his katana between gasps. Habumoto spun and raised his arms…

… but the attack never came.

The entire court gasped; with his arms still in the air, Habumoto looked down at the wakizashi that Katoro had managed to drive into the side of his body. Habumoto dropped his blade and slumped to the floor. Katoro dropped his swords as well and crouched next to the dying warrior.

Habumoto grabbed Katoro's head with one hand and pulled it towards his and whispered. "I ask only one thing of you, Katoro. I want you to have no regrets. Do you hear me? No regrets. You will not need to fear any sort of retribution. A letter has already been sent to my clansmen, telling them that I do not want acts of revenge against you or Mariko."

Doji Kinji had slowly come closer and when Habumoto finished talking to Katoro he looked up to the young Doji. "I am sorry, Kinji-san. I hope your brother will forgive me too, when we meet in Yomi."

Kinji looked at Katoro, but he had turned his head away, unable to bear looking at the two men he had just killed. Slowly Katoro stood, picked up his swords and sheathed them. He walked out of the courtyard, but just before he could leave he found a Scorpion samurai, the one who was about to step forward, waiting for him.

"Splendid show of skill, Katoro-san," the samurai said and smiled a smile so wide that even Katoro could notice the expression behind the mask.

Katoro's arm snapped out and before the Scorpion could react, Katoro had his hand firmly clenched around the man's neck. He pulled the surprised samurai close and said, "I just had to kill a friend, do you think I will have any difficulty killing you as well?" With a strength Katoro never knew he had, he lifted the Scorpion samurai and threw him into the courtyard. He watched as the man scuttled away from him, grasping his throat. Without spending any further attention to the Scorpion, Katoro went to his chambers after allowing an Isawa to tend to his arm.

* * *

Waiting near Katoro's chambers was Mariko. When he arrived she smiled soothingly at her sad savior. "I am sorry things had to work out this way," she said. Katoro was surprised by her words, they had just the slightest bit of true sincerity to it, but enough to make him suspect she meant it.

"I am very sorry as well, but the fact remains I killed two men, one of them my friend. So tell me, Mariko-san, why did he die? Did I actually saw Kinji's brother dying on the floor? Our was it a Scorpion, disguised magically? Or otherwise? Was it really Kinji's brother who struck down the form I never got to look upon? Or was the first one killed Kinji's brother and had the other taken on his identity to incriminate him? There was surprise on the face of the man you killed. I wonder: did you kill him and then removed his disguise? Or had someone do it, at least? Did you even move the bodies to make everything seem more believable? Well, Mariko-san?"

Mariko had to take the greatest effort not to make it clear to Katoro that she swallowed away some fear. Nervously, but still with even voice, she said, "You seem to have a Kitsuki's eye, or is it just the analytical mind of one, Katoro-san? Surely you do not believe that I would allow myself to get involved in such grizzly matters. The thought of even suggesting such a thing would mean the greatest dishonor to the one who mentions it. Habumoto-san died for what he believed. Let us settle this discussion by saying the Kinji's brother died for something he believed as well, except that his beliefs were very much displaced."

Katoro felt his anger subside, unwillingly, as he looked and listened to Mariko. She was telling him the truth, he could see it in her eyes and posture. Soon he realized again why he loved this woman: no longer just because of her physical beauty, but because of her stunning intellect as well. Or cunning. He bowed to her and brushed past her to enter his room, saying over his shoulder, "No regrets, Mariko-san. No regrets."

* * *

Several days later Hida Habumoto was burnt on his pyre, before the attendants of the Imperial Court; as per his wishes. Katoro had thought he wouldn't be able to attend the ceremony, because of what happened. In the end he decided that he would honor Habumoto's wish: 'no regrets', and went after all.

* * *

"Our marriage would be a political alliance between our Clans, sama. I have yet to meet the courtier that could defeat us in politics, should we work together."

Bayushi Raiku nodded and looked at Mariko, his niece and adoptive daughter, carefully. She was a skilled courtier, but there was something that made Raiku feel as if more was going on. Something she tried to hide.

