It had been a long
many months for Kakita Kioko. Serving in the place of a Lion
samurai was not easy for anyone not of the Lion clan. It was doubly
hard for a Crane.
Due to the animosity between her clan and the Lion, Kioko had
been accepted only because the Matsu daimyo felt that this was the way
to heap the most disgrace on the young samurai. It almost seemed to
Kioko that the word had gone out through the Lion clan that, although
she wasn’t to be assaulted, she could be insulted and put upon, and
given every detail and job that nobody else wanted to do.
For the last several months, she had served as a samurai guard at a
watchtower west of Kyuden Ikoma (Ikoma Castle) keeping watch
over the border between the lands of the Lion and the Unicorn. Even
not considering the fact that she was treated barely better than heimin,
this post felt like the one piece of land in the empire that nobody
would spend any time thinking twice about. During the absence of the
Unicorn, Kyuden Ikoma had been the last bastion of civilization before
the vast plains leading to the mountains to the west.
Kioko had some friends amongst the Lion. There was the Matsu, Kamiko,
whose sister she had killed in an illegal duel, which killing had led
her to her current circumstance. There was also Akodo Yankon,
another young Lion samurai who had become enamoured of the Crane not
just for the fact that she was pretty, but also for the way she put
up with all the hassle and fuss the other Lions gave her. He had taken
to writing her haiku, albeit a little clumsily, and remarking on her
turnout and such, even though she had long ago traded her blue Crane
armour for the buff brown and golden lamellar of a Lion. He had even
tried sparring with her, although he very soon realized he was no match
for her skill with a blade. He still offered to spar with her when the
But that seemed all behind her now that Matsu Kamiko had brought the
summons to report to the Matsu daimyo at the city of Tonfjutsen.
Tucked away in Kioko’s saddle bags was a small present from Yankon;
a beautiful calligraphy set that he said would do honour to the young
Crane samurai-ko and produce writing as beautiful as she.
Now the two women rode steadily towards whatever fate awaited Kioko
Whatever it was, Kioko had a feeling that she’d rather not face Matsu
She had learned
a great deal in the last several months. They taught her much about
humility ... and about how much she could bear without complaint. Which
is, she was coming to understand, quite a lot. This was her life. She
accepted it. She merely did the best she could to learn the lesson well
- and to learn about the Lion in the process.
They respected strength. She exhibited it - though quietly. None of
their loud bluster in her. But that bluster distracted those who didn’t
know the Lion, from other things ... It was a tactic, like any other.
She was coming to understand it. Battle tactics... interested her.
At first, she had thought it was a miracle she could make friends in
such a place. But she was no longer quite so surprised. They were a
clan just like any other. Her friendship with Matsu Kamiko has
deepened in this time. It was just as well that she had at least a few
moments to be with those who weren’t constantly interested in beating
She continued to dye her hair white. This was the one thing she would
not bend on. The one thing she would not change about herself. All else
had changed. She wore different armor - carried a different sword -
traveled with different companions ... But her hair would remain white.
It was, in fact, Matsu Kamiko that secretly helped her retrieve the
dye she needed - and who kept watch when she excused herself to take
care of that deed. Well. She and Akodo Yankon. And when she thought
of him, she could not help but smile. A very slight smile, her head
bowed as she and Matsu Kamiko rode on.
If he could have come, he would have. Instead, he gave her a beautiful
gift that she will cherish always. But it was the gift of his friendship
- the brightness he added to her otherwise dark days - that she most
appreciated. The calligraphy set he gave to her would always remind
her of those days. And if some of the days spent there were not altogether
pleasant, there were bright spots.
She turned to smile just a little at her traveling companion. A silent
'thank you' for time spent encouraging her to keep up her spirits. Showing
her by example that she could be strong.
She must take what comfort she could now. For the Matsu daimyo would
After a brief stop
at Bishamon Seido (the Shrine of Bishamon, Fortune of Strength) where
they had met, the two samurai-ko continued on, finally reaching Tonfajutsen.
Kakita Kioko sat on her horse, amazed at the vast military camp spread
out before her. Over two hundred thousand warriors drilled and practiced
in camp set on the broad fields below. And this wasn’t even the force
the Lion had in the field at the moment! Matsu Kamiko laughed, a hearty
throaty laugh and put her hand on the young Crane’s shoulder. “Come
now, Little Sister! Does the might of the Lion armies throw pause to
one so skilled as you? I guess you wouldn’t want to take them all on,
would you? After all,” she reached down and gently touched the hilt
of her katana in its brown and gold-trimmed saya at her side, “There
may be a few samurai down there who are even better with a blade than
you.” The Matsu samurai smiled at the smaller Crane beside her.
