Excellence

Otosan Uchi was dying. In fact, the more that Doji Yasuyo saw of the once grand capital of the Empire, the more she began to believe that it was already dead. Here and there, oni and bakemono still roamed the streets searching for wounded or fleeing refugees. Rumor spoke of a great Lion army that would arrive within soon, purging the city of any Tainted beasts that might remain, but Yasuyo wondered if it would ever be possible to find and kill them all.

Part of her wondered why Kozue, her kenku sensei, had sent her to the city. Death and suffering of such magnitude was hardly what she would have imagined to be an appropriate means of guiding her to her destiny, and there was little that she could do to fight the hordes alone. Down in the depths of her soul, however, she knew the terrible truth: this was the carnage that awaited the Crane lands if she were to fail. This was the fate of all her family and loved ones if she was weak.

She would not be weak.

"You look troubled, Yasuko-chan," said Doji Nagori, her brother and one of the chief aides of the Emerald Champion, Yasuki Hachi. "I think perhaps you should rest."

She smiled wearily. "You have been working without rest for three days, little brother, as have Hachi and many of the others. I think perhaps you should take your own advice."

"I tried, once." he responded quietly. "The nightmares… I find it more productive to keep working."

Yasuyo nodded wordlessly. What little sleep she had managed since the attack had been troubled as well. In many ways, sleep had become almost more exhausting than remaining awake.

Excited voices drew Yasuyo's attention. A commotion of some sort was brewing down the street, apparently. The samurai-ko risked a glance at Nagori, and he returned her worried expression. This section the city was supposed to have been cleared, but there was no way to be certain. Both Crane broke into a run as they raced to discover what new horror awaited them.

o

"Is it true, then?" a young Daidoji asked, facing off against a larger Dragon samurai. A small crowd was already present when Yasuyo and Nagori arrived. "Is Agasha Tamori truly the Dark Oracle of Fire?"

The Dragon scowled. "As I have already said, this is not a matter I am interested in discussing with one such as you, Daidoji."

Yasuyo recognized the subtle markings on the Crane's armor as those of a Harrier, one of the specialized squadrons of Crane samurai trained to scout and sabotage enemy camps and supply lines. None outside the clan would be able to recognize them as such, of course, but Yasuyo had dealt with them in the past. As a rule they tended to be rather headstrong and independent when not constrained by duty. When she caught a glimpse of the harrier's features, her heart sank.

The speaker was none other than Daidoji Ekiken, once a promising young bushi who had suffered a terrible dishonor in court. He might have been cast out of the clan if not for the intervention of his brother. As it was, he could aspire to no more prestigious duty than with the Harriers. They served the clan well, but they were not honorable men and women, and Ekiken had become the worst stereotype of that group: crude, impolite, and foolish.

"I find that simply amazing," continued Ekiken. "The Agasha appear to either be treacherous scum willing to attack their own Emperor, Tainted madmen, or both. What a marvelous clan you Dragon have spent the last thousand years forming."

"You push me too far, lad," Mirumoto Ukira warned again.

"It does make one wonder, however," Ekiken continued without pause. "Do you Mirumoto keep suffering defeat at the hands of the Phoenix because of their vastly superior tactics, or just because you run at the first sign of danger?"

The crowd was silent in an instant. The fire faded from Ukira's eyes, replaced by a deadly calm. "Are you questioning my honor, Ekiken?"

Another Crane emerged from the crowd and grabbed Ekiken roughly by the arm, leading him away from Ukira. Yasuyo was relieved to see that it was Daidoji Enai, Ekiken's older brother. Once a tempestuous young man like Ekiken, Enai was older and wiser, and served as the head sensei of the dojo at Kosaten Shiro. Her senses sharpened by her training with Kozue, Yasuyo was able to make out their hushed conversation. "You fool!" hissed the older warrior, whose features were very much like Ekiken's. "He will kill you."

"What?" rasped Ekiken. "You agreed we should discredit him in public! For our alliance with the Phoenix! I am only doing exactly what we discussed, brother."

"You've gone too far," whispered Enai. "I must get you away from here before it is too late."

"I asked you a question, Daidoji Ekiken," came the even, smooth voice of the Dragon general. "Are you questioning my honor?"

"Forgive my brother's impetuous nature," replied Enai. "I assure you, he will be punished for his outburst. Please accept my profuse apologies."

"I am afraid I cannot," said Ukira with a note of true sadness to his voice. "His insult cannot be allowed to stand. To whom is he sworn?"

"I am his master. He serves me at Kosaten Shiro."

The Dragon raised his eyebrows. "You must be a very patient man, Daidoji Enai. I formally request permission to duel your brother. I must avenge the insult to my honor and the honor of my family and clan."

