By Rich Wulf
Tsuruchi Nobumoto yawned and twisted his head from side to side, listening to the joints pop in his neck. He nudged his horse's flanks gently and moved forward down the forest path. Tonight was like many other nights - cold and boring. Nobumoto commanded the Tsuruchi patrols along the Scorpion border here, near Gateway Village, but the border had been quiet for the last few weeks. Rumor had it that the Scorpion were preparing their forces for a large offensive. Some said they were preparing to attack the Shogun. Some suggested that Bayushi Yojiro feared a revolt within his own clan.
Whatever the truth, Nobumoto did not care. Scorpion forces had pulled well away from the Tsuruchi border, and that was all that concerned him. Let the Scorpion kill or be killed by whoever they wished - so long as it did not threaten the Mantis Clan that was fine with him. Nobumoto sat back in his saddle, scratched the back of his head and wondered if there were any more dried apples in his saddle bags.
Then he saw the girl standing on the road beside him, looking up at him with an amused expression. Nobumoto nearly fell out of his saddle.
"Fusako-chan," he said with a chuckle. "I did not see you there. Well done!"
Tsuruchi Fusako gave a small smile and bowed to Nobumoto. "I did not do it alone," she said. "Sho told me where to find you, and then you also aided me by not paying attention."
"Now, now," Nobumoto said, climbing out of his saddle with a grunt. "Just because you are an Emerald Magistrate now does not mean you can speak to me so disrespectfully." He raised one eyebrow and looked down at her with disapproval for nearly three seconds before bursting into laughter. Fusako stepped forward and embraced her older brother.
"It is good to see you again, little sister," he said, stepping back to look at her. She looked stronger, more confident, than he had remembered. Three dueling tassels, mementoes of challenges won, now hung from her sword - one red, one orange, one blue. "I heard of your performance at the Topaz Championship. I am sorry I could not attend, but Ichiro was there and you know I am unpopular with him these days."
"Unpopular?" she replied, incredulous. "I heard that you had been exiled from Kyuden Ashinagabachi."
"A misunderstanding," he said with a shrug. "I am certain Ichiro is not truly angry with me, or I would be ronin now. Or dead. At any rate, congratulations on your performance at the Test. Mother and father would have been proud."
"They would have been prouder if I had won," Fusako said bitterly. "At least the Unicorn who beat me seems a fairly competent sort."
Nobumoto shrugged and gave a crooked grin. "I choose to focus on the positive. For instance, there was the time…" Nobumoto stopped speaking immediately, his sharp ears picking up the sound of hoofbeats. He unslung the bow from his shoulder. Fusako did the same. Brother and sister darted to opposite ends of the road and ducked into the bushes. Nobumoto clicked his tongue and his horse trotted off the road in no particular hurry.
A quartet of horses in dark green armor galloped around the bend. They moved swiftly, neither noticing nor caring about the two archers hidden in the underbrush. They continued on toward Gateway Village without pause.
Nobumoto stepped out of the underbrush, his face grave as he looked off in the direction the riders had gone. Fusako stood beside her brother, her expression similarly thoughtful.
"Storm Legion riders," she whispered. "Yoritomo Kitao's honor guard."
"I know," Nobumoto replied. "Strange that they should be in such a hurry." Nobumoto glanced around for any sign of his horse. "I must return to Gateway village in case there is trouble. Catch up when you can, Fusako-chan."
Fusako nodded and whistled. Her steed appeared from nowhere, galloping to her side. Nobumoto looked up in surprise. "Did you learn that from your Unicorn friend?" he asked.
Fusako only grinned and galloped off toward the village.
Nobumoto and Fusako found the Storm Legion horses tethered outside the village barracks, along with a trio of other steeds that wore the mons of the Tsuruchi family. Brother and sister exchanged uneasy glances as they hurried toward the barracks entrance.
"Nobumoto-sama, Fusako-chan, welcome back," said a relieved guard. "Commander, you have visitors."
"So I see," Nobumoto replied. "Storm Legion?"
"Yoritomo Naizen himself," Sho said, his voice slightly awed.
"Kitao's general?" Nobumoto asked, exchanging glances with his sister. "What could he want with me?"
"Nothing," Sho said with a shrug. "He came here to meet Yutaka, who also arrived just a short time ago. They are meeting in the western guest chambers, and asked that you not disturb them."