Kioko thought back on how Kamiko had avenged her dead sister’s honour
by challenging Kioko to a duel and beating her soundly. Since that time,
the two had formed a special bond. Kamiko was one of the few Lions that
Kioko actually felt comfortable being around. Indeed, she felt the bond
was almost truly sisterly. She and Kamiko had drawn blade together against
a few foes since then, mostly bandits, a few bakemono that had crept
up from the Shadowlands; and Kamiko looked fondly on the younger Crane
and continually referred to her as Little Sister. Although gruff and
blunt, more so than Kioko was used to with her Crane contemporaries
at the Duelling Academy, she truly liked the string Lion warrior.
The two warriors walked their ponies up to the large command tent set
up in the middle of the camp outside the city walls. As they dismounted,
a samurai came up and approached Kamiko.
He brushed at his small moustache and stepped up to the Matsu. “You’re
late, Kamiko-san,” he said brusquely. “Matsu Ketsui-sama has been waiting.
The Crab are already here and making bluster, as the Crab are wont to
Matsu Kamiko looked at the man, and then punched him on the shoulder.
“Well, you should let us pass then, or perhaps we will show you how
a true samurai conducts themselves and not lower ourselves to act the
courtier as you do, Matsu Shuaje-san,” said Kamiko, a broad smile creasing
her face beneath her helmet.
Matsu Shuaje grinned back and said, “It is good to see you again,
Kamiko-san. It must have been difficult dealing with the pitiful Crane,
the one they call ‘Matsu Kakita’, who had killed your sister.”
Kamiko’s smile disappeared and her hand dropped to her katana. Kakita
Kioko, who had been one step behind her Matsu friend, stepped to the
side and placed a small hand on the larger hand of the Matsu samurai.
She reached up and took off her helmet, allowing her long white-dyed
hair to spill out over her shoulders. “Nie, my friend. It is true what
the honoured Matsu Shuaje-sama says,” the Crane samurai-ko said in a
calm, soft voice, “It is never easy to deal with the ghosts of the past.
Do not feel you have to stand for my honour. While I bear your sister’s
sword, I am a Lion,” Kioko stared hard at Shuaje, “and not some ‘pitiful
Crane’. He seeks to insult someone who is not here to bear it.” She
bowed to the man in front of them.
He huffed a little, but then stiffly returned the bow and extended his
hand to wave them into the tent where strong voices could be heard in
argument. Matsu Kamiko chuckled softly and asked her companion, “Are
you sure you aren’t a Crane courtier in disguise?” Kioko smiled a little
Inside the tent, a large number of samurai were gathered. Most were
warriors, but Kioko could see a few courtiers and even a couple of shugenja
present. Most of the samurai were Lion, but there was a small party
of Crab Clan samurai as well. Seated at the centre of the tent was Matsu
Ketsui, engaged in a heated discussion with a large Crab samurai sat
across a small table from her. It was these two who seemed to be arguing.
Kamiko signaled that they best wait to one side until recognized by
the Daimyo. Standing slightly behind the angry Crab and to the side
of tent was Hida Chuan, the Crab samurai who had been betrothed
to Kamiko's sister; the Crab she had met that day and traveled with
some after that. He stood silent and stone-faced, not yet aware of the
two new arrivals.
Seeing him was
something of a shock. Though it shouldn't have been a surprise. Especially
now when the Crab were so involved with everything here. She did not
allow herself to stare at him though. He had his duties and she had
hers. She held her hands straight at her sides and kept her keen eyes
moving around the gathering to catch anything out of the ordinary. Anything
she should not miss. She had not always been patient. But she learned
that during her sojourn with the Lion. What choice had she but to be
patient? To endure?
She waited for more instructions to be given ... though she did not
relish the receiving of them.
Matsu Ketsui sighed
heavily and smacked her palm down on the small table in front of them,
shaking the cups of tea and almost tipping over the bottle, “By the
Fortunes, Hida Shuyan, I do not wish our negotiations to break
down so close to Winter Court.”
The Hida, growled a little, and spoke in a graveled voice, “So what
do you intend to do? Our agreement was supposed to be cemented with
the marriage of Hida Chuan here to a young Matsu maiden, one of your
precious Pride. Now we learn that the Matsu is dead, and you now shame
us by denying us a match.” He sat back and crossed his arms across his
heavy barrel chest.
The Matsu daimyo glared at the man through slitted eyes. Oh, how she
would have liked to cut the uncouth fool down where he stood, but she
need the alliance that was being proposed between their two families.
“We are not denying the match,” she finally said, gaining a grip on
her faculties and her temper. Her advisors stood behind and to the side,
tense and expectant, not really knowing what their daimyo would do.
She had been known in her younger days for acting rashly, even foolishly,
in some situations. “Matsu Chinji is dead. What do you propose?
