To Touch the Sky - WC5 Story

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Mon Dec 24, 2018 12:54 am

Second City, Zogeku – Summer 1236

The first ship from the Empire at the end of the summer had long been a cause for excitement in Second City. After the long heat and pounding monsoons had driven all the inhabitants of the city inside, the first round-bellied kobune brought news, tradegoods, and visitors from afar. This last Summer Court had been as turbulent as the bitter monsoon winds. But the last ships at the start of the summer had brought news of the death of Yuhmi and the end of the War with the Onyx. A generation had been in born and grown up under those dark shadows, far from Zogeku.
Now, everything was changing. And the first kobune would carry many of those changes with it. Heimin, Ivindi, and Samurai all found reason to gather at the docks to greet it.
One passenger stood at the railing of that ship, anxiously waiting to dock. He wore the pale blue of the Crane clan, but he was almost as dark as the Ivindi. The daisho on his belt marked him as samurai, a duellist of the Kakita school. Kakita Harun, finally coming to the end of a long journey.
Since he had heard the news confirming that Kakita Arahime was alive, all that mattered was getting to her. Seeing her again, hearing her voice and never leaving her side again. It had been two and a half years since he had seen her, since they had said good bye to her that morning in Tsume. Much had changed since then; war, deaths of those he had cared about, he had changed. Had Arahime? And if she had, how much?
As the ship docked and the crew unrolled the gangplank, Harun saw a face he recognised in the crowd. Kakita Kousuda. The sight of him made him a strange place, it was a reminder of home.
Like a man used to making his way through many a crowded marketplace, Kousuda navigated a path towards the newly-set gangplank. His eyes widened in recognition as he spotted the young man in blue waiting to disembark. He pushed through the busy crowd of eager rinjin and merchants waiting for their shipments from Rokugan to be the first to greet Harun as he stepped onto the shore. "I had expected only to receive correspondences, Harun-kun,” he said with a bow. “And here I get so much more! What a pleasant surprise. Welcome to Second City."
"It's good to see you too, Oji-san," Harun smiled.
They stepped away from the gangplank while dispatches and supplies for the Crane stationed in Zogeku, like decent tea and sake, were hoisted into the dock. Harun's eyes were everywhere. The different colours and sounds of the Second City. The smell of spices that seemed to permeate the air. It was all new and exciting and he hoped he would see much of it while he was there.
"You look well, Harun," said Kousuda. "Better than I last saw you. Are things...better now?"
Harun knew what Kousuda meant. The last time they saw each other was at Kyuden Hida. Kakita Karasu, Emerald Champion and Harun's adoptive father, had sent Harun to his new posting at Seawatch Castle. A place reserved for embarrassments to the Crane Clan, which was how Harun was seen. His actions in the taking of Toshi Ranbo, shooting Daigotsu Shimekiri with a gaijin pepper weapon during an iaijutsu duel had shaken the clan to its very foundations. It was a flagrant rejection of the traditions of Kakita, and had led to a rift between father and son.
Harun had eventually taken his punishment keenly though, knowing he deserved it though not regretting his actions.
"A little," Harun said quietly. "Father and I spoke before I left." And that was all he would say about it, for now at least. "Is Arahime here?" He asked, his voice brightening a little. "I came as soon as I could, and the journey wasn't fast enough."
Kousuda's face was unreadable to Harun. "Oh, certainly she is here. But all that can wait for later." With a courtier's grace he smoothly changed the subject. "We need to find you a proper place to stay. There is an inn...The Inn of the Silver Lantern...”
Harun raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. Of course, it’s better for everyone that I’m out of sight.
The courtier described the inn and the glories of Second City as they evaded the crowd and the docks and travelled the wide road through the flooded rice-pastures to Second City proper. Ox-drawn wagons passed them along the centre of the road, while to the edges, small merchants booths, unwilling to fight for space in the city to set up shop, crowded either side of the road to sell their wares. The recent monsoons meant planting season had returned, and farmers were wading through the waters, setting the rice. As the huge, Kaiu-built walls of the city’s military district came into view, with the peasant and merchant districts sprawling beyond those walls, Second City was more crowded than any Harun had ever been in before. Once Toshi Ranbo, or Otosan Uchi might have matched this. Not anymore.
Any subtle hesitations Harun saw from Kousuda were immediately swept away by the noise and press of the crowd. So many people, so much noise. It was unnerving. Not just because he was long used to the quiet of the ship and before that Seawatch, but because it reminded him of the fight for Toshi Ranbo. The crush when fighting in the narrow streets, allies and enemies trying to push through. Harun struggled to keep his composure and hoped Kousuda had not noticed.
If Kousuda had, he did not show it. He led Harun to a small inn just inside the imperial district. Low eaves on a red-tiled roof sheltered the wide verandas and open layout of the well-appointed inn. It was square and raised above the level of the streets by a short staircase. Two squat trees with huge leaves as long as a man is tall flanked the intricately carved wooden doorway. A servant, dressed in a lightweight, but simple, yukata, bowed as they approached, and opened the doors.