Nobumoto scowled. "Am I not still the commander of Gateway Village?" he asked.
"Hai, Nobumoto-sama," Sho replied, nodding sharply, "but so long as I remain here I cannot ignore an order from a rikugunshokan of the Mantis Clan."
"Then I command you to patrol the northern forest," Nobumoto replied. "Return in three hours."
"Yes, sir," Sho said without hesitation. He bowed a final time and hurried off down the road.
"Strange that Yutaka would order you not to be present at a meeting in your own barracks," Fusako said.
"You do not know Yutaka," Nobumoto replied to his sister, heading toward the western chambers. "The man is ruthless, ambitious, and arrogant."
"So are you," she replied, following her brother.
Nobumoto nodded. "All the more reason for me not to trust him. Something strange is going on here." He fell silent as they approached the doors of the western guest chamber. They could hear voices speaking softly within. Nobumoto crouched in the shadows to the left of one door, while Fusako crouched to the right.
"… continue to support the true Mantis Champion, Naizen-sama, you need have no fear of that," spoke the smarmy, self-assured voice of Tsuruchi Yutaka. "Gateway Village knows where its true loyalty lies, and will not bow down for any harlot who calls herself the Daughter of Storms."
"We have your loyalty so long as we can pay you, you mean," said the thick, gruff voice of Yoritomo Naizen. Nobumoto had met Kitao's general only a handful of times. He was a blunt, intimidating man who met any threats with unnerving calm.
"Of course," Yutaka replied. "We Tsuruchi are isolated here on the mainland, surrounded by enemies. If the true Mantis Champion cannot offer us support via troops and weapons, then gold will suffice. So long as the Champion continues to support us in the manner that we require, our loyalty is hers."
"Good," Naizen answered. "See that it remains so. What progress on our earlier arrangement?"
"A scout in my employ located the Daughter of Storms in Unicorn territory some weeks ago," he replied. "She traveled with no guards or retinue."
"Why would she take such a risk?" Naizen replied.
"Apparently a Unicorn offered her information that allowed her to stage a successful raid on some Kolat holdings in Phoenix territory," Yutaka said. "She returned to Unicorn lands to repay the favor. The scout remained near her until she ceased her travels, which eventually took her to a remote ronin settlement named the Village Broken Dreams, in the Twilight Mountains. There, she has begun training with the ronin who live there."
"A ronin village?" Naizen asked. "How peculiar. Sometimes I think if Lady Kitao simply left Yoritomo Kumiko to her own devices, her followers would soon see how irrational the Daughter of Storms truly is and cease following her. Nonetheless, she is a threat that must be attended to. Tell me the location of this Village of the Unbroken, Yutaka."
"I think not," Yutaka replied. "I came here only to report, as you requested, not hand away the reward Kitao offered me. Does the deal still stand?"
Naizen was silent for a long moment. "Yes."
"So if I deliver Kumiko's corpse to you, I will be made daimyo of the Tsuruchi family?"
"Yes," Naizen said, more tersely.
"How will you deliver this prize?" Yutaka asked. "Despite his outmoded philosophies, Ichiro is popular among my family, even among those who support Kitao. How will you encourage him to step down?"
"Ichiro will be commanded to retire once Kitao's position is secure," Naizen said. "If he disobeys Kitao's command, she will demand the three cuts for his treacherous support of the Daughter of Storms. Once Kumiko and her supporters have been firmly dealt with, the outcry among the Tsuruchi will be relatively minor."
A trio of female servants rounded the corner at the end of the hall, bearing plates of food and drink. Nobumoto and Fusako crouched in the shadows, going unnoticed as they opened the other door of the western chambers and filed in. Conversation within the chamber turned to unimportant matters while the servants arranged the food. Nobumoto stared blankly at the floor before him, trying to reason out what he had just heard. He knew that Yutaka had little love for his daimyo, Tsuruchi Ichiro, but to plot against him in this manner? It was more than he could comprehend. So preoccupied was he that he did not notice the door behind him sliding open until a servant nearly tripped over him, shrieking in terror.
"Eh?" he heard Naizen call out. "Who goes there?"
"I am sorry, my lord," Fusako said, stepping out before the door with a forced grin. "I am Fusako, Commander Nobumoto's sister. I came here looking for him, and became lost in the barracks."