That we match your fine young warrior to a spirit? She has crossed into
Temgoku. Would you have me retrieve her?” She sighed. “Surely we can
come to some agreement.”
One the Crab courtiers stepped forward and whispered in his leader’s
ear. Hida Shuyan nodded curtly. “We understand that though you have
lost a brave samurai you have not lost the use of her sword. It is borne
by a new Matsu samurai. If that’s the case, why not match Hida Chuan
with the new Matsu?” He slyly grinned and, with some venom, added, “Surely
one Matsu is as good a match as another.”
Many of the Lion gave a sharp intake of breath and Ketsui actually had
her jaw drop open. “That… That is not truly the case. We can’t match
Hida-san with the warrior who now bears the sword.”
There was a small cough to one side of the gathering and a small woman
clad in blue stepped forward, clearing her throat. Kioko had not noticed
upon entering the tent but there was a small group of samurai from other
clans present at this meeting, including three Crane. The woman who
now stepped forward was Kakita Nanami, the very woman who had
sent her to the Lion after learning of the illegal duel as a resolution
to the stain on the family’s honour.
“Forgive me for interrupting, Matsu-sama, but we,” she indicated the
inter-clan gathering, “Were discussing the matter of taxes.”
Matsu Ketsui and Hida Shuyan both shook their heads slightly, baffled
at how this came into play in this discussion. A few of the Lion courtiers
behind their daimyo looked at the Crane courtier with suspicious eyes.
Ketsui asked, “What have taxes got to do with arranging a marriage?”
“Do the Lion claim the correct number of samurai on the rolls submitted
to the Emperor?” Nanami asked.
“Of course we do,” spat Ketsui. “To falsify records of troops would
be dishonourable, not to mention dangerous in these times.” Hida Shuyan
just looked on.
“Then the Matsu are up to their proper strength?” the Crane asked.
One of the Crab stepped forward to whisper something in Shuyan’s ear.
The huge Crab grunted softly and nodded. “Then we demand the match continue,”
said the Crab. Almost everyone gasped, except for Hida Chuan, who stood
stoicly on the fringe of the conversation, and Kakita Nanami, who hid
a small smile nehidn her fan as she retreated back to her place. “Your
honour should show you that, if you have not lessened your strength
in the eyes of the Emperor, then you can do no less than continue with
the match as we described.”
Matsu Ketsui leapt to her feet. “Are you saying we are dishonouring
you? My patience is wearing thin, Hida-sama! If that is the case, we
shall decide it here and now!”
The Crab courtier stepped to Hida Shuyan’s side. “Calm, Matsu Ketsui-sama.
We are not impugning the honour of the great Matsu family. Nor of any
of the brave Lion, guardians of the Empire and Sword of the Emerald
Throne. We merely think that the match should continue as originally
planned.” He paused as he bowed to the Lion. “The honour of the Matsu
can be fulfilled with the match to the other Matsu who serves in the
place of Hida Chuan’s original intended.”
Matsu Ketsui’s eyes narrowed and her gaze moved from the Crab courtier
to the Crane, now speaking softly to a couple of Phoenix samurai standing
with her and her two Crane companions. She realized that she had been
“Very well then,” she grumbled to Hida Shuyan, “If that is truly what
you wish, then that we will do. Our agreement stands. Hida Chuan shall
marry the Matsu who bears the sword of Matsu Shasomi.” Then she and
the Crab, Hida Shuyan, signed the contract sitting on the small table
between them. A Matsu courtier stepped forward and took the contract
away. Hida Chuan stepped up beside his commander.
Matsu Ketsui sat back and then beckoned to the side of the tent near
the entrance. “Matsu Kamiko, please introduce the brave Hida Chuan-san
to his bride, your ‘sister’.”
She stood very
quietly, aware that this was not going to turn out well for her. Even
as she heard it though, she knew that there was nothing she could do
to prevent the match. She too, had been outmaneuvered. And the one person
she had thought would throw her to the dogs, had been trying to *prevent*
this! What were the other Crane doing, proposing it? What purpose did
it serve for them?
How did she get into this mess??? Oh yes. Her own decision to conduct
an illegal duel. She had best remember that. Not that he was an unattractive
man. But marriage? Now? And yet, the moment the paper was signed...
she knew her fate was sealed.
Though her jaw tensed for a moment, she awaited her sister Matsu's introduction
and conducted herself with as much austere elegance as she could muster,
given the circumstances.
The Crab turned
as the two samurai-ko stepped forward. When the sun glistened off of
Kioko’s white hair, three things happened. A spark of recognition, small
yet undeniably present (and not at all bad), swept briefly across Hida
Chuan’s strong face. Second, what had been almost a look of smugness
on Matsu Ketsui’s face turned into stony fury when the daimyo noticed
the white-dyed hair of what was supposed to be a Matsu warrior. Lastly,
Hida Shuyan looked back and forth between the two samurai-ko and said,
“I don’t understand. What is going on here? Is this some sort of trick?”