Ekiken paled somewhat, but did not lose his snide expression. Enai's features sagged, and for a moment he looked much older than he truly was. "I cannot permit that, Ukira-sama. I will not lose the only family I have left."

"I have asked you as a lord, not as a brother. You must permit the duel to occur."

There was a long moment of silence from the Daidoji before he closed his eyes and sighed heavily. "Then as his lord, I grant you permission. But as his brother, I must stand in his stead."

"No!" exclaimed Ekiken. "I will face this dog myself!"

A rapid backhand from Enai silenced the impetuous youth's protests. "You will be silent until I command otherwise, Ekiken. Obey me."

Sullen and angry, the younger man bowed slightly and took a step back, rubbing his injured face and glaring at the two combatants.

Ukira began removing extraneous items of clothing to assume a more effective dueling stance. He stripped off his haori, exposing a muscular chest and shoulders scarred by countless battles. Enai did the same, although he seemed reluctant. "This duel will earn you little honor, Enai-san." The Dragon positioned his blades in his obi and stretched his arms to limber them.

"Then I will dedicate this duel to the alliance between the Crane and Phoenix," said Enai. "If one of us must die, then let our blood seal the pact between the two clans forever." He glanced around the crowd, allowing his words to sink in. Many among them nodded appreciatively, already forgetting the harsh words of Enai's younger brother.

Nagori started forward as if to intervene, but Yasuyo reached out and stayed his hand. She knew when such a thing was too far along to be stopped. The destiny of these two men had collided, and one would be with his ancestors in mere moments.

"Your brother," said Ukira quietly, so that only Enai could hear. "He is not worth your protection. You are not a dishonorable man."

"He is all I have left," said Enai. "I do what I must."

"So be it," replied the Dragon, and then both combatants fell into silence. The streets seemed to fall away, and to those looking on, there were only these two men in this one moment. Time crawled as both locked eyes, probing one another for weaknesses. Seconds seemed to drag into hours, and minutes seemed like days.

When the end finally came, it was so swift that few could see it. One moment the two men were facing one another, and the next each stood a step beyond the other. Yasuyo noted that both men's blades were streaked with blood, but she could not tell which was the victor.

"Ekiken was not worth this, Enai," Ukira repeated, his voice a hoarse whisper. "His foolishness will bring about your death. I pity you your fate." With those fleeting words, the Dragon fell into a heap on the blackened streets of Otosan Uchi and moved no more. Yasuyo caught the Dragon's words, and she could tell from the horrified look on Ekiken's face he had heard them as well.

"We all must die," said Enai softly. "I accept my fate, whatever it may be." He sheathed his blade then staggered a bit. Blood ran down his arm freely from a deep wound along his left shoulder. A Phoenix shugenja stepped forward from the crowd, approaching Enai as if to heal him. "No," rasped the duelist. "Tend to Ukira first."

The shugenja complied and knelt beside the fallen general. He glanced up at Enai without expression. "He is dead, Enai-sama."

Enai nodded. "Then I will bear my wound with shame, for it marks the day that a good man died for no reason. If his death can have any purpose, let it be a bond between our people." With that, Enai bowed shakily to the shugenja and turned to leave.

Yasuko bowed her head in grief. It seemed no matter how much suffering was visited upon the people of Rokugan, they were always eager to engage in more. As the sensei passed her, she met his eyes. "I am sorry, Enai," she said softly.

Enai looked at her gratefully, but his eyes were like dead things. Yasuyo could see the lifetime of choices that weighed upon his soul, forcing him to choose between duty and honor. She could not imagine carrying such a burden. "I only do what I must," Enai repeated, just as he had told Ukira. His words tore at Yasuyo's heart. She heard Ekiken and Enai arguing further as they left. The younger man seemed jubilant at the outcome, but his elder brother was less than pleased.

"You are a fool, little brother. A good man lies dead. This is not what we wanted at all."

"Why not?" insisted Ekiken. "We wanted to prove ourselves to the Phoenix and now there is one less Dragon officer for our brothers fighting alongside the Phoenix to face on the battlefield."

"No more," said Yasuyo roughly as the two brothers disappeared around a corner. "I can take no more of this."

"Sister?" asked Nagori with a confused expression.

"Where is Kurohito?" she turned with an intense expression. "I must see him immediately."

"He… he is currently with the troops on the southern edges of the Crane lands, I believe," sputtered Nagori. "What are you doing, Yasuyo?"

The samurai-ko was already walking away. "I am facing my destiny, Nagori-chan. Offer a prayer for me, if you can find a shrine still standing."