"When he was forced to defend me, he killed one of the best friends he had made at court. When I spoke to him afterwards, he confronted with me what happened and he saw the duplicity of my actions that night. He might not have the keen senses most Kitsuki possess, his mind is just as analytical. I truly believe that he is a man we should have with us, instead of against us."

"So do you love him, Mariko-chan?" was his reply.

Mariko looked up at her uncle in confusion. "I beg your pardon?" she stammered. "Why do you ask?"

The older man smiled behind his mask. "I asked if you are in love with him. There have been many men who made attempts to woe you, none succeeded, even though several came to me for your hand. What makes this one so special?"

"He is a skillful courtier and warrior, someone who could probably teach several of our brethren some tricks."

"And he saved your life," Raiku remarked matter-of-factly.

"Uncle, why are you looking for things that are not there? Please! I am only trying to further the position of power for our Clan. But I need your permission."

"You seem to be very certain that this is for the good of the Clan, but if it truly is what you want, young niece… I shall not deny you. You have my permission. I shall send word to his family."

"No!" Mariko's voice was cold and hard as stone. "You'll have to settle this with another, higher daimyo of the Dragon. I am sure that Katoro's father would never agree. We can't afford that."

"I see… Very well. And I suppose you will tell the lucky person personally?"

"Yes, sama. As soon as I see him again."

* * *

"You requested my immediate presence, Mariko-san?" Katoro looked around; Mariko seemed to be alone in the beautiful garden. Normally the scent of flowers and soft songs of birds would have made him feel reassured, at rest. Not now, however, now the woman whom had he fallen in love with was sitting right before him. It made him feel like he could defeat any opponent and yet it also filled him with fear. The last time he had seen her, was the day on which he had killed one of his best friends. This and the fact that he was deeply in love with this woman made him afraid. One misstep and it could all be over. 'What would he say? What would he do? Could he say or do anything when the time was there? Would she reject him? Or perhaps she already is betrothed to someone?'

"I am have splendid news that I want to share with you, Katoro-san," Mariko's voice carried happiness and pride, but was it an act or was she finally revealing something of her true self? "I am betrothed to someone!"

Katoro suddenly felt very dizzy, his legs felt as if they would no longer carry him and it was sheer willpower that kept him standing without faltering. 'Who could she be betrothed to? He would kill him! … No, that was quite impossible, bushido does not allow it. But how can bushido be combined with love anyway?' Katoro wanted to ask Mariko who it was, but he feared that if he'd open his mouth at this moment, he would not be able to keep himself from throwing up.

With hardly any pause Mariko continued. "And that someone is…"

'No! Don't tell me! I would kill him!' was the first thing Katoro could think of. 'What if the man was someone he knew? What if it was someone he hated? Or someone he loved?' The feeling of nausea was beginning to feel more like a wasting disease spreading throughout his body.

"… you, Katoro-san! Everything has been settled: my father and your daimyo have allowed us to get married."

'Me! She is to be married to… me?' was the first thing Katoro thought now. 'How wonderful! But how could it be that his father allowed it? No… my daimyo allowed it? They didn't even ask his father? Splendid!' Katoro's sick feeling disappeared immediately and his body was filled with a feeling of ecstasy and incredible happiness. He felt himself straighten and grow almost physically taller. All his doubt was replaced by determination, all his fear with joy.

"That is more than excellent news, Mariko-san. I am exalted by this news! But I most know, was this something that was settled against your will?" Katoro knew that it was stupid to ask something like this, but he was still curious.

"No, Katoro-san. Your fame spread fast and my father proposed this to me. I was ea…extremely honored to be a part of something greater that would bring our Clans closer."

Katoro noticed her slip with words and was amazed, never had he seen her let out something she did not mean to say. But who was he to worry about it now? "Then we have a lot to prepare, no? And a lot to talk about," Katoro said with exaltation saturating his voice. "I suggest we begin with the latter."

"Well, I was wondering, Katoro-san, from whom you've gotten your Kitsuki name?"