Matsu Ketsui glared at Kioko. “It is no trick, Hida-sama. This,” she
said, indicating the white-haired warrior, “Is the ‘Matsu’ who is now
betrothed to Hida Chuan. She is sister to Matsu Kamiko, and bears the
sword of Matsu Shasomi. She is called by some,” and she turned her glare
on the Crane courtier to the side, who was watching infolding events
with the picture of the grandest innocence on her face, “’Matsu Kakita’.
It is interesting how honour turns some situations into interesting
scenarios of political manoeuvring, isn’t it? She serves in the Lion
armies as a point of honour that her family made to the Matsu. Now she
stands betrothed as a Matsu warrior to a noble Crab samurai.”
Hida Shuyan looked at Matsu Ketsui with a stoic but questioning look.
A sinister smile crept across the face of the Lion daimyo. “Do you wish
to disavow the contract? Shall we begin negotiations anew?”
Hida Shuyan turned and looked at his advisors and Hida Chuan. For long
seconds, the Crab seemed to carry on an unheard discussion just by looks.
Then Hida Shuyan turned back to face the Matsu and said, “No. We shall
honour our agreement. It is what we came all this way for, and what
we need to do. Our honour demands it.” He stood and bowed to Matsu Ketsui,
the rest of his party following suit as he did.
Matsu Ketsui remained smiling that strange smile. A look of intense
dislike for the big Crab settled behind her shining eyes. Her chief
advisor behind her became more nervous as the pause drew on. He was
just about to step forward when his daimyo began to speak, her words
soft and quiet, yet the meaning they carried threatened to cause him
“Honour. It is therefore only honourable that I discharge this warrior’s
honour by claiming that her debt to the Matsu has been paid. She is
no longer a Matsu. She is returned to her clan.” She turned and looked
smugly at Kakita Nanami. With no small amount of venom she stated very
simply, “Your Hida Chuan now stands betrothed to a Crane.”
Kioko stood very
still as they watched her - as each reaction came in turn. She knew
the large Crab recognized her. It was the white hair that did it. And
for a fleeting, silly moment, she was very glad she continued to dye
it, no matter what the others thought of her.
But as the events unfolded.... THEN she realized what the Crane had
meant to do. It all made sense. Another lesson was imparted to her then.
In allowing her anger and hatred to get the better of her, Matsu Ketsui
had allowed herself to be manipulated into doing precisely what the
Crane wanted her to. She would be none too pleased at all when she realized.
She herself would be free then. She turned to look at her sister Matsu
with a tiny bit of a smile. It was a somewhat sad smile. Though she
had been in a difficult position, made more difficult by people who
actively disliked her and wanted to make her life harder still, she
had made friends. And those days were now gone. They would never return.
Would her friend still allow her to call her "sister"? Even now that
she was a Crane again?
Matsu Kamiko stood dumbfounded as Ketsui’s words
hit home. Her friend? Being sent back to the Crane? Yes, she knew it
was going to happen eventually. But not like this. Not under such circumstances!
She exchanged looks with Kioko.
The Lion daimyo thanked Kamiko and then summarily dismissed her. It
looked for a moment that Kamiko was going to protest, but then she bowed
stiffly and, with a brief glance at the woman she had come to love as
a sister, she left the tent. In that brief glance, Kioko thought she
saw the silver trace of a tear roll across the brave Matsu’s face. She
steeled herself for what was to come next.
Matsu Ketsui extended her hand. “Ho Samurai! Return the sword of Matsu
Shasomi. It is no longer yours to bear. You are Lion no more. Go back
to your family of artisans and players at war. Leave the protection
of the Empire to the strength of those who know best how to defend it,
the Lion and your betrothed’s clan, the Crab, ever-watchful Guardians
of the Empire.”
The Crab stood unemotionally to one side. Hida Chuan had now stepped
back into the fold of his clan as his position demanded. Now that he
was betrothed, he was bound the wishes of his clan.
That tear ... whether imagined or no, nearly undid the brave Crane samurai.
She swallowed down any pain though. They would meet again, she and her
Matsu sister. Kioko offered the parting woman a sad but encouraging
smile before she was forced back to the present by the Lion daimyo's
demand that she return the sword she had used.
She did so, moving forward and bowing low so that she might offer the
sword across her arms with the reverence it deserved. Despite the hostility
she had been offered, there were those who had called her friend. She
would do them honor now.
"I hope I have served the Matsu well, daimyo. I have learned much in
your keeping and I thank you for it." The words were soft, ignoring
the woman's earlier words about her "place". Wherever that might be,
she had yet to quite find it.
