Chapter Twenty-Two: Graves
"That which makes my enemy weaker makes me
"His technique is amazing," Inokichi commented, his eyes never straying from the road. The old Wasp seemed relaxed, almost bored hardly the expressions that his employer had expected, as they lay in wait to ambush such a dangerous foe. "It seems a shame to destroy such a man. He has a boundless potential."
"That man killed my lord he's already dead," Makuto hissed from his place beside the Tsuruchi in the shade. The two lay hiding in the brush along the northern road. It was here that the weary ronin would have to pass, if he wished to return to the Crane armies. It was here that Makuto would have his revenge, "We are merely the implements of fate."
The hunter did not answer; he had given his word, and nothing would change that. Still, in all his years, Inokichi had seen many swordsmen but nothing he had seen had compared with what had happened today.
Frankly, his money had been on the Crab but he had been wrong before.
He was almost upon them now, his head hung low. The Wasp could pick out his target's wounds even now; how he carried his right arm, how he cradled his side. The samurai was indeed wounded and weary; Makuto looked elated, but Inokichi did not share his view.
After all, a wounded tiger always fights harder
The night was quiet. Compared to the gentle moan of the wind-stirred bamboo, the battle had been a roar, an echo that still lingered somewhere in Koshin's brain. The samurai knew better than to think that he could ever forget such a thing no matter what Nikkan and the other monks said about the matter.
To forget was to forsake the memories of the fallen. To forget was to be without honor
What stirred him from his reverie at the top of the small hill, Koshin did not know. Something something just beyond his eyes caught upon something, some flickering chi almost wholly concealed. It was a dark, ugly feeling, and though Koshin had never sensed such a thing before in the short life of his newfound vision, the spirit was somehow familiar.
The ronin remained standing, frozen in thought. As he concentrated, relaxed his fevered muscles and let go of his aching wounds, the field became clearer, sharper. There were two of them, no three. Three ahead and two behind. They were strong, and like Satsukiru, all five radiated the lust of blood.
Unlike the Hiruma, however, they were not ruled by it.
"Who's there?" Koshin asked loudly and clearly, turning to hide the wound at his right side.
For a moment, there was only the bushes, and the darkness behind them. Koshin waited, feeling the wetness of his blood on his side and wondering if this was all some delusion of weakness or pain. Then, from behind him came two quick sounds, both hurled bits of wood and steel shot from mastered bows.
Pivoting on his right foot, Koshin sliced high, then low, snapping each shaft with an ease that surprised even himself. The chi ahead shuddered strangely now; it was angry, and yet afraid. "That is two!" Koshin said, making sure that his voice carried above the rising storm, "How many more do you have to throw away?"
Strong words, he realized, from a wounded man with one rusted sword.
From the copse of trees, a man stepped, dressed in full armor and holding a katana in his right hand. Though shadowed by night, a mane of fine fur framed the warrior's face, and his feet stood in an extended, forward stance.
A Matsu here?
"A neat trick, knocking arrows from the air," said the thick, hissing voice. Koshin recognized Makuto immediately, even after all those weeks since Isaido's wound. The ronin said nothing, turning his concentration to the still-concealed men.
There were four others, each one stepping from the brush with a bow notched and ready in their hands. Dressed in the gold and black of the Wasp Clan, the archers ringed Koshin in a circle, watching him closely as he readied his blade, "What happened to you, Makuto-san? If this is a matter of honor, then you know that Isaido cannot be avenged like this "
"Dead is dead," the Ikoma said grimly. "Your lesson to my young lord taught me that well. If your death is the price of my honor, then I will pay it with a glad heart." Raising his hand, Koshin saw the archers preparing their shots.
"Remember," said the Lion, "he's mine."
The swordsman smiled grimly, "Then I hope they have dug you your second grave, because you will be the first to die. Maybe your Tsuruchi are good enough to kill me, but even so, you still die first."
Makuto smiled beneath his beard, but the man never had a chance to fell his hand. From the south came a thunder, the beating hooves of tall Unicorn horses. One of the Wasp made a hissing sound, his wrinkled face twisted with annoyance. The Lion sneered as the Crab riders burst onto the hilltop, scattering the archers with their huge, heaving mounts.
The Lion stared daggers up at the first Hida, the one whose great horse stood between the warrior and his prey. "What is the meaning of this, Crab? You interfere with a blood oath, a matter of honor!"
But the Hida only laughed lightly, her face almost hidden beneath a swath of blue cloth under her helm. "Not today, Lion." She took a long glance over her shoulder, to where a confused ronin stood, staring at the Hida riders as if wondering whether they were friend or foe. "I am Hida Baehiken, and this ronin is under the protection of the Crab Clan today."
Koshin imagined that no one, not even Makuto himself, had a face with more confusion than his own. The samurai lowered his sword with a crooked grin, seeing that the amusement of his reaction was not lost on the Hida woman.
Makuto roared with insult. "This man serves the Crane! Why do the Hida risk their own honor to save his hide?" All around, the Wasp bowmen waited no doubt sizing up their arrows against Crab armor and the Kakita's blade. "You interfere with affairs of honor!"