Nagori was still trying to determine what she was talking about when she disappeared down a side street and was gone.

o

Inari Mura was hardly worth the title of village. It was smaller than most, and was notable for two things alone: the incredible bounty offered by its relatively small amount of arable land, and its proximity to the headquarters of the so-called Shogun of the Empire, Akodo Kaneka. Those peasants who insisted Inari, the Fortune of Rice, blessed the village seemed convinced that they had been spared Kaneka's claims because of divine intervention. Kurohito wondered if they would think the same once Kaneka's growing armies needed more food than his current holdings could provide.

The interior of the small building the Crane had commandeered for the purpose of their war council was dusty and poorly lit. Strangely, Kurohito did not mind. It seemed to him that the dire circumstances of the clan demanded such an atmosphere. While the Fortunes seemed to be smiling on them in many of their ventures, Kurohito could neither forgive nor forget the loss of their lands due to Kaneka's interference into business that was none of his affair. Now was not the time to redress it, but that time would come. Looking at the messengers who awaited him, Kurohito sat down roughly. "Begin," he said.

The first samurai stepped forward. His movements were stiff, as if he had suffered a recent injury, but his manner was that of a warrior. "My lord," he bowed. "By your command, Kakita Nakazo and the forces under his command have massed beyond Violence Behind Courtliness City. We stand ready to reclaim Shiro no Yojin from the Lion at your order."

"The order is given," said Kurohito with a nod. "Make haste to return and deliver my command to Nakazo."

"At once, Kurohito-sama." Okakura wasted no time, and disappeared from the tent hastily. He could be heard calling for his horse within seconds. Kurohito admired such attendance to duty. Nodding, he gestured for the next messenger to approach.

A rather bedraggled samurai still covered in the dust of the road stepped forward. When he bowed, the yumi still strapped across his back shifted and nearly fell, but the bushi deftly returned it to its place without breaking his posture. "My lord, I am Daidoji Gudeta. My lady Rekai-sama dispatched me to inform you of her success in crossing the Great Carpenter Wall with the blessing of the Crab and the assistance of the Unicorn."

Kurohito raised an eyebrow. "The Unicorn, eh? Rekai must have called in a few favors from Lixue."

"Yes, my lord," continued Gudeta. "She also wished to inform me that the commander of the Hida guarding the wall gave Rekai some of the lost Tears of Doji as well, to aid in her quest to free Hiruma Castle."

"Excellent. We shall mend fences with the Crab, then, and one day Akodo Kaneka will find that he is caught between the proverbial hammer and the anvil." He mused for a moment, lost in thought, before he realized Gudeta was still waiting. "You have something further?"

"My lord, I request permission to rejoin my lady Rekai-sama."

"You will go through the Shadowlands alone?"

"If need be, yes," he said passionately. "With your permission."

The Champion stroked his chin. "Failure means death, but with such fire I think that you will not fail. Courage is nothing if left untested, and everything if successful. You have my permission, Daidoji Gudeta. May your skill exceed even your bravado."

Gudeta bowed quickly and vanished from the tent even faster than Okakura. Kurohito smiled wryly. "They seemed eager to leave my presence today, Seishiro."

The other man returned the smile. "They could not overcome their eagerness to fulfill your wishes, Kurohito-sama."

The Champion chuckled. "A shame everyone doesn't share their enthusiasm, then." He rose and crossed the room to grab a rice ball from the travel rations spread out on the table. Though he enjoyed the taste of fine Crane cuisine, he had always enjoyed the simple taste of travel rations much more. They were purer, somehow. Simpler. Taking a bite, he paced the room while he thought. "What else must we deal with, Seishiro? This outpost is under your command, after all."

The bushi nodded. "There is the matter of placing one of our number in Kaneka's camp, Kurohito-sama. The Shogun should be watched carefully."

Kurohito's expression darkened. "Yes, I remember. I am not altogether certain I approve of such a course of action."

"It is only natural, my lord," Seishiro said. "Yours is a proud and honorable lineage. Such… deception cannot seem appropriate. Unfortunately…"

"Unfortunately," Kurohito finished, "it is necessary if we are to track Kaneka's actions."

"It is as you say, my lord," agreed Seishiro.

The Crane Champion dwelled on the matter for several long minutes, his hand resting on the hilt of his blade. "Very well," he finally said. "I assume you have a suggestion?"

"I do, my lord," the other man said. "I have reviewed several possible candidates, and I feel that perhaps Kakita Atoshi would be suitable. He is gifted both with the blade is a talented politician…"

"Completely inappropriate," said Kurohito abruptly. "Atoshi is indeed skilled, but his genial nature would betray him. Kaneka would see through him instantly and cut him down. And the Bastard will never trust a Kakita in any event. Not after he killed Kaiten. He knows full well the only Kakita who would follow him after such a thing are treacherous, dishonorable filth."