Matsu Ketsui took the proffered sword. Calling
to one of her advisors, the woman stepped forward with a long cloth
wrapped bundle. The daimyo took it and, unwrapping it, presented Kioko’s
sword back to her.
“Pray, hold a moment,” the soft silvery voice of the Crane courtier
spilled out over the gathering. Kakita Nanami stepped forward, taking
the katana in the fine blue enamelled saya in her small delicate hands.
She looked at Kioko with a flat stare. “You handed over your katana
to the Lion for safe keeping?” The two Crane samurai in her entourage
gasped. Nanami shook her head. “That has brought great dishonour on
your family. Giving up one's katana is placing the very honour of a
samurai in someone else's hands. As I speak for the daimyo of our family,
and represent the Clan in these negotiations and thereby speak for the
Clan daimyo, I say that you are no longer fit to carry a sword on behalf
of the Emperor as a Crane.”
A tense silence descended in the tent.
In a sad tone, the Crane said, “Kakita Kioko, I strip you of your family.
On behalf of the Clan and family daimyos, I hereby declare you ronin,”
and she dropped the katana at Kioko’s feet.
Kioko was ...
stunned. She didn't know what else she could have done, given the circumstances
that had been presented to her at the time. She had trusted another's
honor. Apparently ... that was not to be done. She hadn't meant to dishonor
anyone - least of all her family! But now ... What could she do now?
Her sword on the ground before her, she merely stared back at the Crane
who had orchestrated all this. Kioko was as manipulated as the Lion
daimyo. And it shamed her to realize it. Another lesson learned. The
Perhaps this had even been planned all along. And now ... the Crab samurai
was betrothed to ... a ronin? Surely he would not wish that. Nor would
She swallowed down any response though her eyes were becoming rather
bright, and bowed to the woman, accepting her defeat in this game with
as much grace as she could. She had lost. Everything.
Hida Shuyan erupted,
“WHAT?!?! A ronin! No Hida being betrothed to a dishonoured and unproved
ronin was part of the bargain. I cannot accept this dishonour on my
family, let alone my clan. The agreement is off!”
Matsu Ketsui leapt to her feet. “We have signed the contract. It is
done. Even now the contract is on its way to the Ikoma libraries.”
“I cannot accept that,” the Crab said. “I shall contest this agreement
at Winter Court in front of the Emperor. My daimyo will not be pleased.”
With that, he spun on his heel and stormed from the tent, trailing the
rest of his entourage behind him.
As Kioko watched, Hida Chuan broke his countenance to grace her with
one of his non-descript and emotionless stares before turning and following
his fellows from the tent.
Matsu Ketsui, her face turning redder by the minute, turned on Kakita
Nanami. “You! You manipulative bitch! Now our agreement with the Crab
is at risk. I should have you cut down for this!”
Kakita Nanami, looking suitably shocked at the Lion’s words, said, “But
Great Matsu-sama, it was not I that pressed for the match when Hida-sama
showed reluctance.” She brought her fan down gently into her hands.
“I merely pointed out what me and my companions from the other clans
were discussing. Surely you do not think that it was my aim to disrupt
The Kakita bowed, turned, and with her two Crane companions, left the
tent. The other samurai form the other clans had left a few minutes
ago when they sensed the trouble brewing.
Ketsui clenched her fists as she watched them go. “ARGH!!! I find dealing
with that duplicitous clan almost as hateful as dealing with the Scorpion.”
She whirled around and glared at Kioko. “And you! You miserable piece
of filth. Somehow you were involved in all this … right from the very
beginning! I should have you killed right now.” She reached for her
katana, starting to draw it from its saya. “I’ll kill you myself! Crane!”
Her advisors swept forward, “Nie, Matsu-sama! Do not sully your honour
by playing further into their hands. Let the ronin scum leave. Banish
her from our lands and turn out. She is honourless now.”
One of the Lion samurai turned to Kioko. “Leave now, scum. Or you may
not have a head to bear the shame you have brought on your family.”
He kicked the katana at Kioko’s feet. “And take that filth with you!”
That hard stare
from Hida Chuan was difficult to bear. Events had simply swept her up.
She hadn't been experienced enough to realize any of what had been happening
to her. Right from the start. And now she had made enemies of many she
would never have wished to make enemies. Perhaps Hida Chuan himself
hated her now. She wouldn't blame him if he did.
Stupidity was no excuse.
As the Matsu daimyo came at her with the intent to draw her sword, she
merely gazed back from eyes gone dull with self-loathing. If the daimyo
cut her down, what would it matter? But her advisers stopped her. Pity.
