"Her soul was tempered in both justice and revenge "
- Doji Usan, Year 443
Two weeks passed after the message had come with the mark of the Emperor, and inside the house of Hantei Yugozohime it was as if nothing had changed. Outside, Usan knew, the street almost bristled with Matsu and Akodo trying desperately to look innocuous, but in the small garden of plum trees there were the same sounds as always: sharp breaths and the clatter of swords.
Usan hated this part of Yugozohime's training most of all, for to him it was an affront to the meaning of an honorable sword. Ronin arrived almost daily now, paid with Matsu gold. Paid to challenge the Imperial Princess to a duel.
To first blood, or death, at the Hantei's option and Yugozohime was always deadly serious about her training.
In the Hantei's hands was the sword that Oki had given the Hantei upon her gempukku: that same long, heavy katana with a curve more severe than any Usan had ever seen. Yugozohime called it Yugiri, and since she received it he had never seen the Princess without her precious sword. In its youth, both Matsu Oki and her brother had each wielded the blade for the honor of the Lion Clan; now Yugozohime carved through enemies focused on glory and gold.
She slashed hard to the right, and the latest duel ended, sprinkling the victor with a delicate spray of arterial blood.
"Have it cleaned up," Yugozohime commanded the waiting eta as she crossed the field to where her yojimbo sat beneath the largest tree. When she got there, the young girl sneered at the single emerald eye that opened to regard her silently.
"No assassin," Yugozohime commented, as she had done every day.
Usan smiled, which vexed her even more. "You are lucky again."
"I make my own destiny," she countered angrily, drawing a look of annoyance as she wiped a few beads of blood from her ruddy cheek. "Tell Oki's messengers that this last man was weak. If she needs to pay more, my family can arrange it "
"Tell her yourself," Usan answered. "I am here for your protection, not to help you get yourself killed. You are being reckless, inviting enemies into your home."
She just laughed at him mirthlessly, stepping back to the garden's center as she spoke. "Matsu Oki is the only person that I have ever been unable to kill, Usan. I am a Hantei, and the Hantei are the foremost of the Children of the Kami. Do not forget that "
He rose, touching a slender hand to his deep purple saya. "A true master does not cover herself with the blood of the slain."
Yugozohime's eyes fell upon her kimono, the golden left sleeve stained heavily with blood. "Do you want me to show you, Yugozohime-sama?" Usan's voice asked softly, his almost childish form stepping forward with an impudent, outwardly challenging gait. "Do you want me to show you how your mother's family fights?"
"I have fought Crane before," she responded coldly to her yojimbo.
Usan smiled innocently. "Not like me."
The Lion guards knew the sound immediately, though few had ever heard it before. A single sword slash came from the house garden, followed by a shout of pain. Almost immediately the trained Matsu and Akodo set upon the structure, rushing to the garden, their eyes widened at what they saw.
Yugozohime crouched before her yojimbo, and Doji Usan raised a bloody sword.
The samurai rushed to either side of the young princess, ringing Yugozohime with their bristling spears. The Crane looked about the garden in mute confusion, obviously shocked by the swift arrival of so many armed guards. Usan then glanced down at Yugozohime, who was staring at the long slash he had made in her right forearm.
It was a deep and perfect injury, with not even a single drop of blood touching the pretty little Crane. "Do you understand," he asked her evenly, still holding his katana extended into the air. "There is more to swordsmanship than power and passion. It is an art, Yugozohime, that demands both total dedication and pristine control."
A single drop of blood fell from the edge of Usan's katana, striking the Crane's slight shoulder almost audibly. Usan colored slightly, but Yugozohime started laughing, the tone much different than before. All around the two, Lion bushi exchanged confused glances, slowly releasing their hands from swords and spears.
"Well, perhaps it is not an exact art," Usan continued, desperately trying to wipe the blood from his kimono before it stained.
"It is all right," she told the confused Lion, standing and cupping her injury. Yugozohime nodded to her yojimbo, respect overcoming both insult and pain. "I understand."
Oki crouched beside her brother's body, both of them surrounded by a plain of endless grey. She wept for him, but his face was shadowed, distorted. Itagi's voice seemed to bubble up into her mind. The whole world seemed indistinct as she listened to him; he pleaded with her, and his weakness and desires stabbed at her soul.