"I see," Yutaka replied, coughing nervously. "I have heard tales of your prowess in the Topaz Championship. Those tales pale in comparison to the rumors of your beauty, but even those rumors pale in comparison to the truth. Please, Fusako-chan. Join us." Nobumoto sighed quietly. Yutaka's eloquence, it seemed, was limited to inspiring rebellion against his daimyo.
"I would be honored," Fusako replied. She folded her arms behind her back, gesturing with one hand for Nobumoto to leave.
Nobumoto looked up at the servant who had seen him, pressed one finger to his lips and winked. She smiled back at him, now clearly embarrassed that she had screamed at the sight of her master.
Without another word, he made his escape.
Nobumoto reigned in his exhausted horse and took stock of his surroundings. High mountain walls surrounded him on both sides, leading inevitably to a towering castle. The sun had not yet risen, painting Kyuden Ashinagabachi in sinister shadows. The castle had been built by Scorpion, so Nobumoto had no doubt the design was intentional. Despite the darkness he had no doubt that a half dozen archers now watched him from the shadows, arrows trained at his heart. He kept his hands tight on the reins, away from his bow and sword. Should he make any aggressive move, even in the darkness, they would not fail to strike him.
"Ichiro!" he shouted to the closed gates. "I am here to see Tsuruchi Ichiro!"
"You are not welcome here, traitor," whispered a harsh voice from the darkness above. A slim man stepped out of the shadows, bow aimed at Nobumoto's throat. A yellow and black scarf fluttered from his left bicep. "Go back to Gateway Village with the rest of the traitors."
"Terao," Nobumoto said, looking up at the archer with a friendly smile. "While I regret that my taste in clothing, particularly as regards scarves bearing colors of long dead Minor Clans, led to some harsh words with my daimyo when last I visited here, that makes my message no less urgent. I need to see Ichiro-sama immediately."
"Well then see if your message will reach him from Yomi," Terao said, drawing his bow back with a snarl.
"Actually it might," Nobumoto said, anger rising in his voice as he climbed out of his saddle. "Our lord's life is in danger. If you kill me, Ichiro will surely die!"
Terao's eyes widened, but he did not relax his grip on the bowstring. The doors of Kyuden Ashinagabachi opened. A severe-looking warrior in green and black armor stepped out onto the steps of the castle. He held one fist into the air and opened it. Terao ducked back into the shadows without another word. Like Terao, this man wore a scarf of yellow and black around his left arm, the colors of the now-defunct Wasp Clan from which the Tsuruchi family had been born.
"Heishiro," Nobumoto said. "It is good to see you again."
His eyes scanned the road behind Nobumoto for any sign of ambush, any sign of deception. When he found none, he looked slightly disappointed. "Remove your weapons, exile," he said.
Nobumoto nodded. He unslung his bow and removed his daisho from his obi, handing the weapons to Heishiro. Heishiro cast the swords a disdainful look. Ichiro will see you now," he said. "Follow me."
Nobumoto fell into step just behind Heishiro. The two men were quiet for several minutes as they walked through the halls of the castle. Finally, Nobumoto could stay quiet no longer.
"I saw you scowl at my sword back there, Heishiro," he said. "If you like them, I'm sure I can teach you how to use one some time."
"Some warriors do not need swords," Heishiro said.
"Yes, I know," Nobumoto replied. "I call those warriors 'farmers.'"
Heishiro glared at Nobumoto. "Watch yourself, Nobumoto," he snapped. "Your wagging tongue has already made you unwelcome in these halls."
Nobumoto shrugged. "I just find it odd that after all this time, the only tradition our family truly takes pride in is our stubborn need to spit on tradition," he replied. "Everyone has to grow up some time, Heishiro. Even Ichiro wears a sword in the courts these days."
"Our lord does what he must so that our family will be respected," Heishiro said. "That does not mean that all of us must embrace the ways of bushido."
"I agree," Nobumoto said. "Like I always say, if you don't like the way of the samurai there's plenty of rice that needs harvesting." He looked down at the yellow and black scarf Heishiro wore. "The days of the Wasp Clan are done, Heishiro."