As the sword was kicked in her direction, she looked down at it for
a long moment. Only then did she pick it up without ever unwrapping
it, and walk from the tent, never looking back. What did it matter if
anyone struck her from behind? It didn't matter. Not anymore.
She would never be able to go back to the school... to learn more of
her Iaijutsu ... She would never be able to see her friends again -
or her relations, and hold her head up high as one of them. She was
ronin. She shouldn't even have picked up the sword. Why she did, she
still didn't know. She could never wield it again. Not that sword ...
Dazed, she simply started to walk...
Matsu Kamiko was
there when Kioko left the tent. When she saw Kioko come out with a stunned
look on her face, clutching the Crane sword still wrapped in its covering,
she guessed at what had just transpired. She had heard the shouting
and seen the Crab leave in a furious huff. Now her friend looked as
if her entire world had cracked asunder and thrown her into Jigoku.
She stepped forward as Kioko wandered out of the tent and grasped her
friend by the shoulders. She reached down and from her pouch pulled
a small cloth-wrapped bundle. She looked down at the small package in
her hand. “I brought these in case we had need of celebration.” She
held the bundle out to Kioko, tears now streaming down her face. “Know
that regardless of what our families say, I shall always love you as
my Little Sister. Take care and be brave, Kioko-chan. May the fortunes
shine on us that we may one day meet again in love and friendship.”
With a quick hug, she turned and slowly walked off, leaving the stunned
Crane - no - ronin standing in the dusty field. Kioko looked down at
the bundle in her hand. She unconsciously, almost mechanically, unwrapped
the package. Inside were a small amber ring and a finely crafted saya
guard (hilt plate) for a katana. The saya guard was engraved with images
of wind spirits swirling around the hole for the blade.
As she gazed numbly down at the gifts from her friend, she noticed the
cloth registering a damp patch where her tears had begun to fall lightly
to the wrapping. Tucking the presents inside her armour, she wiped the
back of her hand quickly across her face and set off slowly, leaving
the camp and the scene of her personal drama behind in the dust stirred
up by the feet of thousands of Lion samurai.
She couldn’t see a few rows of tents over as the Crab party passed the
gathered samurai courtiers from the other clans that the Crab advisor
exchanged a small knowing nod and brief smile with Kakita Nanami, who
quickly disguised the satisfied look on her face behind her fan and
laughed at something one of her companions had said.
After almost three days of wandering aimlessly, Kioko was tired and
hungry. Ronin were not well treated in this heartland of Lion Clan territory.
She had not eaten since she left Tonfajutsen, and her armour was losing
some of its enamel and painted trim. She finally sat herself down by
the side of a trail and ate some berries from a bush beside her. There
weren’t many left this close to winter. It was the first food of any
kind in so long, but she knew it would not be enough to fully satisfy
her hunger. If she didn’t find more to eat soon, would she be reduced
Why had this happened? Kakita Nanami should have at least allowed her
a chance to commit seppuku. But even that much honour had been denied
Now what was she to do?
She absent-mindedly crushed one of the fat berries between her fingers.
From the other side of the road she heard a squawk followed by a cackling
voice, “If you treat them like that, what small bounty the Fortunes
provide you will be wasted. You should treat these gifts as the treasures
She looked up, startled that she hadn’t heard anyone approach, and saw
a strange figure. Leaning on a staff, dressed in a brown robe and bearing
a katana thrust through his obi stood a creature she had never seen
before. It was almost as tall as she, but more resembled a great crow
than it did a man, even though it walked on two legs and carried its
bo staff in one wing as a man would in his hand.
She had stumbled on one of the mystical Kenku, a race of bird-like
humanoids. She had heard of them because they were renowned masters
of kenjutsu, some even rivaling the iaijutsu masters of her own family.
The words of her
friend ... her sister ... who would always call her that, it would seem,
no matter what their families said, echoed and stayed with her over
the days. She wore the ring her sister had gifted her with. As much
honor as she could bestow upon it, now that she supposedly had none,
she would offer it. The hilt ... well. She hadn't known what to do with
that. But it was within her belongings for the day that she discovered
its true purpose. In the meantime ... she continued to carry the wrapped
bundle of her Crane sword.
Many times she thought she might have simply used the sword on herself.
Many times she knelt with the bundled sword in front of her and merely
stared at it. She hadn't unbundled it at all since receiving it back
from the Matsu daimyo. But she could not do it. It would be dishonorable
to take her own life now when there would be no one to carry the word
back to her family that their honor had been restored. It would be senseless.
There would be no point to it. So she kept on traveling, kept on walking
when there was no food and only the water she could find for herself
at streams or troughs when no one was paying attention.
Kneeling by that berry tree with the crushed berry in her fingers, she
was startled when she was spoken to in that bird-like voice. She had
never met one of the Kenku before. It was the words that startled her
the most though. She looked down at her wet fingers and blinked again.