"Welcome to the Inn of the Silver Lantern," he said, his Rokugani marked with a distinct accent Harun was not familiar with.
Kousuda spoke to the attendant and disappeared inside to make arrangements for Harun’s stay. Harun waited in the courtyard, the lingering heat seeping into his skin. The sort of hung in the air and never truly dissipated.
Harun could feel beads of sweat running down his back. How do people get used to it?
Kousuda emerged. “It is all arranged. The Embassy is full, and can take no more guests. But here you can bathe and rest, and I will see you at the Embassy at dinner.”
As the servant led Harun to one of the inn’s best rooms, the duellist mostly just felt relief. He would see Arahime soon enough.

That evening, Harun stood before the grand steps leading up to the Crane Embassy. He was early; he had thought to see some of the city on the way, but thoughts of Arahime turned his feet to the building of cool plaster and blue tile.
Another time, he promised himself, with Arahime...
As he climbed the steps, Harun remembered how Kousuda had responded when he had mentioned her. Casually dismissing the question with no more effort than swatting away a fly. Was he trying to avoid telling me something? he wondered.
Harun dismissed the thought, certain that if something were wrong, Kousuda would have told him. There was so much he had been wanting to say to her ever since he had discovered she was alive. How he loved her, he never wanted to be parted from her again, and that he would go anywhere to be with her. Could she ever accept me? He wasn't sure what he would do if she didn't.
The Crane embassy was clearly well-populated, many rooms showing signs of occupation and servants busy cleaning after the day's tasks. However, for now, there were few samurai about: in the cooler evening, many had left to enjoy the pleasures of the Artisan's District.
Impatiently, he asked the servant at the door where Arahime could be found.
"She is training in the dojo. Shall I tell her you are here, Kakita-sama?" the servant asked.
"No, no need," he said. "I will find her myself."
Harun followed the directions the servant had provided until he could hear the rhythmic steps and kiais of a bushi training nearby.
He cracked open the dojo screen open to peek inside. At a glimpse of white and blue, Harun slipped in to stand in the shadows behind a post, stealing the chance to glory in this first moment, and hoping to surprise her.
Harun’s eyes drank in the sight of her, like a ladle of well water at the end of a thirsty day of travel. She was doing the Ten Thousand Days long-form, a Kakita Academy staple. Her movements were as graceful as a bird in flight, her strike as accurate as a heron’s. She wore clothing similar to that he had always known: a lightweight indigo yukata and white silk hakama. Her white hair tumbled down her back in a cascade of curls. He remembered how Arahime would drive herself forward after receiving some particularly embarrassing correction, long after the others had gone to bed, just like this. It was as if nothing had changed.
The "except" kept him from approaching. At first it was hard to pinpoint what was wrong. He had seen the flash of gold at her neck -- a necklace? That surprised him; Arahime had always laughed such finery. As she pivoted gracefully, he saw that it was more than a necklace – it was an elaborate band, gaudy with gemstones. He couldn’t even imagine her choosing such a thing. But here she wore it, even as she trained. A necklace? Or a collar? he wondered.
The other "except" was more subtle. Her face was beaded with sweat...not unusual given the heat. But her breathing was off. There was a weakness in the way she moved her left arm. She did not strike with the energy he expected.
Her knees buckled and she collapsed to the ground with a tearful curse in a language Harun did not recognize.
Harun shrank back in shock. His immediate instinct was to call out to Arahime, go over to her and give her comfort. But she would never accept that, never forgive him for surprising her in a moment of weakness. And he did not want to spoil their reunion with her anger at his pity.
So, as quietly as he could, he slipped out, gently closing the shoji soundlessly behind him. He closed his eyes and put his head in his hands.
Arahime, how truly awful for you…
They had trained together side by side at the Kakita Academy, lost and won many practice sparring matches between them. And now...something was terribly, terribly wrong. And he couldn't do anything, say anything to her. Not now. she would have to tell him herself.
He composed himself quickly, drawing on his training with the Legions to keep doing your duty, no matter what. Then, he called out loudly, as if he had only just arrived and was looking for her. "Hello?" he called. "Is there anyone here? Arahime? Are you near?"
There was a pause, a gasp, and then Harun heard the sound of footsteps hurrying away.
His heart sank.
He was eventually found in the hallway by one of the embassy servants. Harun was told that Kousuda was ready to meet him to dine. The servant led him to the dining room. He pulled open a shoji screen and stood aside to allow Harun to pass. There, Kousuda knelt alone at the low table; he gestured at the cushion opposite him. Harun knelt as a second servant brought him a damp towel to wipe his face and hands.
As the soup was brought out and the two were left alone, Kousuda finally addressed the gaping void in the room.
"Arahime-chan will come soon. But I first wanted to give you an opportunity to ask your questions,” said Kousuda. “Much has changed for her, Harun-kun. It has been very difficult. She is still my little Wildflower. I do not want her to be hurt any more than she already has been."