"My father might be a Mirumoto, but I've always felt I was closer to my mother. When I was presented with the choice, I chose my mother's name. If you would know my father, you'd understand why. However, I was trained under a Mirumoto sensei. For the best, because I believe I inherited little to none of my mother's sharp senses."

Mariko nodded knowingly. "I see, now the next thing I was wondering about…"

* * *

"What?" Juroi bellowed as his face flushed red with rage. He tore the note with the invitation on it into pieces. "My son is marrying a Scorpion bitch! From where does he get the nerve to do this? Without even asking my permission?"

"Keep in mind, Juroi, that if he marries the young Scorpion, he'll probably have to stay in Otosan Uchi for the rest of his life," Yuziko carefully remarked. "His duties will keep him there practically permanently."

Suddenly Juroi smiled as the repercussions of the marriage seemed to dawn on him . "Indeed," he said with a laugh, "you are right. And all I have to do is endure the festivities! Good! Let us prepare for the trip to the wedding."

Yuziko looked at her brother as he walked out of the room. She felt nothing but hatred for the man he had become. Her brother had died eighteen years ago, with his wife. All that was left was an empty shell filled with hatred and anger. Hatred, anger and a lust for power. She shook her head and left to prepare for the journey herself. Her son would be happy to hear such good news and he would be happy to see Katoro again after such a long time.

* * *

Katoro looked out from the balcony, over the road that led to the mansion, where he was to be married to Mariko. He sighed and gripped the railing of the balcony in agony. The official ceremony was only an hour from beginning and still there was no sign of his father.

Yuziko was standing behind him and watched her young cousin. His green and yellow kimono flowed with wind and he wore his long hair loose. She smiled happily, for she saw something of his mother's beauty in him.

"I worry, aunt Yuziko. Why hasn't father arrived yet?" Katoro asked worried. "I know he resents my choice, but not to the point of shaming me by not showing for the wedding?"

Yuziko smiled wryly as she looked at Katoro's back. At times like these he reminded her of her brother, but Juroi usually was waiting for something of great financial or political worth when he was as worried as this. She saw that Katoro was everything his father was not and more. "I do not know, Katoro-kun. You know your father, he might be so fashionably late that it is nearly disgraceful. He doesn't want to be here any longer than he has to. I wouldn't be surprised if he missed the ceremony just to avoid as many congratulations as possible… Your father is a social numskull."

Slowly Katoro released the railing and rubbed his temples. He turned around and looked into Yuziko's eyes with renewed happiness and determination. "You are right, I shan't allow my father to ruin my wedding. Though it might be fun to postpone the ceremony until he arrives, I believe most of the guests would be not quite so amused."

"Well spoken, my soon-to-be husband. You know how most Scorpion tend to be very busy with one odd thing or the other," Mariko said as she too walked onto the balcony.

Katoro walked over to his beloved and stroke her beautiful, pale hand, saying, "A Unicorn once told me that some gaijin think it is bad luck for the groom to see the bride during the day before the wedding. I don't think they have women as beautiful as you in those countries."

Mariko slightly inclined her head and shook it, "Now, Katoro-kun, you flatter me."

"Perhaps," Katoro said with an enigmatic smile, "but I am only giving you what you deserve. I just hope that I have deserved you."

From a small distance Yuziko looked at the two lovers and at that moment, on that very spot, she know that their love was mutual. She fought tears as she remembered her brother and his wife on the day of their wedding, just like this: happy and without a worry in their lives. She knew it would not last longer than a few days, but from experience she also knew that it was all worth it.

* * *

The wedding ceremony and was concluded without any troubles, even though Katoro's father had not arrived. The festivities of the evening went by with much mirth and joy, but Mirumoto Juroi wasn't there to partake. After the festivities for this day were over, Kitsuki Katoro and his wife, Kitsuki Mariko, were making their way to their chambers, when Katoro voiced his worries about his father again.

Mariko stroked his army soothingly and asked, "Katoro-kun, did you love your father?"

Katoro looked at her a bit confused and then answered sincerely, "No. Quite frankly said: my father is not a man to love. My mother died when she gave birth to me and my father has been bitter ever since. My aunt, Yuziko, tells me that he used to be different. I know only the oppressive and brutal Juroi."

