Hida Sumitada glared at the maps scattered across his desk. The word had come
this morning: he was to march his troops back to the Wall to guard the Crab
against that which had once guarded them. He had spent the rest of the day
pouring over his maps, trying to shorten times and distances by sheer force of
will. He wanted to get home. He wanted to find out what was
happening at the Wall, find out if Hiruma Castle still stood, find out if Nekoko was safe.
His thoughts were interrupted by a shout and the flap of his door opening. "What do you want?" he snapped at the man framed by the doorway of his tent.
Hiruma Mabuchi, his master of scouts, nodded briefly in place of a bow. "Here's the collected reports of my scouts on the Lion troop movements from here to the border," he said, handing over a scroll. "And a Crane legion is sitting on the road a few miles west. The commander wants to speak to you."
Sumitada narrowed his eyes, unsure if Mabuchi was serious or not. He'd known the scout for years, and was all too familiar with the man's sense of humor. "That's a pretty casual way of telling me that we are way too close to a hostile force."
"What hostile force? They've all been as meek as mice since The Fiend ordered a pull-out. The legion's in marching order, not an attack formation."
It was true, Sumitada knew. Whatever else he thought of Doji Kurohito, he had to admit the Crane Champion had good control of his generals. When the word to withdraw from the Yasuki provinces had come down the Cranes had disengaged, packed up every grain of rice and thread of silk they could lay their hands on, and started to march home, just like that. Even the Daidoji had behaved themselves, with none of the "misunderstandings" he would have normally expected of them. The Crab drummed his fingers on the table, considering. "What can you tell me about them?"
"They're the Wild Rose Legion. The commander looks like a geisha in armor. No cav to speak of, not enough scouts. They have a decent inner screen, no outliers. My boys have been shadowing them for hours."
"Wild Rose?" the Hida said wonderingly. "Where do they get these names? Old love songs?"
Mabuchi laughed. "No, it was some old battle against the Lion. Usually it's up north, in one of the garrisons near Shiro Daidoji."
Sumitada sighed and got up. "So, let's go see what the geisha wants."
* * *
"Marching order" didn't begin to describe it, Sumitada thought. "Parade" would have worked far better. Banners and pennants snapped in the wind, sky-blue and silver ribbons fluttered from every yari, and every last man stood still as a statue in perfectly clean and polished armor.
The commander and a small honor guard sat prim and proper on their horses some distance ahead of the main body. As the Crab party rode up Sumitada noticed that the Crane commander was fanning himself idly with, not a warrior's tessen, but some painted paper confection. The Hida tried not to roll his eyes as he reigned his horse to a stop out of reach of the guards' yari's, but close enough to have a conversation. As he did so the Crane snapped the fan closed and bowed deeply.
"Lord Sun's blessing's be upon you this day," he said in a loud, clear voice when he had straightened up. "I am Doji Yamadori, son of Doji Yamagata, sworn vassal of the great lord of the Crane and commander of the force you see before you." He waited politely.
Sumitada stared at him, his reply wiped from his mind by his first clear sight of the Doji's face. Yamadori was beautiful, completely, inarguably beautiful, and everything about him highlighted this fact. His ornate, unscarred armor was lacquered the exact same shade of sapphire as his eyes, his lush white hair was arranged in a simple, dramatic top-knot, even the touch of sunburn on his high, sculpted cheekbones called attention to the perfect planes and arches of his face.
'If this is an echo of Doji's beauty,' the Crab found himself wondering, 'how strong was Hida?' The thought of his Kami kicked Sumitada out of his reverie and he cleared his throat. "I'm Hida Sumitada. What do you want, Crane?"
The Doji indicated the road they were on with a flick of his fan. "I am taking this road out of the Yasuki lands. I wish to give assurances that our only intention is to march past your force, and receive assurances that you will not attempt to hinder our withdrawal."
"I have no intention of stopping you from leaving," Sumitada said. He thought for a moment. "But I want you to camp there," he pointed to a field on the north side of the road, "tonight. You can continue your march in the morning."
The look of polite interest on the Doji's face never flickered. "Indeed. May I ask why?"
"I don't want to spend the night wondering where you're really at and what you're really up to. This way, I can watch you, you can watch me, and in the morning we both march off in opposite directions. Simple."