She hadn't even realized what she had been doing.
"I do not mean to be ungrateful, honored one. I was not thinking. That
... seems to be a great failing of mine lately." She sighed and bowed
The Kenku introduced
himself as Crakakaw.
“Eh? What mean you? You are favoured by someone. I see that nemuranai
on your hand, and I am familiar with kenjutsu enough to recognize that
you have a katana slung in that bundle across your back. Why let it
lay still when you could rely on more than just your wakizashi?”
She introduced herself only as Kioko. She hadn't
thought about how she would explain this to anyone if she were asked.
The Kenku's question was valid, perhaps, if one did not take into account
many other things. From the outside, that is how it might appear.
"The ring was a gift from a Matsu I honor greatly and call my sister,
as she called me the same. I hope that one day we will meet again, she
and I. As for the katana... I can no longer wield it. I have been stripped
of my family and the honor they gave me. I am no longer Kakita." She
bowed her head. "I could not bear to leave it behind in the dirt. But
I can no longer wield it as the Crane samurai I once was. I am ronin
It seemed these creatures were light of mood, as most fey from Chikasudo,
the realm of Spirits, were, but a little more serious than Kitsune and
others. “Ah. But the Emperor has need of good strong swords. Would not
yours be turned to good use that way? Do you feel you have no honour
just because someone has said, ‘You have no honour’? I cannot believe
that a Matsu who would honour someone with such an enchanted ring would
do so if that person had no honour. Come; show me the blade. If it is
truly a Kakita dueling blade, they are too beautiful to hide under cloth
The Kenku danced from one leg to the other, almost hopping in place,
as he drew forth a rice cake and munched on it.
Kioko tilted her
head at the creature. What he said made sense in an odd sort of way,
though it went against all she had been raised to believe. But his mention
of the ring... "This is an enchanted ring? How can you tell, Crakakaw-sama?"
She said this as she was taking the katana out of its bindings. If he
truly wished to see it, she would not deny him. His was the first friendly
conversation she had had in three days, after all.
Her touch along the blade was reverent as she showed it to him. Tears
glittered in her eyes. She would not be able to learn more of her craft.
Not ever again. Maybe this was the reason she had kept it hidden all
this time ... to not be reminded of that ...
Crakakaw took the
sword from her and began to inspect it. “The ring? I sense the spirits
bound to it. It is a nemuranai of a brief blessing. It can guide one’s
strike as if the hand or blade carried a stronger enchantment, especially
against foul creatures of evil.” He passed a wing over the fine dueling
blade. A soft trill escaped his throat. “Truly a fine blade. You shouldn’t
shroud it as if it is dead. It needs to fly and sing, to feel the wind
across it’s cutting edge. It should … but why do you cry, child?”
about the ring was, of course, good to know. And it was kind of her
friend to give her something of such value as a parting gift. Something
that might help to keep her safe. But when her tears were noticed, they
only fell faster, sliding down her cheeks and leaving silvery trails.
Her head remained bowed. "I will never be able to set foot in the Kakita
dueling school again. Such a fine blade ... You are right. And I will
never know how to wield it with the skill it deserves."
The Kenku cocked
his head at her. “You already know how to wield it. Truly, a sword such
as this almost wields itself. It's too bad the saya gaurd is slightly
chipped. All you need is a teacher who can give you the finer points.
And there is more to the world than the Kakita Dueling Academy.” He
cackled. “Never is a long time, and I don’t think you’ll live that long.
Especially if you keep squashing your berries like that.”
He flipped his wing and Kioko’s katana whirled about in a full circle,
coming to rest in front of her, flat of the blade up. Resting on the
flat of the blade was a sprig from the berry bush bearing five plump
“Eat up! With winter coming a being needs their sustenance.”
Crakakaw cackled and took another bite of his rice cake.
The mention of
the chipped saya guard made her blink. Her friend had more to offer
her than she'd even imagined. How had she known...? She took out the
small wrapped package of the saya guard her Matsu sister had gifted
her with, unwrapped it, and placed it down near the Kakita dueling blade.
Only then did she look up at Crakakaw, the tears already drying upon
her cheeks. "I do not know of one who could take this blade and place
it upon this guard... but it seems ... perhaps that is a way for me
to once more wield it without shame." For doing so ... that would be
to the honor of her Matsu sister ... and make the sword her own again
in a way...
It was only then that she noticed the berries - and a smile came to
her lips at the bounty they presented - for the first time in many days.
"Thank you, Crakakaw-sama. You are far wiser than I."
The Kenku just
cackled and hopped form one foot to the other. “Wise? Maybe. Wisdom
comes with time and experience. I have been here for quite some time.