"Would you describe that as 'hate', Katoro-kun?" Mariko asked as she looked deeply into his eyes.

"I do not believe I would be able to think of another word for it. If all you can do is hate, resent and condemn your father…"

"I see," Mariko whispered.

"Why do you ask, Mariko-chan?" Katoro asked as he opened the fusuma screen, but when he looked through the opening he already saw the answer. His jaw opened and closed a few times, but no sound escaped his mouth, his hands tightened and his nails almost pierced his skin.

He felt Mariko's hands trembling where they touched his arm and when she spoke her voice wavered and faltered like she was a scared child. "I… I am afraid that… that your father met an unfortunate end at the hands… at the hands of bandits."

Katoro looked down at Mariko and back at the body of his father. He didn't know what he would do, what he could do.

"I understand if you want to kill me now, Katoro-kun. But for what it's worth: I did love you. Your father was the one who killed my entire family. I was the only one to survive; at the cost of my father's life. My uncle took me under his wing and taught me the ways of court, but always was I aware of my final goal: revenge."

"That… that was you?" Katoro whispered amazed. "He never stopped bragging about that… that brutal massacre. Oh, how I hated him for it! Not specifically because to whom he did, but why: an insult that had taken place nearly a century ago. But for the rest of Rokugan it was enough to let him kill an entire family and their heimin vassals."

"What does that mean? Will you let me live?" Mariko's tears were filled with tears, but her voice carried a slight trace of hope again.

"Mariko-chan, my love. You could have called him out to court and publicly challenged his honor: I would have stood with you like I did before. The choice between love and hate is often an easy one, Mariko-chan, yet I have considered this one well. You have done something noble and I could not have done it myself: you saved hundreds of peasants from my father's tyranny."

Mariko was so happy she began to cry. She looked up at Katoro, but his face was still full of determination. He smiled at her, but his eyes shun with confidence. His voice was full of joy, but carried an undertone of certainty.

"Tomorrow we will have to give our guests the bitter news. I take it we already have the bandits in custody and ready to be executed?"

Mariko nodded.

"Good. I shall tell my aunt and cousin that the task of taking care of my father's property will fall to him. I shall remain where I should and represent our Clan in Otosan Uchi; I shall remain with you. My father shall receive a private funeral; my cousin and the heimin under him a grand feast for their new daimyo."

Mariko swallowed her sobs and dried her tears, she shook her head as if to loose all her emotions. When she looked up at her husband again, Mariko's trained composure had returned and she gave her husband a long, passionate kiss.

"Someone once told me," Mariko said after the kiss, "that revenge is a dish best served cold. For a very long time my heart was one of the coldest places in Rokugan. But then you came and warmed my heart with the golden rays of your love. But until now the core was still as cold as ice, with your father's death I can finally let the past be the past."

Katoro smiled and this time he initiated a kiss. While the two were in their loving embrace, Katoro closed the fusuma screen with one hand, leaving behind his father and his old life. Together they walked to the spare chambers Mariko had prepared, entering their new life…"

* * *

"This is the story that has set the stage for my life. My father and mother had four children, one is was my sister and two were my brothers. Our lives, like those of our parents were colorful and perhaps you will recognize the names of my siblings: Kitsuki Habumoto, Kitsuki Sakuto and Kitsuki Yuziko…

I believe it is as my mother implied when she insulted the Crane, for which I, perhaps, should apologize, but it is not my place. She made it clear that no matter how courageous and pure one is, when those you love and are close to you are at stake, you will do anything to protect them or their honor. My father learned this the hard way…

I hope that when such a time comes for me, that my ancestors and their blade, Masamichi, will guide me. When the time comes for you, I hope that you will make the right choice, even thought it might not always be the best choice with the best consequences.

You wonder who I am? With great pleasure and a broad smile I write down my name for you, dear reader: I am Kitsuki Saibankan, and I salute your courage for reading this story and my thoughts. My the Kami guide your actions, dear reader, and may Benten be as good to you as he has been to my parents."