"He will take her from you, Oki," he whispered. "You know this in your heart."
"I will not let him."
Her hands were stained black, though she had not touched his bloody wounds, which bound him like long forgotten chains. "You know what you must do, Oki."
A sword was in her hand.
She bowed to her brother as he drew silent and she felt his spirit press upon her, as he did near the end of every dream. "I will not fail, Itagi we will not be defeated."
It was evening by the time Matsu Oki arrived for Yugozohime's daily lecture on Akodo's scriptures; she stepped into the small room to find her student dressed and seated, waiting patiently as she always did. Outside the room, though the opened shoji that displayed the garden, the Lion caught the gaze of Doji Usan, his hand resting quiet on his sword.
Itagi's voice was still with Oki, as she calmly took her seat. The Crane turned his attention away, beginning to practice what was becoming a common kata for him, with one leg raised and tucked beneath him in his namesake's form.
"Today we will discuss Akodo's discussions with the nature of leadership " Oki paused, noticing a shift in her young student's eyes. Yugozohime watched Usan with a strange gaze, almost as if she was unsure what she was seeing or feeling.
It was an expression that Oki often saw among young men and women; one wholly unsuitable for a true descendant of Hantei.
"Yugozohime!" Oki snapped, immediately causing the princess to turn and stiffen even as the shout drew Usan's eyes to the room. "You lack focus. Two hundred strikes, modified overhand." The Matsu tossed a bokken to the Hantei, choosing the heaviest from the nearby wall.
Yugozohime caught the flying weapon with one hand, bowing long to her sensei. Flushing brilliantly the girl strode out to the garden, taking her position as Usan stepped aside. As she began her slashes the Crane just watched for a moment, but her he walked over to stand near Oki, leaning lazily against one of the smaller plum trees.
Beneath that brown hair the Crane's green eyes were challenging. "You should not push her so hard to be invincible. She is only human, after all."
"I do not need your opinions on strength, Doji," he answered curtly, the dying embers of daylight still lingering about her form. "She must bear a burden more than any other person; it is only natural that she be stronger as well "
"This brittle strength does not suit her," Usan chirped in dissention. "She should know more of the Empire than steel and blood."
"He will take her from you, Oki. You know this in your heart."
The Crane continued his observations, ignorant to the hand upon Oki's sword. Usan then arched one eyebrow, causing the Matsu to pause; she tracked his glance to one side of the walled garden, where a trio of armed Akodo stood, flanking a small figure dressed in a rain cloak and kasa both marked with the Emperor's personal mon.
"Yugozohime-sama," her yojimbo called to her, but the princess's blade did not even slow.
"See him to the Bamboo Room, Usan," she answered. "When I am finished, we will speak."
It had been almost an hour since the silent Imperial courier had been led to the Bamboo Room, and each time Usan returned to check on him the young man was much the same. Underneath the hat and cloak he was dressed simply, with a young, smooth face and beauty that rivaled Usan's own lineage. After the third visit, the Crane bowed low to the messenger.
"I apologize for making you wait. Yugozohime is quite dedicated to her training, and she sometimes forgets other things."
"So is still training as a bushi?" the other man asked Usan, waving away the apology with a word.
Usan nodded, stepping aside as one of the servants arrived with some tea. "Yugozohime takes her duty as the Emperor's daughter very seriously. Matsu Oki is lecturing her in bushido and tactics, so that she takes what she can from the Lion Clan's tutoring. As for her martial training, that she continues on her own."
The young man said nothing, folding his hands and rubbing one against the other. "I have heard that there is a conspiracy against the empress, Usan "
"Stop there," the Doji ordered, his suddenly cold tone freezing the messenger in mid-word. "I never told you my name. Where did you hear it?"
The Imperial raised his eyes to watch Usan for a moment, an approving smile spreading across his young face. "I see that my message must have reached you after all, Doji Usan." He glanced down to where the young bushi still touched his katana. "I assure you, Yugozohime will find no danger here."
"Who are you?" Usan asked.
"My name is Hantei Haekaru," the younger man said evenly. "I am the heir to the throne."
The First Meeting