"Very much so," the Crane said. "Agreed. If you have no further thoughts to share, we shall begin setting up our camp."
"Don't let your scouts cross over the road. They can go anywhere they want to the north, but south of the road is my territory."
"Wise, all things considered. Very well, agreed. Good day, Hida-san." Yamadori bowed again, then he and his escort turned their horses around and trotted back towards their force.
"Are you crazy?" Mabuchi demanded as soon as the Cranes were out of earshot. "You want a bunch of Cranes camped out on your doorstep?"
"Meek as mice," Sumitada reminded him. He turned his horse and headed it back to the Crab camp. "This war isn't over yet, and I want to learn as much about our enemies as I can. After they settle down I'm going to invite that Doji over for sake and go."
Mabuchi sniggered. "If you asked real nice I bet he'd let you learn a *lot* about him."
"He'd spoil me for other women," the Hida shot back. 'And my wife would kill me,' he thought to himself. Geisha were one thing to Nekoko; a tryst with a real person was quite another. "Make sure your scouts understand that they are to stay on our side of the road *only*."
"Hai, Hida-sama," Mabuchi sighed.
Sumitada heard the regret in the man's voice and understood its source--playing tag-you're-dead at night with a bunch of Daidoji scouts was the sort of thrill Mabuchi lived for. But a Crab lived and died for duty, and he knew that the scout-master wouldn't fail him. They entered their camp and separated to prepare for the night's activities.
* * *
Sumitada had hoped that out of the bright light of day the Doji's beauty would be less apparent. No such luck: Fire loved him, and firelight simply made him heartstopingly beautiful in a completely different fashion. To complete the annoyance the Crane had strolled into the Crab camp unarmored and without a single yojimbo, his only protection being his daisho and Sumitada's promise of safe conduct. On the positive side, Yamadori had turned out to be a really fun person to drink with.
They had started out discussing the sake they were drinking, which led to a
wider discussion of sake in general, which wandered into comparisons of various
geisha houses the two men had visited, which had led Yamadori into telling how
once gotten into a drinking contest with a master of Niten, and had managed to get the Mirumoto to agree to drink two cups for every one cup the Doji drank. ("And I still lost. I was mortified, Hida-san, utterly mortified.") Sumitada laughed himself breathless and opened up the fourth bottle of sake. By now, he thought, they would have both drank enough to excuse any
pointed questions as alcohol-inspired foolishness.
"So, Doji-san, how does an artisan of the Kakita One-Cup style become commander of a legion?" he asked, picking up a black go stone.
Yamadori tilted his head slightly, considering the questioner and the question. "You are certain that I am an artisan, and not a bushi. Why?"
Sake had made the Doji's sapphire eyes go soft and dreamy. Caught in their depths for moment, Sumitada answered. "Your hands have calluses from the sword, and only from the sword, and for all you wear that armor well it's never seen a battle."
Yamadori smiled. "That is my dress set, the armor I wear when I want to impress people. But yes, I haven't seen combat on the battlefield since the Spirit Wars, and Daidoji bushi politely hide their laughter when they see me trying to use a yari." The Crane stopped for a moment, thought, and said, "The answer to your question is attrition."
The Hida was startled to learn that Yamadori was old enough to have fought against Hantei XVI, and had to stop and remember what his question was. "Oh, really? What happened?"
"We had engaged some Crab forces near Mizu-no-Hana, and they pointed a berserker unit at our command post."
"Very," Yamadori agreed. "But I'd seen the Stone Crab do something similar, so I wasn't as surprised as I might have been. Then as we were disengaging, we crossed some Hiruma scouts who started picking off the surviving officers with some well-placed archery."
"Your real armor must have some impressive holes," Sumitada said. It was the most neutral comment he could think of.
"Not one, actually. I suspect they didn't consider me sufficiently dangerous to merit an arrow." The Doji paused and placed a white stone on the board. "But I am alive," he said thoughtfully, "and they are not, so I suppose they were wrong."
"Hmm," was Sumitada's reply. He selected a black stone and said, "So where else do you find combat except on a battlefield?"
Yamadori blinked at him in surprise over his sake cup. "Why, in court, of course. Where else?"
