Chapter Twenty: Gi
"There is only right and wrong."
- from Akodo's Bushido
Seated in the small, dirty little hovel, Makuto rested silently, his eyes clenched shut tightly as he meditated on the day's events. The room was small, damp, and barely livable by the standards of a samurai, but with such a purpose, the Lion found it a simple thing to endure. Outside, the Wasp continued asking their questions, following their sources and dirty little leads but as far as the Ikoma was concerned, the search was already done.
The group had come far to the south, to Jukami Mura in the lands of the Crane, to find information; leads that might take them to their quarry. But what Inokichi had found was no mere rumor or fable on ronin tongues or potential employers: it was fact that Koshin lived only days from the town, serving as a yojimbo to some bitch of a Crane.
The name was different; ronin tricks were so cheap, but the descriptions of two peasant refugees, the quiet voice, the pale, cool face, and the two swords it had to be him.
Him that had participated in some skirmish in a little insignificant town
Him that had challenged a man named Hiruma Satsukiru less than a week ago
Certainly, the Fortunes were favoring him, Makuto considered with a slight smile, itching his short beard idly as one of the Tsuruchi entering their small rented flat. The man removed his sun-faded hat, revealing himself as old Inokichi himself. The Wasp caught Makuto's lazy gaze as he removed his equipment, a sour look on the hunter's wrinkled face.
"This man, this 'Futai' that we are hunting," the older man said darkly, a hard steel in his eyes, "is in the employ of a samurai-ko. She is a low-ranking magistrate, nothing special. Both have been moved to the units stationed just north of the Yasuki Estates to await Crane instructions, should they decide to attack the Crab forces near Black Crane Palace."
Makuto nodded, "So, a thousand Crane surround him now and I guess that this bothers you, Wasp. Don't tell me the you have lost your nerve?"
Inokichi met his gaze with fierceness all his own. "Killing Crane bushi would be dangerous and foolish; they have ever been allies of my clan, if not yours. No matter what you pay, my lord would never wish to tarnish his relations with them with cowardly tricks."
The Lion sighed, disgusted by the politics that tainted the hunter's vision. "So, what do you propose?"
Setting his fine bow to the ground, the Wasp smiled slightly, pouring himself a small cup of hard sake as he opened the shutters to let in the evening sea air. "We will wait, Makuto-sama. Nitachi and Oramono will watch the Crane army; when they move, in peace or war, we will follow. He cannot hide for long the Wasp will not allow him to escape you."
Makuto snarled, pointed at the hunter with his sheathed blade, "Not good enough, Inokichi. Not even close." The Ikoma could hear Isaido's spirit, urging him along to stop now, even for a moment, was an affront to the Lion blood pouring through his veins.
"Then perhaps you would offer a better plan, Ikoma-sama?" All the words were dripping with sarcasm, but the honored 'sama' was coated even more. Inokichi liked the Ikoma less and less as the weeks dragged on; only his loyal oath, and the promise of payment, kept the Tsuruchi to tow.
Makuto nodded sagely; even if the Wasp did understand hunting, they knew nothing about war. "If you need to lure an enemy from his lands, Inokichi, then you must do only one thing." He smiled darkly, reaching to drag out his golden armor from the simple rice mat where it had lain.
"What is that, o' honorable Lion?"
Makuto smiled wolfishly, reaching down to touch his sword. "Something that he wants even more than life itself. Now, tell me more about this man Satsukiru "
Four days later, Makuto stood at the side of the Yasuki, a position as advisor procured by clever lies. The Crab trusted the Lion and they expected their support in every way one more advisor to stand against the Crane was hardly strange. Was it not for the war with the Dragon, many Crab believed, then the Matsu and Ikoma would be beside them in days.
If they would ever learn the truth about him, however, the former Ikoma knew that even his enemies would not wish him such a fate. The Crab would never understand his loyal quest; they were baser creatures, with a lesser sort of soul.
The lieutenant who he served was a minor one, trusted with the charge of only a hundred and fifty men. Hida Gotensu was a tough, young Hida warrior and like most Hida, he cursed and spat and spoke too loudly, holding courtesy and modesty in too low a regard for a samurai. Even so, Makuto would not have it any other way.
After all, it was always a simpler thing to manipulate a fool.
Three days after Ikoma Makuto was given the position of advisor to Hida Gotensu, the Battle of the Torishii Fields occurred. When the historians of the Crane and the Crab would write of the conflict in the years after, they would agree that it was the pride of the Hida lieutenant, which cost the blood of hundreds of Crab and Crane.