Harun met Kousuda's eyes unblinkingly. "Hurting Arahime, Oji-San, would be the last thing I would ever do." He hesitated for a moment, he couldn't lie but how could he say it? "But I have to tell you, I...I saw her practicing. I saw her...her weakness. I shouldn’t have, but it has been years since we have seen each other and I wanted to speak with see her again...I am sorry..." He looked down, the apologies flowing fast from his lips. "What happened?"
Kousuda frowned. "It would be better if you had not seen that," he said mostly to himself. With a gesture, he indicated that Harun could go ahead and eat while he retold the tale.
"Little enough has been spread to the mainland, since communication is limited during the summer,” Kousuda began “I was certain Kyoumi would have told you before you left, but I guess there was no time...”
He picked up one chopstick to roll it between his fingers. "I do not have every detail, but the gist is this. The Warlord was in the process of arranging a marriage between his grandson Seiho and Arahime. Certain forces in the city were against that marriage: it strengthened ties and bonds to Rokugan, while these forces seek greater separation from the Empire. These forces were dragging Arahime's name through the mud to block the marriage, but Ambassador Mushari learned of it and demanded the Warlord commit to stopping it. He removed her from the court under other pretences for her safety and give the Warlord time to act.”
He paused a little, his voice becoming more controlled as he spoke.
“But…an Arashi on the ship had been placed to remove her more permanently,” Kousuda continued. “He threw her from the vessel in an area known for its hostile terrain and its crocodiles, likely believing that she would not even survive to make it to shore.”
He set down the chopstick. "Fortunately...but unfortunately for him, I suppose, she did survive. But there are many dangers in the jungle to one who is alone, without lore or medicine or the gifts of the kami.” His voice grew quiet. “As I understand it, Arahime was wounded and the wound became infected. I will speak no more of it, because to do so is inappropriate, but she came very near death indeed. She says that some of the Shojo...” He blinked. “The wild people that used to live in the jungles...saved her life. But their healing powers must be primitive.” He cleared his throat. “She received a terrible injury. I have had our Asahina look at it. She claims that one of Arahime’s lungs has been destroyed, a rib removed.”
"She returned. Arahime did duel…and succeed…against the man who attacked her.” Kousuda winced. “But beyond the narrow bounds of the single strike..." he shook his head. "Doji Sawao says it would be a cruelty to train her further in the techniques of the Kakita school. That she must come to know and understand her limits, that that path is blocked to her." He had to shake his head, a little admiration in his voice. "He does not know Arahime-chan very well."
Harun’s heart ached. For someone like much potential, so much skill, so much love for the art of the blade. But if her father was right, she could never truly fight again. Never be the Kenshinzen he had been sure she would be someday. His thoughts grew bitter at the irony. In some ways, she had redeemed his actions at Toshi Ranbo, given the Crane and all of Rokugan a shining example of what Iaijutsu was supposed to be. And this was the result for her.
Still, it was just like Arahime to fight against it, to meet a challenge head on and overcome it. Even one that couldn't be. Even one that was staring her in the face. Harun knew all too well that that there were some things that one had to accept, and there were some wounds that would never heal.
Perhaps, I could help her...
"What paths do you see open to her, Oji-san?” Harun asked.
That gave Kousuda pause, and he hesitated before he answered. " is hard to tell. I could teach her the skills of the Ide, what my father taught me, but I began my training as a child. It would be many years before she achieved any mastery, and I am not supposed to pass Unicorn secrets. Her mother's studies with the Shiba..." He shook his head. "Given all that had happened, more recently and in Phoenix lands, that would be a terrible place for her to go, even were she accepted among the artisans. Among the Kakita artisans, I see only a life of sorrow there, so close to the Iaijutsu school, and yet so far. Perhaps I could arrange something with the Doji, if they would accept her." He shook his head. "No. To start so old there, even with our protection, is its own cruelty. I will teach her what I am permitted, but it is probably for the best that we try to arrange a marriage where she will be given a comfortable home and the leisure to do as she pleases."
Even as he said it, Kousuda looked as though he had tasted something sour. The servants came to remove the soup bowls and replace them with a course of sashimi.
Harun’s heart was beating fast, he had waited years and travelled hundreds of miles to speak these next few words. If he did not speak them now, Arahime might be lost to him forever. "I could give her that future," Harun said, his voice hushed and breathless. "To help her, to provide the ground so she can grow as she needs to. Kakita Kousuda-sama," his voice took on a far more formal tone, "I humbly ask for the hand of your daughter Arahime in marriage."
The courtier inclined his head in an expression that Harun could only read as pity. "Oh, Harun-kun. I know you have been fond of Arahime for many years. I would say that she is fond of you. But times have changed now. Perhaps in times of desperation, as with your father and mother, the risk of death was near and we all took our moments as we could. But that is not how it is for the Crane. I am her father and I have to see what is the best way forward for her. What will be done will be what is best for the clan.”
Harun looked down, doing his best to compose himself from the disappointment.
