Way of the Phoenix
Part 1

Masurao remained for another 3 days with his new Crab brothers. He left with a tetsubo and a lot of muscle aches. Both were prizes he had won with arm wrestling, he didn't win all of them, but did well enough in the eyes of the Hida to bestow him with one of their finest weapons.

As he was traveling, Masurao knew that his next destination would be the Crane lands. He also knew that he would have to go back to his home once again in order to pick up a very special companion.

Kakita Kenshuko.

After all her of her travels and efforts to find her father, Masurao would see to it that she would get home safely and remained that way.

* * *

"It is over…" Kenshuko's voice was heavy and thick, though full of relief.

"I know," Masurao said, "but are you sure you want to go?"

"It is the only right thing to do for me, Masurao-san," Kenshuko said with a long sigh. "My father and I walk two different paths and live two different lifes, this is how it is meant to be."

"Very well then, to the lands of the Crane we shall go. The quickest way, if I am not mistaking?" Masurao asked with warm smile on his face.

"Yes," Kenshuko answered, "I long to go home again."

'Of that,' Masurao thought, 'I would no be too sure…'

* * *

Kenshuko and Masurao had been traveling for two days, but Kenshuko had no idea which way they were headed. She had no idea until she saw a border stone, a border stone that spelled trouble.

"Uhm, Masurao-san," Kenshuko said with a careful voice, 'I might be wrong, but doesn't that stone, over there, mark the border between Phoenix and Dragon lands?"

"You're quite correct, Kenshuko-san," was all Masurao said.

"But the Phoenix and Dragon are at war!"

"So I've noticed."

"And you are a Dragon?"

"Have been for quite some time."

"We are going to travel through the lands of the clan which is at war with you?"

"Yes," Masurao said and turned his head to smile at Kenshuko. "We'll go to a port and use a boat to get to Crane lands."

"Masurao!" Kenshuko exclaimed. "The Phoenix will kill you for entering their lands! And they might just as well kill me! Where do you intend to go that they will not kill you?"

"We'll have to see what port we reach after we've been to Kyuden Isawa."

Kenshuko thought she could faint right there and then after she heard Masurao say that. "Did you not hear me? They will kill us!"

"Do not worry, Kenshuko-san, I have a feeling they will not do that."

"A feeling? A feeling?" Kenshuko yelled her face red with anger. "You are risking our lifes on a single hunch you have?"

"Come now, Kenshuko-san, I thought you would trust me more than that…"

"I would trust you with my life, Masurao-san, if you would not waste it."

"I have promised your father I would protect you and I shall, with my life if it ever comes to that. Now please, calm down and let's head on."

Kenshuko had to swallow her emotions and responses and simply nodded to Masurao.

* * *

"Say, Masurao-san?"

"Yes, Kenshuko-san?" Masurao asked, sighing at the tone of her voice.

"Would this be an appropriate time to say 'I told you so'?"

Masurao stole a quick, quasi-angry glance at Kenshuko, but then looked back at his captor, Shida Kataro.

"I must say," the Shiba magistrate began, glee easily heard in his voice, "it isn't often we find a Dragon and his Crane girlfriend trying to infiltrate our ancentral lands. Though your clan does seem to have a penchant for invading lands that are not their own."

Kenshuko looked at Masurao to see how he would respond to such a blatant insult, but instant of anger or even rage, the ise zumi remained cool and aloof and said, "To seek refuge from a natural disaster in uncontested lands is not an invasion, my good Shiba.But to attack harmless refugees under the pretense of stopping an invasion… that sounds far more like an invasion itself. Especially since the lands the refugees were in are not your own."

Kataro was straining to control his anger and smiled harshly. When he spoke again his voice was level again. "You seem to have an answer to all situations, Dragon. I ask you, what is your answer to your current predicament?"

"Oh, but that is quite easy. You see, Kataro-sama, you will let both me and Kenshuko go and we shall continue our voyage to Kyuden Isawa with a Shiba escort to garantuee mistakes like this one won't be made again."

Kataro laughed, the sound was not a pleasant one, more like the laugh of a bully who is about to step on a bug for fun. "You are too much, Dragon. Truly, if you were not my enemy, we could've had many laughs together."

"I am not your enemy, Kataro-sama, and I am afraid that there's nothing laugh about that."

"Really, Togashi Masurao? I find your statement quite amusing, why don't you try to convince me?"

"Very well, look through my furoshiki. You will find a writ there that will identify me as a friend of the Phoenix. It was given to me by the Empress and you will find her personal seal on it and whatever magics she incorporated to protect the writ from any who would destroy it."

Kataro grimaced in disbelief and searched Masurao's sack, he found the writ the Dragon spoke about in a lacquered scroll case carrying the Imperial mon. He unfurled the scroll and read each line with growing dread. Finally he finished and swallowed. "I see your words were true. Now if you'll excuse me, I shall arrange for your escort before I go to my lord. Goodbye."

"Why don't you accompany us personally, Kataro-san?"

After Masurao asked the question the Shiba slowly turned around to look at the Togashi, softly he said, "I won't be in the realm of the living much longer, why do you ask this of me? You know I will go to my lord to ask him for permission to commit seppuku."

"Indeed, I know you would do that. Though I'd rather have you ask him for permission to accompany us personally. I do not want you to die because of a mistake everyone would have made. I could've shown the writ to the samurai who brought us here, but I knew they would not believe me and attack us. Our clans are at war, would I not have done the same if the roles were reversed? Come now, you have found someone whom the Empress herself asked to study at the Isawa school, imagine what honor you would gain among your Shiba brethren," Masurao said, pausing a few seconds to conclude with a smile,"…and what ire the Isawa will feel towards you."

