"In both peaceful times and in war, one's attitude should be the same - refined, noble and disciplined."
- Kakita's "Ken"
"You should not be here."
Mochihime narrowed her eyes at her brother; Banichi was a few years her senior, and looked impressive dressed in a deep gold kimono trimmed with silver birds. The Lion samurai's face was a mask of forced hostility, though she had little doubt that there was some true anger beneath his words. "Go home, sister. There is a monastery waiting there for you."
The fallen bushi make a grimace, angrier at the truth in his words than at Banichi himself. Running a hand through her cropped hair the ronin snarled, "I would not have come here, Banichi until I heard how stupid you are going to be."
He turned, his small eyes shooting her a look of disdain. "I don't have time for this."
Mochihime seized hold of her brother by the shoulder; Banichi was stronger, however, and with one thrust forced her away. "You are going to get yourself killed, just like they wanted you to." Her face shivered in anger, enough to make him hesitate to move. "You are the best iaijutsu practitioner in our family, Banichi they want you to throw your life away now!"
"Be silent," he ordered angrily. "Your downfall was this same lack of control. Do not shame the Lion Clan again today."
The samurai-ko lowered her face. "So, there is nothing I can do to change your mind?"
Matsu Banichi touched the hilt of his katana and said, "Honor does not change, Mochihime. It remains true to itself."
* * *
By the time that the sun had reached its zenith, only four remained. Shiba Gaijushiko stood on the sidelines of the great field beside Otomo Reju, his face untouched by even the slightest bit of concern. "What do you think of our remaining competitors, Lord Gaijushiko?" the Imperial courtier asked with a voice neither excited nor bored. "They seem quite serious."
"Of course they do," the Shiba replied. "After all, they have set their lives upon their swords."
"A meaningless thing," snapped Bayushi Atsuki, his arms folded as he stood off to one side. "All bushi place their lives upon their blades, Gaijushiko-san. That hardly explains this level of competition and calm."
Otomo Reju glanced over towards the Scorpion daimyo, "And what do you think this speaks of, Atsuki-sama? Perhaps the Emperor's command? Or is it a greater game?"
"Who can tell the will of Heaven?" Atsuki asked the younger man coldly, his stare forcing the calm from Reju's eyes. As the courtier readjusted his tall hat, the older man chuckled once. "Lord Kusada seems to be quite interested in his future Champion "
"As he should be," Gaijushiko said, one hand rising up to touch his smooth chin.
"Which one of them do you think will claim victory, Lord Atsuki?"
The Scorpion glanced over towards Otomo Reju. "A stupid question indeed."
* * *
There were many among the Lion who had hoped to see Shiba Dohrei face the sword of Matsu Banichi; they had never forgotten what the Phoenix bushi had done to them, and only his lord's considerable power had kept him safe for so long.
Now, there was nothing that Gaijushiko could do to save him.
The Matsu pulled up the sleeves to his kimono in one smooth motion, his kimono glistening in the sunlight as he moved. The obi that the Lion had chosen shone with expensive silk and textures; he had been given it after winning the Test of the Topaz Champion, and he wanted his opponents to remember that now.
His handsome face turned to face Dohrei coolly, a look of perfect composure overcoming Banichi now. "I heard about your duel with Akodo Deruku. You did not do very well."
"I think that Hida Tsubachi and Miya Konishi would speak higher of my skills," the Phoenix answered, keeping his voice even as a frown appeared beneath his beard. He glanced back towards his Champion with a quiet expression, but whatever passed between them was not betrayed to the Matsu's eyes.
Taking a stance with his hand low and close to his body the Lion bushi nodded. "Konishi was an amateur, and I am surprised that the Hida even owned a sword. Don't waste my time with idle threats. It does not suit the humility of the Shiba."
Dohrei glanced over to look at his sister; Shiba Uiko looked rather plain and simple standing next to the Imperial Chancellor, even when looked upon with the love of a brother's eyes. Touching his family's sword as he saw Chikuma's signal the thin Phoenix looked over his shoulder at Banichi with a quiet, determined gaze.
"You are an amateur too, Banichi. We have already won."
The Chancellor's fan closed with a snap, and the Matsu wasted no time. Dohrei's sword flicked out, slashing through the air. Banichi's steel rung out against it and the smaller man twisted
All sound slipped from the world, as the Shiba katana flew wide. A slash, parallel to the earth, opened the Phoenix across his chest before his blade had fallen; Dohrei grimaced at the feeling, looking up at Banichi as he stood there with extended blade.
"Tell me of your victory now," the Matsu whispered with a hiss.
Dohrei looked over the crowd, past his sister, locking his gaze with the Champion of the Crane. Banichi's eyes narrowed as he noticed the Doji's scrutinizing stare, but Raigu simply bowed once to the fallen and walked away. By the time that he had turned back, the body of Shiba Dohrei had crashed to the earth before him, but not before the Phoenix's purpose had been realized. The supporters of his clan rushed out to greet their champion, elated by the fall of a hated foe.