Kousuda went on. "Harun, your mother was my friend, Karasu-sama, my wife’s cousin, and you are like a beloved nephew to me, no matter our lack of blood-ties. You have seen much and changed much since you saw her last. Arahime also has seen and changed much. You knew her once, perhaps very well. But you knew her when you were both little more than children, playing at being samurai. But she is not who she was, and fights to understand those changes in herself. You do not know each other. You both need time to find out who you are before I would choose a husband for her, or a wife for you. If I had the freedom to choose. A luxury I do not have."
Utaku Asuna's mocking words came back to Harun to taunt him again.
She’s never going to marry you...she is going to be traded away like a sack of rice...
After all that had happened, after how far he had come. Those nights he had spent at Seawatch, the fantasies he had had in his bunk on the ship over. Whisking Arahime up in his arms and riding away with her, somehow also with them both fending off half a dozen swordsmen. Unrealistic? Of course, but...
Kousuda interrupted his fractured daydream with quiet laughter. “Believe me, you would not want to be wedded to one such as Arahime unless it was her choice as well as her duty.”
He hasn’t said no, Harun reminded himself. I need to focus on facts not my own anxieties. Kousuda hadn't refused, he had merely pointed out realities. Ones that Harun needed to hear even if he didn't like them. Marriage with the Crane was political, everyone knew that.
But Lord Shibatsu said he could arrange it, Harun’s mind raced. As for the rest...
"My apologies, Oji-san," said Harun, he cleared his throat. “You’re right. It has been a long time since we saw each other. Things have changed and I know there are...things I need to tell her." He paused again. "But you know, I would never do anything without Arahime's consent. I would never ask her to marry me unless that was what she wanted as well." He took a deep breath. "I guess...what I wanted was your permission, and your blessing, to try. Even if, in the end, she does refuse me."
Arahime's father considered that with a frown, and Harun could see him considering the cost of the duel with Shimekiri, almost smell the gaijin pepper. After an endless moment, however, the older man nodded. "Yes. If our daimyo were to grant permission for such a marriage, I would not contest, and give thanks to Benten. You can try. But be patient with her about raising the issue. I do not want to get her hopes up and see them denied."
A servant came to clear the plates, while a second came and knelt by the courtier, whispering something quietly before hurrying away, closing the screen behind her.
“She will be here in a moment,” said Kousuda.
Harun didn’t think he could bear to wait much longer to see her, but that didn’t stop the butterflies beating in his stomach.
In a few moments the screen slid open, and Arahime entered. She moved gracefully past Harun and sat down next to her father.
She was dressed in a full-length, if light, kimono of light blue, decorated with a bamboo pattern, and her obi, tied up in a traditional butterfly knot, was silver. Her long hair was up in two braids, but the curls that had always plagued her broke loose at every opportunity and still framed her face in white. Her stormy grey eyes and proud features were much the same as Harun remembered. But there were differences. Around her neck, she still wore the thick, collar-like necklace Harun had noticed while she was practicing, ornate with gold and diamonds, jade and pearls, with ivory flowers and a single, large emerald lotus at her throat. Even more exotic, Harun realized that her nose had been pierced in one nostril, and she wore a small gold ring there, similar to the small gold earrings she wore in her ears.
The corner of Arahime's mouth quirked upward in a small grin, taking in Harun's shocked expression. "You're late."
"Late?" Harun repeated, then quickly recovering. "Oh yes, I'm terribly sorry," he said, a sly smile appearing on his lips. "You see, first there was a funeral, and then there was a war. As well as a whole bunch of things that are rather hard to explain, though I think that is something you know about as well." He looked at the necklace and the nose ring. Then he sighed and gave her a genuine smile. "Arahime-chan, it is so good to see you."
Her gaze dropped to the table, her hair shadowing her face and leaving her expression unreadable. "It is good to see you too, Harun-kun. It has been a long time." Her voice was flat, emotionless.
Is she embarrassed? Harun wondered.
He couldn't be sure; she seemed so guarded. Questions could wait until later, until they were alone. He decided to keep things more conventional. "I only just arrived today, so I haven't seen much of the city," Harun said, his tone gentle, conversational. "You'll have to tell me what's worth seeing, everything looks so different here."
Arahime looked up a little. "Of course, if you like...but....How long are you planning on staying?"
Kakita Kousuda smoothly stepped in before Harun could answer. "We can find out about that in the morning. Perhaps you can take Harun-kun when you go to the Ivindi quarter tomorrow?” He suggested. “There has been some fighting with the guards and it would comfort me to know that you did not need to involve yourself."
Despite how politely her father phrased it, Arahime stiffened, though she did not retort and held her tongue. "Of course, Otō-sama." She used the formal suffix.
Kousuda shared a look with Harun, but accepted the answer. He gestured for the servants to bring in the rest of the dishes for the meal and they dined, speaking of the current situation in the city and various sights that Harun should go visit.
Harun listened with interest. He had heard about Zogeku. The almond groves, spice markets, the exotic temples and strange animals. He then related a little of his own travels. The lands of the Unicorn, Dragon and Lion in his wandering year. The lands of the Crab Clan, the Wall, Seawatch. If Arahime noticed Harun skipped a little lightly over his time in the Emerald Legions, she didn't say anything.