Heishiro said nothing, only slid open the door so that Nobumoto could enter and speak to the castle's master. Tsuruchi Ichiro was an old man, now in his early fifties, but was still hale and strong. He regarded Nobumoto with an unflinching gaze and only nodded in reply as the commander bowed deeply.
"I see you have been irritating Heishiro," Ichiro said. "I thought you came here to bring me a warning, not to engage in philosophical debate."
Nobumoto nodded soberly and knelt before his lord. He quickly related what he had seen and heard in Gateway Village to his daimyo, relating Yutaka's plot to kill Kumiko and supplant his position. Ichiro listened in silence. When Nobumoto was done, he scratched his chin with one hand and scowled at the wood-paneled floor.
"My lord, I find this warning difficult to believe," Heishiro said. "Nobumoto is outspoken in his support for Yoritomo Kitao. He is well-known for his disdain of the Tsuruchi family's traditions, opinions that Yutaka also shares. Why would he bring you this warning?"
"My lord, Heishiro misunderstands me," Nobumoto said. "Yes, I follow Kitao, for she is our clan's Champion. Yes, I think that we are foolish to disdain a samurai's traditions but hold power as samurai do. All of this changes nothing. I will not stand aside while my dishonorable brethren plot to murder my lord, no matter how much I agree with their politics or philosophies. I could not do so and still call myself a Tsuruchi."
"Well said," Ichiro replied. "While I may not always agree with your beliefs, Nobumoto, I have never doubted your integrity. It seems that even the tree that bears sour fruit might have strong roots, eh? We should take this warning seriously, Heishiro."
"Hai, Ichiro-sama," Heishiro replied. "With your permission, I will gather my finest hunters. We shall leave in pursuit of Yutaka within the hour."
"Go," Ichiro said, nodding. Heishiro vanished quickly, closing the door behind him.
Ichiro turned to face Nobumoto. His weathered face was sad and thoughtful. "When I was young I saw a misguided, ambitious young man overthrow the Miya family over a matter of tradition," Ichiro said. "It fell to me, along with a few others, to cast down the usurper. How ironic, in my old age, that now another seeks to replace me."
"Heishiro is a fine warrior, my lord," Nobumoto said. "My sister, Fusako, remained in Gateway Village to monitor Yutaka. Neither of them will fail you."
"But have we not already failed, for it to come to this?" Ichiro asked. "The first Tsuruchi turned his back on the ways of the samurai. Bushido was pure and perfect, this much he admitted, but so long as the men who followed it were imperfect, samurai would always be corrupt. Now a Tsuruchi hunts another Tsuruchi, who plans to betray and supplant me in turn. Perhaps you were right, Nobumoto. For all of our bluster and superiority, we are no better for not carrying the sword. Tsuruchi was wrong. The Wasp Code is no less flawed than bushido." Ichiro sighed deeply.
"No, my lord," Nobumoto whispered. "That is not the lesson of Tsuruchi."
Ichiro looked down at the kneeling commander and frowned questioningly.
"If Tsuruchi truly believed there was no worth in bushido, he would never have served the Emperor so loyally," Nobumoto said. "It is not one's beliefs that matter, it is that one truly believes in them that matters. Men like Yutaka believe in nothing. They obey only their selfish whim. This is the lesson of Tsuruchi - to be true to oneself, to be true to one's brothers and sisters. No code can dictate what is right and wrong - they are only guides. A true samurai must judge for himself."
"As you have done," Ichiro said. "And at such cost. You know that Kitao will kill you when she realizes you have revealed her plot."
"I know," Nobumoto said, "Until now, I doubted the rumors of her conspiracy against Aramasu. I served her because she was my Champion. Now, I am not sure what I must do."
"No," Ichiro said. "I think that you know what you must do. You merely doubt you have the courage to do it. In spite of your ways - perhaps because of your ways - you are true to the spirit of the Tsuruchi. I rescind your exile from Kyuden Ashinagabachi. You are welcome here, Nobumoto. Whatever choice you make, we shall protect you - with one condition."
"Yes, my lord?"
"Go with Heishiro," Ichiro said. "I think he will need the help, and so will your sister."