Matsu Banichi felt a coldness pass through his body like a warning, and wondered where his sister was now
* * *
Hantei Kusada sat silently as the last rituals were performed before him; the Emperor had barely moved since the start of the tournament, but anyone looking up at him could see the vitality in his eyes. The young man watched as Raigu cut down his latest opponent easily; like Keizo before them, it seemed as if these challengers had not even the smallest chance of scratching the Crane.
"You seem apprehensive, husband."
The Hantei glanced over at his wife calmly. "Not at all. What is your opinion on this contest? Surely you have a favorite in this duel to come?" It was hard maintaining his composure around her, but Ayatsuro was still an unknown in this rising battle; Kusada could not afford to place trust where it was not deserved, no matter what she told his heart and his eyes.
The Empress folded her arms with a smile, glancing over the two men as they readied their blades. "Matsu Banichi seems skilled enough as a swordsman," she said with a swish of her long black hair, "but I do not know if he is a leader. You will not hold it against me if I choose Lord Raigu, will you husband?"
"Of course not. It is your nature, after all."
Ayatsuro's dark eyes seemed to slide over the Emperor for a moment, but as quickly as it happened she smiled again. "Either way, I am sure that the Empire will prosper."
But Kusada was not listening to her. His eyes drifted towards the last two warriors; past them, to where the small Dragon delegation stood and watched. The Emperor suddenly felt a pang of betrayal as he watched the few monks and courtiers mumble among themselves to one side of the great dueling fields.
The Hantei had learned to watch from the Doji; his eyes were more skilled than his sword arm, and they were definitely more useful now.
Kusada shook himself back to reality; Kakita Chikuma stood before him with the reverence of a shugenja, who painted lips pursed into a tiny grin. The Chancellor bowed low to the captive Emperor. "My lord Hantei, your champions are prepared to begin the final duel."
He looked up at the Black Fan for a while, testing her limits with the techniques that Chikuma herself knew very well. After a long moment, the young man simply nodded.
"Do what you will, Kakita. This contest falls to you."
* * *
When the day ended there were two warriors standing among the first drops of rain. The servants brought canopies and umbrellas to their masters, turning the tournament into a sunburst of colors and patterns. Doji Raigu and Matsu Banichi bowed to one another amidst stunted silence, their cold eyes like mirrors to the other man's gaze.
"Here we are, just as I expected." The Lion's voice was cold and scathing as he looked at the Doji.
Doji Raigu said nothing, speaking his intentions with a lowered gaze and a readied sword.
There, in the space between dreams and ambitions, the two men struck.
Their strikes collided and divided, ringing clearly amidst the gentle sounds of the falling rain. Matsu Banichi's shoulder opened wide, and he stumbled, passing his opponent without even leveling his single strike. The crowd remained silent as the samurai stood on one knee and grasped his deep wound angrily; Kitsu healers hesitated on the edge of the field, held back only by the Chancellor's fan.
He rose and turned to look at Doji Raigu; the Crane Champion's long white hair hung heavily over one shoulder, and his sword gleamed with a mingling of clear rain and red blood. There was no look of victory or release on the man's handsome face
Banichi could sense that his enemy was not yet done.
The answer was automatic, born from stubbornness and pride. "No."
It was all the samurai needed to hear.
Doji Raigu's slash took Matsu Banichi through the face and into his chest; the Lion bushi barely reacted as his form divided and fell. A gasp went up from the crowd as the man's empty saya clattered to the wet ground and the victor cleaned his katana; all eyes went to the Emperor, waiting to see what he would do.
Hantei Kusada's eyes and his voice were unreadable as the Gozoku bowed to him coldly, and his words were the image of control and calm. "You are the champion today, Doji Raigu. Take up your armor and then go. The Empire will need you."
Without a glance toward his allies the new Emerald Champion strode from the field, leaving his opponent's corpse bleeding along the grass and mud.
* * *
"What will you do?"
Mochihime glanced back into the shadows of the vacant field, her right hand reaching for her sword. The ronin's keen eyes saw the sweep of pale robes. "I will do what I can," she snapped angrily, looking closer until she glimpsed a woman's frail form. "I will stop people like you from ruling the Empire."
"People like me?"
The former Lion snarled, drawing her katana in the light of the cold moon. "I know the voice of a Crane when I hear it."
The figure did not move from its place, did not seem to acknowledge the sword. "And because of that I am your enemy? You have no idea how many people the Gozoku have hurt."
"Who are you?" the bushi asked softly, glancing about for some imagined ambush and still holding tightly to her sword. "You are not one of them. What do you want from me, Crane? Your lord is a part of this conspiracy; why should I trust a servant of one of those who betrayed my clan?"
"Because, Mochihime-san, they stole my life from me too."
Doji Inosenko's pale eyes were empty of warmth or beauty as she stepped from the darkness. She showed the Matsu that same look of pain and quiet anguish that the samurai had felt as her brother died. The sword slipped slowly to the ground.
"I will listen," she said, "but be quick."
The War Goes On