"Ahh, of course, my lord," said Seishiro abashedly. "Forgive my oversight. Whom shall we send, then?"

The Champion took a long drink of water as he thought. "Midoru," he said with a faint grin.

"Doji Midoru?" Seishiro was incredulous. "He is a madman."

"Yes," confirmed Kurohito. "He and Kaneka share similar personalities, I think. They will get along well. And Midoru is the sort who will serve Kaneka to the best of his ability while at the same time providing us with information about the Bastard's movements without feeling any conflict of interest. His chaotic mind makes him perfect for the position." He glanced at Seishiro and nodded. "You will see to this immediately."

The bushi bowed crisply. "As you command, my lord." Seishiro moved toward the exit to issue a summons for Midoru, then stopped short. "Oh," he said, looking at the form blocking the doorway. "Please excuse me, Yasuyo-sama."

Kurohito looked up at the young woman waiting in the doorway, a surprised and genuine smile appeared as he greeted her. "Yasuyo-chan! This is an unexpected pleasure. I have not seen you in… well, it has been quite some time. Since you requested my leave to pursue your quest, was it not?"

"Yes, Lord Kurohito."

"I have always respected that about you, Yasuyo," Kurohito chuckled. "Despite that our fathers were cousins, you never fail to use the proper term of address. Come in, come in. Please, tell me of your travels. I assume that it must have been important for you to come all this way to find me. Or indeed, for one so devoted as yourself to even have asked to begin with."

"What I must say is for your ears alone, my lord," Yasuyo said with a glance at Seishiro. "Please forgive my intrusion, Seishiro-san."

"Of course," said Seishiro, somewhat perplexed. "I have my orders, my lord. I will await your summons."

Kurohito waved Seishiro away then gestured for Yasuyo to enter and sit. His expression grew more serious as he recalled the particulars of her quest and the vision she claimed to have experienced. "Tell me, cousin," he said, "was it truly the Lady Doji who appeared to you before you disappeared?"

"I believe it was, yes," Yasuyo said.

"That is excellent news. Surely she has led you to wisdom?"

Yasuyo hesitated for a moment. "She has led me to the truth, Kurohito-sama. And as it so often is, the truth is painful."

The Champion's expression darkened. "Tell me everything."

o

It was late into the night when the two finished their discussion. Kurohito's expression had grown more and more tense until his countenance was like stone. Yasuyo seemed only saddened. On the table between them lay Chukandomo, the sword Kurohito had carried since his gempukku. It gleamed faintly in the faint lantern light.

"So my sword, the blade that has been mine since the day of my birth, is cursed." He said. There was anger in his voice, but she knew it was not with her. He rested one hand on the sword, unafraid of its presence even after all she had told him.

"Yes, my lord."

"And your sensei, this Kozue creature… you believe what he has told you about what danger awaits if I should fail? If the curse comes to pass?"

She nodded. "He has told me of the terrible punishment the Crane will receive, and I know that his words are true."

Kurohito shook his head. "What is it you would have me do, cousin?"

"Cast the blade back into the sea," she said instantly. "Return it to the spirits that hunger for it so. Deny them the chance to destroy us all. After our retreat from the Yasuki lands it can only be a matter of time before they take insult at your actions and judge you."

The Champion returned to his seat and knelt upon the mat. Carefully, reverently, he drew Chukandomo from its saya. He reclined upon his knees, his features and shoulders squared and unreadable. He looked at the blade silently for a long time, then gazed up and locked eyes with Yasuyo. "No," he said quietly.

The samurai-ko's eyes widened. "Kurohito, think of what you are doing, I beg you."

"The Crane have been put upon for far too long, Yasuyo. We are hated because we are the finest in the Empire. While other clans have but are of excellence to call their own, our virtue is excellence itself. And the price for our excellence has been the hatred of others. I will not allow their weakness and jealousy to undo all that my line has strived to accomplish for a thousand years. I believe this blade has been sent to me for a reason. To flee its curse would prove that I am everything our enemies despise. To keep it, and be stronger than it, would make all our other difficulties seem minor in comparison. I will take this blade, and I will use it to teach the Empire what it means to be Crane. You will remain by my side henceforth."

"What will that accomplish?" Yasuyo asked.

"You know more of the blade and its curse than any within our clan. You can aid me in controlling it, in learning its secrets. If the spirits come to test me, you will stand by my side as I face them."

Yasuyo shook her head. "Cousin, if you fail…"

"I am Kurohito, Champion of the Crane," he said defiantly. "The blood of Doji runs in these veins. I do not know how to fail."