At the end of dinner, tea was brought out as well as daifuku which bore the mon of Imperial Treasurer Doji Arami. These had come with Harun to a rather grateful embassy.
"Well," said Kousuda. "I know you've had a long journey Harun and I don't want to keep you much longer."
Harun would have liked to stay, but he knew how to take Kousuda’s hint. He bid them goodnight.

After the pleasantries had been completed and the duellist had left, Kakita Arahime was left alone with her father.
Her insides felt twisted in knots at the sight of him. She had driven herself on through so much just at the thought of seeing him again, but now that he was here she did not know what to say or what to do.
You could dance for him, Big Sister offered helpfully. Arahime could feel the heat rise in her cheeks and she fought to keep her face still. She wished again that the soul within the navrathran haar had not become quite so helpful. At least her father did not appear to notice.
He may have come just to see you..That was a nice thought. But unlikely, Arahime dismissed.
"Otō-san...” said Arahime. “You said Harun was in the Emerald Legion. Why is he here?"
Kousuda smiled at his daughter. His little Wildflower, thought lost forever, now found and he felt that he could soon be losing her again. She was a woman now, and had to find her own path. was hard to let go.
Should he tell her what he and Harun had spoken of? How Harun had asked for her hand in marriage?
No, not yet, he decided. If something is going to happen there, it needs to develop naturally.
"I think he has left the Emerald Legion to come here, Arahime-chan," said Kousuda. "As for why he is here, why don't you ask him?"
Arahime studied her father's face for a long moment in silence. Finally, she nodded. "I will." She looked down at the bracelet on her wrist. "When are you leaving?"
Kousuda lay his hand on Arahime's shoulder. "Very soon, your mother needs me. I know she is hungry for news, even if she cannot show it. Her duties prevent her from coming or she would have flown here on paper wings if she could. I have passage on the ship that departs in seven days. There is room for two—or three. You should come with me."
Arahime shook her head. "I truly cannot. Shiba gave me one more command and I cannot return to Rokugan until it is done. I will return to Rokugan when I've done it." Shinjo...she is here somewhere. I am sure of it.
"So you have said before," said Kousuda.
Arahime dipped her head in a silent assent.
"Walk with him tomorrow,” Kousuda suggested. “Ask him what he thinks. I know you will do what you must." He smiled ruefully. "Just like your mother."
As they stood he gave his daughter a quick embrace in that private moment.
"I'm sorry, Otō-san,” said Arahime.
"I would expect nothing less of you, daughter,” said Kousuda.
Arahime's heart was full as she returned to her room. Summer is over. Harun is here. Now if I could only spin out the tangled skeins of my own heart.

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Fri Jan 11, 2019 8:06 pm

Dawn was just cracking the eastern horizon as Arahime walked down the steps from the Embassy to the street to find Harun waiting for her. She was dressed in a cool, lightweight summer kimono of royal blue, with a yellow and white sash that extended from shoulder to her hip over her narrow white obi. She awkwardly carried a white parasol made of paper and bamboo.
"It's supposed to keep the sun off my face. Or if it rains," she explained hesitantly to Harun, as if he didn't know what an umbrella was for. "It's expected."
Harun was wearing the clothes he had brought, but they were thicker and more for the milder Rokugnani climate. The day felt likely to be hot and he could already could feel sweat building up at the back of his neck. "That seems sensible," Harun agreed. "I think I will be fine, I fit more in here than I do in most places...except maybe Shiro Moto." He added the last part with a grin, hoping to make her smile.
It was early on the well-kept streets of the Imperial District; not many people were around yet, crowds only beginning to build. But the multi-storied buildings on both sides fenced them in, giving an almost maze-like sensation. Harun kept peering above them; he had never seen so many tall buildings in one place. Not even Otosan Uchi or Toshi Ranbo were like this.
You can tell who are the newcomers to Second City, Isanko had said to him at Shiro Moto, they are the ones always looking up.
Harun could hardly navigate the maze, but Arahime seemed to know her way, her white parasol a beacon to follow. They reached the gates and entered the Military District. Harun kept his head down, hoping no one would recognise him and embarrass him in front of Arahime.
It was a needless worry; it was Arahime who was being recognised. As they passed an Arashi barracks, several of the descendants of the Mantis stopped when Arahime walked past, staring after her. None said a word.
Harun eyed the Arashi carefully and moved closer to Arahime. He’d heard of no harm done her since her duel, but he still didn’t trust them.
Arahime pointed out the various dojos, accepting the glares of the Arashi. During a quieter moment, sensing Harun's tension, she explained.