So I guess by that reasoning I am wise too.” He cackled again. He swept
his wing back again and Kioko’s katana slid quietly and easily back
into the saya. “Then again, being wiser than you doesn’t take me far,
does it? By your own admission, you are foolish. You keep a lovely blade
such as this, perhaps the finest I have ever wielded, wrapped up in
your dirty laundry.” He scooped up the saya guard Kamiko had given
her. “Aiieee! And you bear another nemuranai from the Matsu you claim
to honour but keep it hidden in your armour!”
He clucked at her; then turned one big round brown eye to her and winked.
She only smiled
at his teasing. For she was coming to realize that was what it was.
She took one of those sweet, ripe berries and popped it into her mouth.
And it felt very good in her empty stomach. Sweet and tart ... There
was no seasoning quite like hunger.
"She has honored me greatly, you are right," she said to his words.
"Perhaps I am not entirely unworthy of her regard after all." And the
thought of that comforted her immensely.
as much as a birdman could, and said, “Ah! Maybe you are older than
you look? That sounded very wise to me.” He took Kioko’s sword from
the saya, slid the chipped hilt off the blade, and replaced it with
the finely crafted saya guard. He brought it up close to his eyes and
cackled again. “Ha! I think you’ll like this gift,” and he tossed the
katana across the road to the other side into some bushes.
“Now,” he said, his eyes gleaming, “Call your sword.”
She watched quite
carefully as Crakakaw took the hilt and simply ... replaced it with
the new one. How did he do that? She had thought a forge would be needed
... but ... apparently not. Then she gasped as he tossed it into the
bushes. And the way she'd felt when he did that told her in no uncertain
terms, that the blade was hers. That she FELT it to be hers. Despite
having her family stripped from her. Despite being made ronin.
When he told her to call it, she tilted her head a touch, her white
hair sliding down over her shoulder. But she held out her hand and thought
of the blade, willing it ... though ... not really sure *how* to go
about calling it... She hoped that was it ...
small beads if sweat breaking out on her forehead. The Kenku shook his
head. “That only works when you are drawing it from the saya. I said
Kioko looked at him again, then extended her hand, calling out “Sword!”
and her katana swept up and flew across the road and into her hand.
She looked astonished from the katana to the Kenku, who was now laughing
and hopping from one foot to the other.
“See? You should never treat gifts as anything but the treasures they
are. They can often guide you through with their power. This saya guard
is a nemuranai! The spirits of the wind have graced it. It will spring
into your hand more quickly from the saya, and you may call it from
short distances away and it will come to you.”
Kioko looked at the katana in her hand with a baffled look on her face,
then she looked back up at Crakakaw with the same look. He shook his
“Ai!! You are such a loss! So young, I don’t know how you’ve lived as
long as you have.” The Kenku shook his head back and forth, a soft trill
coming from his throat. “I’ll have to take you under my wing if you
are to give justice to these wonderful nemuranai your sister has given
you.” He wolfed down the last of his rice cake, stepped back and struck
a duelling pose, one wing over the hilt of his katana. “Tell me Kioko-san,
when was the last time you sparred?”
Kioko smiled and took up her stance across from him. “Too long, Crakakaw-sama.
Too long.” And with that, she took her sword in a tight grip.
A week or so later, the ronin Kioko was trudging along the imperial
road near Kaeru Toshi (Captured City). She had left Crakakaw
two days ago after having spent some time with him, sparring and learning
more about herself than anything else. The Kenku had agreed to be her
sensei and she could return to the forest between Kaeru Toshi
and Shiro Sano no Kakita anytime she wished. With the admonition
of “You will most likely cut yourself or something, clumsy as you are
with that sword, that you should take these with you,” he had gifted
her with three small vials of curative potions.
Kioko smiled a little, thinking how the strange creature had come to
be her sensei. Indeed, there was little to smile about. It had been
two days of empty belly and now it was raining. She had had to leave
the road and walk down onto the muddy fields three times already as
parties of samurai and imperial messengers had passed. Climbing up onto
the road the last time, she had slipped and cracked her knee against
one of the cobbles. The pain had settled down to a dull throb now, but
her constant trudging continued to remind her of her fall.
She was making towards Crane lands, where she would skirt Shiro Sano
no Kakita and make south for the lands of the Fox clan and her friend
Seppun Sezuhoji. She really didn’t know what else to do, but
she figured she could at least spend some time in Mura San Daippo
(the Village of the First Step) and collect her thoughts as to what
she should do next.
She slipped slightly on the wet pavement and her knee sent a sharp reminder
of pain up through her body, just as she heard the approach of another
party of imperial troops or some such. Wincing at her knee’s protest,
she limped off the road onto the verge once more and stood ankle deep
in the flooded field.
Her day just couldn’t get worse.