Kataro nodded and slowly a smile returned to his face, "Then I shall make the preparations, in the meantime you can rest in my favorite tea house. Come, I will show you."

* * *

"That was amazing, Masurao-san," Kenshuko said as they were sitting in the tea house, waiting for their tea and Shiba Kataro to return.

"Hardly, Kenshuko-san. Hardly."

"What do you mean? You saved our lifes and spared that of Kataro-san! You are truly a great man!"

"Kenshuko-san, please, you give me too much credit."

"Are you saying that you are not a great man?"

Masurao waved off Kenshuko's remark and said, "Listen, one should never strife to be a great man or a great woman, simply strife to be a good man or a good woman and let history decide the rest."

Kenshuko blinked her eyes and said, "I do not believe I get that."

"You will, in time. For now, however, I am wondering if you've learned anything from what has transpired."

"Yes, I have. I have learned never to go on with a foolish plan and to stay out of the lands of the clan that wants you death."

"I see," Masurao said in feigned thoughtful way, "and have you learned anything else? Anything of value?"

"What do you mean? I think what I said is quite valuable in the constant quest to stay alive while being around you!"

"The greatest victories have come from foolish plans, Kenshuko-san, but afterwards who will know the difference between a foolish plan and brilliant strategy afterwards? Or a foolish plan and utter defeat for that matter. And besides, such things might be thought of as common sense."

"Something you have very little of, Masurao-san, of that there is no doubt in my mind. But please, tell me what lesson you would make of our predicament?"

"There is no such things as an 'easiest way'. The quickest path can be full of danger, while the long road will test one's resolve. Choices will have to be made and none will be easy and the consequences must be borne."

Without any witty replies to make, Kensuko remained silent and considered what Masurao had said, when the tea was brought she drank in silence, when Kataro came to collect them she bowed in greeting and while they were riding to Kyuden Isawa Kenshuko was still contemplating Masurao's words.

* * *

"This… this is unbelievable! I had heard some courtiers speak about a man Kaede allowed to study hear, but since no one showed up in the past decades… Well, everyone thought he had died or it was all just a story." Isawa Shutei looked at Masurao with amazement. "Please, come in. I shall prepare a room for you and your woman friend."

"That will not be necessary, Isawa-sama."

"Wha-what? Why not, sama?" Shutei feared that he said something to insult Masurao and looked ashamed.

"I am here to visit a friend, since our clans are not in such good standing, it would be inappropriate to stay here too long. I shall return for a longer stay when the relation between our families has been restored to a better state."

"I see," Shutei said relieved. "Then, by all means, tell me who you are looking for, I will find her for you."

Masurao grinned and answered, "If you would show me to the garden, I will find her there."

Shutei blinked, but did not hesitate to take Masurao to the gardens of Kyuden Isawa. After they arrived there, Masurao and Kenshuko walked around the garden, admiring the beautiful flowers and strange plant sculptures made with Isawa magic. When they reached the centre of the gardens they found a young woman caring for a small patch of flowers while singing a song.

Kenshuko closed her eyes as she listened to the woman's magnificent voice. The song was simple and Kenshuko knew it too, it reminded Kenshuko of her mother singing. Softly she hummed the song.

Masurao smiled and waited for the woman Kenshuko to finish the song, he then cleared his throat and said, "Do the flowers still flourish under your touch, Mekura-chan?"

The woman stiffened for a moment, as if she'd heard a ghost. Slowly she turned around, allowing Kenshuko to see her eyes and learn that the woman was blind. Mekura smiled and said, "Okugi-san, is it really you?"

"Yes, Mekura-chan, it is really me, though nowadays I am known as Togashi Masurao."

"So you have found your parents? Tell me all about it!" Mekura's face told a thousand things, but most of all it showed she was very happy that her former 'master' had come to seek her out.

"Yes, Mekura-chan, we've got a lot to talk about. Let us sit down and speak of our lifes."

* * *

It had taken Masurao and Mekura the better part of the day to get reacquainted, but Kenshuko remained silent and listened to their stories. When they were done, Masurao and her were taken to their quarters to stay the night and they had left Kyuden Isawa the next morning. Kenshuko was silent during the first few hours of their journey to a nearby port, contemplating Mekura's last words, whispered into her ears 'you are lucky'. After those first few hours Kenshuko decided she could not place the words or give them any sort of satisfactory meaning, so she decided to question Masurao about his time in Otosan Uchi.

"So you were really a courtier at the Imperial Court?"

Masurao glanced at Kenshuko. "Yes, had I not told you that already?"

"You did, but I found it quite hard to believe. An ise zumi in court…"

Masurao chuckled, "Well, no one actually knew I was an ise zumi until my last day there. I wore a jade mask, silk gloves, long-sleeved kimono's and my hair long."

Kenshuko giggled as she tried to picture Masurao in such an attire, waving his fan around.

Masurao give his face an feigned insulted look, making Kenshuko blush at her outburst. But then the monk must've guessed her thoughts, since he pulled a fan from his obi and fluttered it, sending an almost painful barrage of laughs through Kenshuko's body.

For the remainder of the journey the two of them talked about Masurao's colorful past, until they reached the port and booked passage on a kobune to Yufuke na Heigen Toshi, Prosperous Plains City.

[To be continued…]