"The first ship out of Second City has already left, carrying many to go serve on the Wall. The Warlord declared that it was important for the young bushi of Second City to understand the threats Rokugan faces, but I suspect he is removing his enemies." She hesitated and added, "Some are angry because their hopes were shattered, and I at least played a part. They are afraid they will be sent away to. Others fear change, and I brought it with me. I must accept it if I were ever able to help fix it. Though I don't think I will be able to." Her words were tentative, almost like that of a student, trying to apply a lesson. She shook her head briskly, as if shaking away a mosquito, and gave Harun a smile. "If you are looking for a contest though, the Harada Dojo there..." she points to a building with flags of a deep blue. “It should give you a challenge and be friendly afterwards. They are descended from the Crab styles, but welcome all comers who are quick with a joke." She looked away, "So I am told."
"That sounds promising," said Harun, looking at the dojo for a moment. "But can be good or bad, but I have found it brings perspective. Makes you see what is important and what is not." He thought back on the lonely quiet months at Seawatch, nothing to do but reflect and think. He looked pensive, almost sad a moment, then quickly set his face into a neutral on, hoping Arahime didn't notice.

Arahime paused and turned, her grey eyes studying Harun carefully for a long time. But she did not answer him directly, instead turning away to lead him on away on to the temple district.
The streets were lined with walls of rubble on top of which were perched many colourful shrines.
"This part of the city was destroyed by an Ivindi artefact. Since then, the Warlord has forbidden everyone from going over the mountains to the east. Hopefully that rule will not change for a while, anyway. The Red Hunger helps keep people away too."
"The Red Hunger?" Harun asked.
Another short hesitation before answering. "Many believe one of the giant snakes that can eat elephants roams the lands of the Maharajah. I just know stories....but there aresnakes that are very big."
"Snakes?" There was apprehension is his voice as Harun looked around hoping there were none about. They walked among the ruins of the grand temples that had once stood there. "What sort of stories do you know?" He asked her. " I dare say we have a few to tell each other."
"Very, very old ones," Arahime offered back. "And a few new ones. There are only small snakes in the city. They sometimes sun on the stones. Even the big ones, I am certain you have faced many more terrible things already. I want to know your stories. We can find a quiet place to talk if you like."
She said it casually, if offering only to please Harun's whim, but he could see that she was beginning to tire already and the sun was getting hotter. The streets were emptying as rinjin and native alike found a place to rest in the heat of midday.
Harun agreed and they found a cool spot in the shadow of the doorway to a ruined temple. They sat on the steps, shaded by an overgrown wisteria creeper. It was in full bloom, its violet petals falling through the air and catching the various eddies of the wind and carpeting the paving stones with colour.
A canopy of purple, thought Harun, looking up. Then another thought occurred to him, one he didn't keep to himself.
"This is like back at the Academy, the sakura trees in the courtyard," he said to her, watching the petals dance in front of her. "Do you remember? Your brother and Prince Kiseki used to climb up the tree and declared they wouldn't be coming down." He smiled at the memory, hoping Arahime would return his smile, but she was looking down. He continued. "So, you want to know my stories," he said, leaning forward and rubbing his hands together. "That may take a while, and I'm not sure where to begin. What would you like to hear about first? The War? Shiro Moto? Seawatch? No, there's not much to hear from there."
Seawatch? That is where the Crane send embarrassments, right? Arahime thought. But why?...I am sure he will explain....
Arahime settled her kimono about her, setting her parasol open to face the street to shelter them from the sun and ward off nosy onlookers. She then drew two bottles from her sleeve and passed one to Harun. The coconut milk within was cool and sweet. "I'd like to hear about everything," she offered. "But first...Did you find what you were looking for when you went to Unicorn lands? What happened?"
She did not ask him why he was late, but it hung in her words nonetheless.
"What happened?" Harun repeated. "Well, that may take more than a simple afternoon. Including," he added with a nod, "why I was late. But did I find what I was looking for..." His words drifted off and he took a sip of the coconut milk; it was nicely refreshing. "No, I didn't. When I left, when I rode out there I thought I would find answers. A place where I could fit in, belong. And I did...for a while at least." He paused, his eyes glazed over remembering, "What I found out there was far more important. It was I needed to know. And to be told."
"Was it my father who said that?" Arahime asked.
"No," said Harun, "it was mine."
Arahime started, confused. "But Uncle Karasu didn't go to Shiro Moto, did he?" Her brow furrowed as she took in the faint, knowing smile on Harun’s face as he silently encouraged her to guess. The truth slowly started to dawn on her. " can’t mean your birth father, can you?!"
Harun nodded again, his smile widening. "Yes, it was my father's shriyo who spoke to me," he said. "I was at a ritual that opened a gate to Yomi; he practically ran out. He told me I needed to leave Unicorn lands and...some other things..." He took another swig of the coconut milk. "But I am getting a little ahead of myself. I will start at the beginning. In Shiro Mirumoto, I met an Ishiken named Moto Majid...."
Harun told her his story of his time in Unicorn lands. Of Lord Moto Chinua, the duel in Kaeru Toshi, the battle for Shiro Moto, the court that followed...But there were things missing, details that Harun planned to add later on, when he knew for certain that Arahime was ready to hear them. Like Utaku Asuna. When he started speaking of Akodo Zetsubou, his one changed, he grew more serious and quiet and even more so when he spoke of the Sodan Senzo's death.