Baehiken's face sneered, marring her handsome features. "Watch your tongue, Lion. You think that just because we Hida are uncouth that we do not understand right and wrong? This," she said, casting her katana around at the silent bowmen, "is no 'affair of honor!' This is murder, like common bandits!"
Before Makuto could respond, Koshin stepped forward, giving the Hida a thankful nod as he came. "A blood feud is a matter of honor, Makuto it can be settled only by a duel. Iaijutsu?" Koshin caught a disdainful sniff from Baehiken's direction. The Crane smiled wolfishly, "Or perhaps jiujutsu? If I must, I will take you with only my hands."
Now, the Hida were all smiling at the wounded ronin's bravado, and the Ikoma was not smiling at all. All around Koshin, samurai bristled, holding tightly to their swords and bows. All it would take would be one wrong motion, and the ronin would participate in yet another bloodbath.
But the moment passed, and the Lion bowed slightly. "I would never insult the Hida by staining their honor over such an insignificant man." He spoke each word from between clenched teeth, anger seeping through with each rumbling sound, "My revenge will wait until another day."
Baehiken smiled, turning her gruff word suddenly silky, "Oh, how sincere."
Koshin shook his head, remembering his long ago days on the wall and the strange humor of Rokugan's eternal guardians. "I will not trouble the Crab long with my trouble, Makuto-san. I will be travelling soon back to the Kakita provinces; seek me out and we will finish this."
The Lion bowed.
A few moments later, as they rode back to the Crane army, Koshin looked up at Baehiken with quiet eyes. "I think that I owe you my life, Hida-sama. Why did you come?"
"You had nothing to fear from that coward and his bees," the girl said from her horse. "We all saw you attend to Master Satsukiru's pyre. We Crab have little use for sincerity and pretty flowers, but we understand how you honored him. We appreciate it."
Koshin nodded, feeling the sudden ache of his wounds. "I understand."
The two rode on in silence, the rest of the Crab bristling as they neared the lines of the Crane. Koshin paid no attention to their nature; the Daidoji knew better than to attack such a party, riding openly along the way. As they neared the Kakita tents, the Hida reined her horse to a stop.
"I am sure that you will be safe the last few feet," Baehiken said, feigning a voice reserved for ignorant children. The Crab was looking the tired, bloody ronin with an approving eye; a fact that Koshin found strangely unnerving.
The samurai just nodded, trying to keep his legs from shaking in weakness. "The Hida have protected me well, Baehiken-sama. I thank you again."
The Hida girl nodded curtly, glancing past the ronin to the Daidoji spearmen stirring in the tents beyond. "I hope that you will stay alive. After all, this war will not be forever, and the Crab always have need of strong, able men." She had a something of a predatory quality to her words as she spoke, and the ronin had no doubt that there was behind the cloth a smile.
"You honor me," he said evenly, watching as the Hida turned away. Several of the other riders saluted him with sword or spear, and Koshin did not stop watching them until they vanished into the depths of the night. Once they had gone, the ronin turned from the Crane tents, starting north slowly, along an empty, winding road.
"Farewell, Kenshuko-sama," he whispered to the wind.
"We could have killed him," Makuto said quietly, his voice not losing any of its anger, as the Wasp sat around a small fire deep within the woods. The Crab would search for them, but Inokichi was no fool a few days and they would tire of fruitless labor. It was useless to search for what could not be found.
The old hunter stirred the fire, his weathered face wrinkled into a smirk, "He offered an jiujutsu fight. And besides, our interference wouldn't have been fair, Makuto-san. The rules you understand." Each word was mocking, and the Ikoma's eyes burned fiercely, for the smile on the face of every other man present.
"What rules do you men follow, then?" Makuto drew out his sword and began to test its edge, eyeing each Tsuruchi in turn with a sour eye.
Inokichi smirked, drawing out a long pipe and easing a light from the kindled flames. "We live in the same world as you though on something of a different level," the master said with a smile, blowing a ring of fine smoke as he spoke. "Loyalty to our lord the mission is all to us, but not at the expense of our integrity."
The Lion shot the old one a sideways glance. "Integrity You mean 'honor.'"
"Something akin to it, anyhow," Inokichi said, ignoring the slight in Makuto's voice. "The Crab may not use us against the Shadowlands, but even they send us after their rogues and traitors. So we must preserve our integrity, so that they will trust our lord in the future."
Makuto laughed bitterly, "More money, huh Wasp?"
One of the younger men nodded, looking up from his sake cup with a smile stretching his drawn face. "I think that the samurai will never understand our rules, Inokichi-sama. He lives in a different Empire."
The older man nodded. "Be that as it may, Nitachi, there is always the first law. Even Makuto-san will understand that."
Turning his blade to face the younger Wasp, the Lion's face was the cold of death, as he hissed each word over the cold steel blade, "What is the first law, little man? I'd like you to explain it before you die." The young man's breath caught slightly despite himself, the fear of the samurai filling his large eyes.
Inokichi raised his hand, not touching it to the Lion's family blade. "The first law, Makuto-san, is simple "
The contract is always filled."
The Hunt Begins