The Crab suppressed a snort and placed his stone. "Where else. Who died in the last battle you fought in court?"
There was silence for a moment as Yamadori put down his cup and picked up a white stone. "Hida Bankin," he said quietly, "the Crab representative to the court of the Seppun."
Sumitada stared at the Crane. Hida Bankin had once been Yasuki Bankin, but had broke with his family rather than swear fealty to a Daidoji. He was--had been--one of the Crab Clan's most effective courtiers. "This would have been over something to do with the Yasuki."
"Tangentially. We were arguing certain legal points with regard to the holding of land when he lost his temper and said that I was an intemperate womanizer whose highest achievement had been getting a bastard on a Daidoji. So of course I had to challenge him."
For some obscure reason he wanted to think well of Yamadori, so Sumitada thought for a moment before speaking. "Well, I suppose you had to, if he was spreading lies about you."
"Oh, no, it's true." Yamadori casually placed his stone. "Well, not the highest achievement part, but I've been seeing the woman in question for years, so it's no mystery to anyone who her child's father is."
Sumitada stared at the Doji, numb with the rage that had suddenly flared through his veins. "You killed a man for saying out loud something that everyone knew was true? Is that your pathetic idea of honor, Crane?"
Yamadori looked steadily back at him, radiant, cool, fearless. "It was not a matter of honor, Hida-san. It was duty."
"Duty." Sumitada was trying to think of something scathing to say when the Crane went on.
"Bankin was a clever and well-spoken man, and he was actually gaining ground with some of the Seppun courtiers. This, of course, made him a threat to Kurohito-dono's plans, so I killed him."
Silence descended as the Hida tried to reason through a haze of sake and hate. "I should kill you."
"I would disagree," Yamadori said politely, "but I can see why you would think so."
Something in the Crane's remorseless calm touched Sumitada, gave him words to fit the question he felt. "You told me this, knowing that I would want to kill you."
It was phrased as a statement, but Yamadori understood. "Yasuki Bankin was an honorable samurai who faced his death without fear. I will never lie about my part in that death."
Sumitada blinked at him. "Yasuki Bankin," he repeated.
Yamadori smiled wryly, his sapphire eyes looking at a memory. "He showed up for our duel in his old court robes, complete with the Crab Yasuki mon. It was a brilliant move, brilliant." The Crane's voice was warm with admiration. "He was a genius at having the last word."
Onis crushed you without noticing. Ogres tore your limbs off and threw them
at your friends and kinsmen. Bakemono ate
your bones clean and moved on to the next luckless victim. Sumitada's rage vanished in the unfamiliar glow of an enemy who
could kill you and say nice things about you afterwards. He breathed deeply, picked up a black stone. "So why didn't you
just marry her?"
"The Daidoji," Sumitada said patiently. "If you'd gotten her with child, why not save her honor by marrying her?"
"Oh." The Doji picked up his cup, drank some sake. "I couldn't. I was already married to someone else. And her honor was safe; her lord arranged the matter quite neatly."
Sumitada stared at him, astonished at how the conversation had once again twisted into strange territory. "And your wife didn't care that you were neglecting her like that?"
"I have never neglected her!" the Crane objected. "I've given her three lovely and talented children, I've killed everyone she's ever needed to have killed, and my wit and charm has gotten her invited to numerous important parties. No courtier could ask for a better husband than I." He drank the rest of his cup. "Besides, she knew about the other woman before we were married. It's not as if I got bored with her and wandered off."
There was a perspective from which Yamadori's words made sense, Sumitada thought, and if he drank enough he just might find it. He poured them both more sake. "If you knew her before your marriage, why didn't you marry her then?"
"No dowry to speak of."
Nekoko had come with her naginata, an antique teapot and a heart as pure as jade. "I guess that would be important to a Crane," the Hida said derisively.
"And more important to a Crane's father," Yamadori whispered. He stared into his cup, suddenly looking more than old enough to have fought against the Hantei. After a long silence he went on in a normal voice. "I suppose it will be important to me, when it comes time to find a bride for my son."
Sumitada had no answer to this, and so he opened the last bottle and they drank it in silence, the game between them abandoned. His cup empty, the Crane rose, bowed carefully but with perfect grace, and collected his daisho from the rack near the door.