"That is why I was late, and I am sorry Arahime-chan," he said. "I had a promise to keep to a very brave hero of the Lion, who died so that the taint could be driven from the land. And I thought I could keep both his and yours, but the fortunes deemed otherwise." He gave a wry smile. "Well, that is my confession, or part of it anyway."
Arahime listened intently to Harun's story, leaning in closely, asking questions in particular about the ritual he described, the Unicorn Champion, and what it was like living in a yurt.
"It's funny to think that people like us could be wrapped up in such things,” Arahime murmured. “They sound like something from the Dawn of the Empire. But maybe that is where we need to be. Maybe this is a dawn of the Empire after all. Maybe we're not just here for endings."
"I think endings also mean beginnings," Harun said. "There is a different world coming, after the war. It feels sort of exciting to be a part of it, but I don't think it's here yet."
Arahime considered that, and said, "And you got to see that really happen. Father told me you were at the fall of Toshi Ranbo. You got to be a part of winning the war that we feared would last a thousand years. What was it like?" There was an innocence in her voice.
She doesn’t know....she doesn’t know what really happened...Harun stiffened a little, if she doesn’t know...I have to tell her.
"The War?" Harun repeated. His throat tightened, adding just a slight edge to his words, a quietness and a thoughtfulness that he did his best to hide. "Well, yes, I was at Toshi Ranbo," he said. "I was Chui of Takano Unit. We were on the ships that were first into the city that day.” His eyes glazed over, remembering. “There were so many there, from all the Great Clans...we fought our way to the the Throne Room itself...” He blinked.
He looked at Arahime. She was so trusting, she had no idea what he had done in the Throne Room. She would never think any Crane, any samurai would betray tradition in such an outrageous way. I can’t...I can’t tell her...not yet, I can’t lose her again, not so soon after I have found her… “I’m sorry,” he said, putting a hand up to his eyes. “It’s just...a lot of people died that day. Good people.”
Arahime nodded. “But you prevailed, their sacrifice was not in vain.”
“Yes, it was,” said Harun, recovering a little.
"I would have gone. You know I wanted to,” said Arahime. “You know I would have asked to go if I had been allowed." There was a defensiveness in her voice. "But I'm glad it's over. I just hope that they don't think people like me were cowards for not being there."
“Of course not,” said Harun firmly, perhaps too firmly. “You were doing your duty as well as any samurai would be. Better even.”
“Thank you,” she said softly.
Besides, it’s probably better that she wasn’t at Toshi Ranbo, and not even because of what I did there…
“After Toshi Ranbo, I was at the Imperial Court at Kyuden Hida, the Crab Champion invited a few people from Toshi Ranbo as guests,” Harun continued. “You know me, I didn’t see much but I did see your mother presented to the court as the new Voice of the Emperor. She looked quite splendid on the dais.”
“I wish I could have seen it,” said Arahime with a sigh. “Did you see much else? Did you go to the Wall?”
“I did,” said Harun with a nod. “I went for a few days with the Crab Champion’s son. It’s…it’s very different there, the Wall, the people there…the Shadowlands itself, it’s hard to describe. They had it so hard during the war, the Crab…but they survived, they stand strong.”
And again, he left out details. Koten, Kumo, Koneko…the whole betrothal with the Hiruma daimyo’s daughter. How could I spoil it for her, this moment we have together? This day?
He broke off. "I think it is your turn to tell me your stories now,” he redirected, giving her an encouraging smile. “I've heard a few things about how you survived the jungle, and your triumphant return...but I would like to hear it from you."
Even just the hesitation of Arahime before she began to speak told Harun that she had changed. And just as there were details he was keeping from her, there were details she was keeping from him.
"When I received the order to go to Second City, I did want to go. I had always wanted to see the distant lands Father had told me of, though I did not think I could,” remembered Arahime. “The City seemed huge, as big as Otosan Uchi, but filled with people. Doji Mushari was very kind, and many I met here were honourable. But some were not.” She paused a moment. “One of those who was not is the Warlord's grandson, Arashi Seiho. He had a fascination...with me" she trailed off until her last words were a whisper.
Harun frowned, he knew very little of Seiho but already did not like him.
Arahime took a deep breath, and she spoke again. “Seiho was too politically powerful to challenge on it, and the Warlord thought he and I were a good match for marriage, at least politically.” She paused again. “Mushari removed us from the city so the Warlord could have a chance to discipline Seiho and bring the court under control without causing an incident. But there was one, at least, Purashi, who did not want the marriage to happen. There were probably more. But those battles are beyond me now.”
She took a careful breath and exhaled slowly. "He caught me off guard when he threw me overboard. I mean,” she added carefully, “I did not trust him, and was ready for a fight, but not for that. I managed to swim to shore, but there was no real beach there and there were crocodiles. You'll see them—well, hopefully you won't see them, actually, but I can show you a picture.” Her voice was bright as she smiled at him and continued. “But I could not stay on the shore there to wait for someone to come because of them. So, I went inland to where at least the ground was not muddy, trying to find a better place to get to the shoreline. There was a tiger. I suppose it was not hungry. And a snake that probably was. I killed it. But I fell and hurt my back."