The six archers moved swiftly across the rocky landscape. Some time ago they had abandoned their exhausted horses and continued on foot. Yutaka's trail, faint as it was, had also departed from the road. Heishiro and the others had been grim and silent since arriving in the mountains. It seemed that Yutaka had picked up a few ronin mercenaries at Razor of the Dawn Castle. Whether he realized that Ichiro's men were following him or simply wished to increase his numbers before facing Kumiko was irrelevant. If the tracks were any indication, Ichiro's hunters were now outnumbered three to one.
Nobumoto felt a sick feeling in his stomach as he worried for Fusako. Several guards in Gateway Village had seen her ride out with Yutaka and the others, and not as a prisoner. He had no doubt that his sister had convinced Yutaka of her sincerity and intended to work against the assassins from the inside. In fact, she was already doing so. A bent branch here, a peasant messenger there, all had kept them on the right track even when Yutaka had covered his trail well. Nobumoto had no doubt Fusako could handle herself in the battle to come. Even yet, he worried for her safety. It had been brash and impulsive of her to join the enemy band like that. Sometimes she reminded him of himself too much for her own good.
"I still think we should have hired mercenaries of our own back there," Terao whispered as they crawled through the underbrush.
"We had no time to find suitable mercenaries," Heishiro replied. "This is a delicate mission, and we cannot afford to deal with soldiers that we cannot trust."
"Trust can be bought, for a time," Terao replied.
"Not with the kind of money we have," Nobumoto said.
Heishiro looked back at Nobumoto in surprise. "For a man who values bushido as you do, you're quite the mercenary," he said.
"Arigato," Nobumoto replied.
Nobumoto, Heishiro, and Terao crawled out onto a rocky plateau while the other three hunters fanned out to establish a defensive perimeter. Beneath them, a small village nestled at the heart of a valley. Unlike most small villages, this one had a large area for archery and weapons practice. Warriors in piecemeal armor battled one another with staves and practice swords. Each one of them wore strange white bandages over their face and arms.
"This village was not on any of the Crab maps," Terao whispered, squinting down at the valley.
"I doubt it would be," Heishiro said. "Ronin who gather in numbers like this draw the attention of angry legionnaires, not cartographers."
"Look at all of those weapons," Nobumoto replied. "This is no village. It is an army."
"Perhaps they are planning some rebellion against the Crab?" Terao asked.
"Doubtful," Nobumoto said. "Yoritomo Kumiko has friends among the Crab. She would not be associating with these ronin if they were rebels."
"We should be careful," Terao said. "Even if they mean us no harm, ronin such as these might assume a wandering samurai will return at the head of a legion. If they see us, they will likely kill us."
"Good point," Heishiro said. "We should move closer, but cautiously. I can see nothing useful from here."
Nobumoto nodded. The three men turned back, hurrying to rejoin the others. They moved back into the shadows of the pass, walking in pairs, always scanning the mountains for any sign of ambush.
Just as Terao darted into the road, a whistle from above caused him to freeze in his tracks. An arrow struck the earth just before his foot, head lodging just before the toe of his boot. He shouted a warning and dodged to one side, ducking behind a low rock. He rolled up on his back with bow in hand and arrow strung. The other five hunters notched arrows and pointed at the heights of the pass.
Two figures appeared at the chasm's edge. One was Tsuruchi Yutaka. The other was Nobumoto's sister, Fusako. She stood unarmed, hands held out to her sides. Yutaka's sword was drawn, pointed at her back.
"Commander Tsuruchi Nobumoto!" Yutaka called out, eyes scanning the bottom of the pass. "I know that you are down there. Fusako has not been harmed. Reveal yourself."
"So that you can kill me?" Nobumoto shouted back. "I think I'll stay where I am." He crouched in the shadows of a large rock. He could not see Yutaka, but he could see Terao, laying on his back with bow drawn. Terao looked at Nobumoto and nodded, confirming that he had a clear shot. Nobumoto shook his head slightly.
"I do not wish to kill you, Nobumoto," Yutaka replied. "The last thing that I desire is for a Tsuruchi to kill a Tsuruchi. You know of the unrest within our family - the schism between those who embrace the way of the Wasp and the way of bushido. You were exiled from Kyuden Ashinagabachi because of it! Should a Tsuruchi kill a Tsuruchi, that schism will erupt into bloodshed. There would be war within our family. That is why I stand before you openly. I know you are wise enough not to kill me."