Gotensu, or Hiruma Satsukiru himself.
The morning air was still cool with night dew when it happened; the Crab samurai crested the hill from the west, attacking the Kakita encampments that had been set in the north of the town. Under the thinning night fog, they charged into the village, both the general and his Lion advisor riding down like a black wind, scattered heimen left and right as they came.
Gotensu brandished his tessen like a banner, shouting orders rather the trusting the tessen symbols, "To the west, the west! Drive them into the rice fields!" Crab met Crane with viciousness, smashing blades with reckless abandon. The Kakita gave way quickly, abandoning their tents to flee into the western fields, falling almost perfectly along Makuto's suggested plans.
The Ikoma snorted from his small pony as he watched the Hida pursue their prey. With his ugly face twisted into an elated sneer, Gotensu spun to face his advisor, "See how they run, not samurai at all! You were right; they are so weak! Even without reserves we will kill hundreds before we withdraw, Makuto-san!" The man was practically slavering at the thought, his whole body shuddering with excitement.
The Lion just nodded curtly, his face hidden behind a snarling mempo. "Go and strike them down with your brothers, Gotensu-sama. The honor is yours. Teach them of Hida's strength."
Drawing his katana clumsily, the Crab roared a battle cry, plunging his pony into the rice field as the Hida closed the gap on the floundering Crane. Gotensu sliced one samurai from chest to stomach from his pony; the pale warrior died without a sound of pain.
One small sacrifice, on behalf of the Crane.
Then, with a speed equal to Gotensu's assault, the rice fields became alive with action. Makuto watched, equal parts astounded and amused, as Daidoji and Kakita spearmen leapt up from beneath the stagnant pools, their wet yari gleaming darkly as they encircled the Hida men. Crane samurai, a moment ago fleeing in terror and utter disarray, turned and met their pursuers with steely discipline and ready blades.
Too late, Gotensu realized his mistake. The Hida warrior cried a shout of fury, chopping at Daidoji spears as the samurai drove his horse deeper into the watery hole. All around him, Crab died, outnumbered and suddenly surrounded, their resilience and battle skill the only thing keeping the Crane from breaking their thin lines completely.
Beyond the battle, Makuto had dismounted, tossing away his helmet and mempo, drawing out his katana as the slaughter continued. The Ikoma laughed once, darkly, as a Daidoji rider came toward him, removing a small sack of koku and tossing it at Makuto's feet.
Even as he died on Crane spears, Gotensu had no idea that he had been betrayed.
"The Hida will send reinforcements," the Lion samurai whispered to himself, standing comfortably in the shadow of a large hut. The Ikoma had seen to that personally; a message had arrived by courier from Gotensu's staff, before the battle had begun.
Let it be him, Makuto begged the heavens. Let him be the one they send.
Hida O-Ushi was not the kind of commander who condoned incompetence; the duties of the Crab were too important for such a thing to be tolerated. But the Champion also knew the value, and the importance, of life. The Hida must not die.
And so, four hours later, a second force crested the hills at Torishii Fields, their banners flapping slowly in the lazy wind. In the village below them, the Crane stood ready and waiting, the fields beyond them ruined with blood and sunken corpses; the only remnants of Gotensu's ill fated raid.
The Hida general considered the field, idly considering the courage and mettle of the Kakita forces that remained waiting, though obviously fatigued from the earlier fight. Gotensu was dead; his legion lay tossed about like leaves after a storm.
"Save the Hida," had been the orders. "Kill the Crane."
"No movement in the fields beyond," reported a scout, bowed low, his thin form covered only in the simplest of armor. "The head of Hida Gotensu has been delivered to us by the servants of Doji Kurohito, Lord." There was anger in the Hiruma's voice, but disciplined drowned it deep.
Looking down at the lines and spearmen and archers, the Hida general turned his horse, considering the force that stood ready on either side. To waste their lives on such an insignificant victory
But then, the man at the head of the berserker forces raised his darkened face, gazing into his leader with cold, dead eyes. Like a stagnant pool, they reflected only what they wished to, and the Hida could see death and pain.
One did not send such a man to stand with an army, without assuring that there would be war.
With that gaze still stirring in his heart, the Hida commander drew his katana, turning to shout orders to the Crab legions that waited. The samurai bristled for combat, their blades shining and their huge clubs thumping the ground in anticipation of the coming fray.
At least one of O-Ushi's orders would be served.