"Doji-san," Sumitada said abruptly. "Why did you let the Mirumoto win?"
His guest looked at him in curiosity and surprise. "Why do you think I let him win?"
The Hida waved at the empty bottles lined up next to the go board. "You've matched me drink for drink tonight, and you're still able to walk. Unless the Dragon had a tattoo for sobriety you should have plastered him."
"A tattoo for sobriety," Yamadori repeated, giggling. "Would that be a blessing or a curse? Well, I had already demonstrated how clever I was by imposing my terms on the contest. No one was going to be impressed by my winning under those terms, so there was no reason not to let him save face."
"I see," Sumitada said. "Good night, Yamadori-san."
The Crane smiled and bowed again. "Good night, Sumitada-san."
* * *
Sumitada sat at his desk, considering both the scroll Mabuchi had given him yesterday, regarding the Lions, and the one he had given him at dawn, regarding the Cranes. The two of them together told him that Yamadori was doomed.
A day and a night of patient observation had resulted in a number of important facts, the greatest of which was that the Wild Rose Legion was, at the moment, incredibly fragile. While the individuals in it seemed to be quite skilled, it was being held together by a score of inexperienced gunsos (most of them probably having had field promotions since Mizu-no-Hana) and Doji Yamadori's inexhaustible charisma.
The Crab drummed his fingers on the table. For an artisan Yamadori was handling command pretty good, but "pretty good" was not good enough when you faced off against the Lion. Unless he made a determined effort to avoid them the Doji *would* run into the Lion. Sumitada had no idea what happened at the Battle of the Wild Rose, but it stood to reason that any battle the Crane saw fit to remember would also be remembered by the Lions, which ruled out the possibility of Yamadori talking his Legion's way out of a fight. The Lions would charge, the Cranes would disintegrate, Yamadori's head would be carried off on a pike, and the Lions would congratulate themselves for being such excellent warriors. It was inevitable.
Sumitada didn't know why this depressed him. Yes, the Doji had been charming,
but he had come to Sumitada's tent for the
same reason Sumitada had invited him: to look over a potential enemy. There was no reason to attribute his likeability to
anything more than that. Except…he'd been scaldingly honest about killing Bankin. And it took a lot of courage to admit to
killing a Crab diplomat when you were sitting in the middle of a Crab encampment. It also took complete stupidity--or complete faith in your host's sense of honor. It was maddening, trying to hate someone who respected you that much.
Sumitada picked up one of the scrolls, called for his horse, and rode off towards the Crane camp.
A few words with the Daidoji sentries had gotten him passage and a guide to Yamadori. The Crane was back in his dress armor, conferring with a handful of subordinates and fanning himself with that stupid paper fan.
"Good morning, Hida-san," he said, properly formal.
"Morning, Doji-san," Sumitada grunted as he swung down off his
horse. "I hope you haven't packed your real armor yet."
Before the Crane could answer he handed him the scroll. "Read this."
Yamadori arched one perfect eyebrow, accepted the scroll, and read. He hadn't gotten far before he stiffened and looked up at Sumitada with the bland face of a courtier. "Read it," the Crab said. "Read it all."
"You know your duties," Yamadori said quietly to his men. "Go." They went, and he returned to the scroll. He read it carefully, and when he was done he rolled it up and handed it back. Yamadori's sapphire eyes had become the hard, dead eyes of a duelist, and his warm affability had vanished, replaced by a colder fire. "This information will be most useful, Hida-san. I am deeply in your debt."
The Crab groaned to himself. He hadn't allowed for this. "No debts, Doji-san," Sumitada said firmly. "I did it because of what I am. Forget it."
"Because of what I am, I must remember."
The Hida didn't have time to argue. "Fine," he said, suddenly inspired. "Two things. First, if we meet on a battlefield don't get offended if I refuse your challenge and tell my archers to shoot you."
The eyes didn't change, but a ghost of his old humor graced the Doji's voice. "Agreed. And the other thing?"
"For Benten's sake," Sumitada snapped, "find your son a wife who wants more than a well-endowed assassin."
For a moment Sumitada savored the sight of Yamadori shocked out of his center and too stunned to speak. Then he bowed, got on his horse and rode back to his waiting troops. He couldn't wait to get home--Nekoko was going to love this.