"But if we were stupid enough to reveal ourselves," Nobumoto retorted. "Then you could kill us all here. Your men would say nothing. None would ever know."
"True," Yutaka replied, "but that is not what I want. I want peace in our family again."
"So you would betray your daimyo and kill the true Mantis Champion?" Heishiro shouted.
"I have not betrayed Ichiro," Yutaka answered. "He has betrayed us with his unwillingness to adapt to a changing world. Have you not said that he should shave his head, retire, and let the new generation determine our family's destiny? As for Yoritomo Kumiko, she is a threat to our true Champion's power. Why should she not die?"
"Do not do this, Yutaka!" Terao shouted.
"Terao?" Yutaka called out. "Cousin, is that you?"
"Do not stain our family's honor like this!" Terao replied. "There is still time to end this without shame!"
"I have done nothing dishonorable," Yutaka said, "and I will do nothing dishonorable unless you force my hand."
"If you harm Fusako," Nobumoto warned, "You will never escape these mountains alive."
"Listen to me, Nobumoto," Yutaka said. "I do not wish to harm Fusako. I do not wish to harm any Tsuruchi, but I will do what I must. So long as you remain where you are, she will be unharmed."
"You must have seen the guards in the ronin village," Nobumoto said. "How do you expect to kill Kumiko in the midst of that?"
"The Unbroken think that their village is well hidden," Yutaka said. "They expect no attack, and I seek to make no war with them. When Kumiko reveals herself, my hidden archers will strike her down. One shot, that is all, and there will be no more violence within the Mantis Clan. When my archers have killed Kumiko, they will send me a signal and we will leave you in peace. Simply stay where you are, and all of us will survive and prosper. It is all that I ask."
"Then you won't mind if I make your assassins' lives more difficult," Nobumoto said. He took the arrow from his bow and slid it back into his quiver. Slowly, he slid out three others, arrows with large, bulbous heads. Aiming into the air, he rapidly fired the arrows one by one. Each made a loud, keening wail as it streaked into the sky. In the distance, the sound of alarm bells echoed from the Village of the Unbroken.
"Nobumoto, you wretched fool!" Yutaka shouted, glancing off toward the village. His archers could never hope for a clear shot now, and may well be killed if they did not escape the mobilizing village.
As Yutaka became distracted, Fusako quickly scooped a handful of dirt from the ground and flung it into her captor's eyes. He snarled in pain and fury as she dropped down from the edge of the chasm. Just as she began to climb down, Yutaka seized her by one arm and lifted his katana high. "I did not want this, Fusako-san," Yutaka whispered to her, "but your brother cannot go unpun…"
Yutaka's words cut off abruptly as Tsuruchi Terao's arrow lodged in his chest. His sword toppled from his hand and he fell to one knee, but did not release Fusako's arm.
"Why?" he whispered, staring into her eyes. A trickle of blood escaped from his mouth. Yutaka released her arm, then fell forward into the pass, landing heavily on the stone below. Fusako quickly scrambled down the mountain wall, constantly glancing back for any signs of enemy archers.
There were none. There were no further shots from the lip of the chasm, no shouts of anger or dismay, only the sound of scuffing boots as Yutaka's soldiers made their escape.
"Where are they?" Heishiro asked, peering up. "Why aren't they shooting?"
"Their leader is dead," Nobumoto said in a rueful voice, stepping out into the open to meet his sister. "They've retreated to figure out what this means for the rest of them."
"I do not think we will like the answer," Heishiro said. "For Yutaka's followers, it will not matter that he tried to betray Ichiro or that he wished to murder Kumiko. It will only matter that another Tsuruchi killed him."
"This will not end here," Fusako agreed in a low voice.
Nobumoto turned toward Yutaka's broken corpse. Terao knelt beside the body of his cousin, head bowed. When he looked up at Nobumoto, his face was stained with tears.
"I came on this mission because I had hoped to reason with him…," Terao whispered in a hoarse voice, "When he tried to hurt Fusako, I did not think… I only acted. And now he is dead."
Nobumoto rested one hand on Terao's shoulder. He said nothing; there was nothing he could say. All there was left to do was escape before the Unbroken arrived and report to Ichiro. Terao gathered his dead cousin's swords and tucked them under one arm, then moved to join the others.
Then, as one, the seven hunters disappeared into the shadows.