Arahime's tone was almost embarrassed, as though describing a great failure about an impolite subject "The wound was small, but insects and sickness entered it. Things...” She winced. “I do not remember much after a point. When I woke, I was with...some of the native inhabitants of this land. They had removed the sickness. I got better, but it took a very long time. Eventually they took me to the old Ivory Palace, for they knew a samurai was there who could help me. The samurai was Shiba Tsukimi."
Arahime looked up intently at Harun, and now he could see that there was no more hesitation.
"It happened as I said in court. We shared a meal. She asked me of news of the Empire. We spoke of the Phoenix, and that the heavens needed to tell us what to do if they expect us to do more, and she said maybe they had spoken and we just didn't want to hear. We went to sleep.
“When I awoke, she was there, but it was not her, but Shiba-no-kami. He said he needed to return to Tengoku for balance to be restored, asking me to bring the scroll case and sword to Summer Court. Shiba knew all those people would be there. So after that..." She hesitated another second. "I followed the path to the sea, and met with the Ivindi, because I knew they could help me without stopping me from delivering the sword and scrolls as Shiba wished. "She shook her head. "It was mostly the people of this land that did everything. I owe them a
Harun listened patiently as she told her story, he didn't say much but noticed that she felt uncomfortable in places.
"You didn't do nothing, Arahime-chan," said Harun. "You survived, that was more that could be expected. And you brought back the truth, that's a lot." He took another swig of the bottle. "And you did more, didn’t you?"
Arahime nodded. "I challenged Purashi. I had hoped he would reveal who sent him. There was no doubt it would have been a duel. In the end, all it ever would be was my word against his. I won the duel. The Yoritomo stance is very wide; they leave their legs vulnerable if you are quick enough, and very few here have ever faced a Scorpion or Crane. Their techniques are more defensive..." she unwound into the technical discussion of comparative technique with the familiar ease that Harun remembered so well, but as she spoke, her hand slipped up to grip the necklace around her throat.
"I wish I could have seen it," said Harun. He wanted to ask her more questions, but then remembered how she had been in the dojo. So he decided to not press it. "The necklace, did the Ivindi give that to you? I don't think I have seen anything like it."
Arahime quickly dropped her hand. "It is from the Ivindi," she said simply, and offered nothing else.
Harun blinked at her reaction. Well, that's a nerve I hit, he thought, Where to go from here?
A little lost in what to do, he brought out his gift for her. He had kept it safe, wrapped in a piece of exotically patterned and strangely scented silk. It was about the size of Harun's palm, round in shape. He held it out to her.
"This has done a number of long journeys to get to you, Arahime-chan," Harun said. "And only the last ones by me."'
"I could not be worthy of a gift that has come so far..." said Arahime.
“It has come so far to get to you,” Harun replied.
"We are classmates....this is far too valuable for simply a classmate..." Arahime objected.
“Not nearly as valuable as seeing you alive again,” said Harun.
Arahime blushed. She accepted it, running her fingers across the woven silk, and then opening it to reveal what was inside inside. "It's beautiful, Harun-kun. But what is it?"
It was a coloured disc made up of other coloured discs, many glass beads in many different colours. Blue, green, red, yellow, purple, gold, grey, all melded together in a circle. And in the centre, a clear circle. "You put it up to the light," Harun explained, "it's glass, so the light goes through it and you see more colours."
Arahime turned the disk in the light, holding it to the sun and casting rainbows through the shadows of the ruined temple doorway. "It catches the sun. Thank you." She smiles.
Then she set down the disk and reached into her sleeve to pull out something for Harun.
"I was going to give you this at the end of the day, but perhaps now is a good time,” she said. “This is from this city. I had hoped to get it for you for when I returned...and I had saved it. But I can give it to you now. Please accept."
She offered Harun a small round object wrapped neatly in an indigo furoshiki cloth.
Seeing Arahime smile was worth so much. After the customary refusals, he opened his own gift.
Within the furoshiki cloth, there was a small round sphere of carved yellowish-brown stone, ornately designed with a pattern of flowers and curved onion-pointed shapes. On closer examination of some of the larger holes in the stone, one can see that another carved sphere of stone is inside the first, and, within that, a third carved sphere of stone, each piece free-spinning one within another.
Arahime looked up at Harun hopefully from under her long eyelashes.
Harun moved it in his hands so the inner spheres moved freely. "This is amazing Arahime-chan, thank you," he said.
He drank in the sight of her. She was so beautiful, framed by the purple blossoms that fell from above and danced between them. They met eyes, for just a moment. A look that perhaps promised more. All that she had gone through, and she had emerged stronger still. Still the same, but more than that.
But it was Harun who looked away first, uncomfortable in the moment. I need to be more honest with her first, he thought, tell her about Shimekiri, and my mother Yamada.
And hopefully, that won't ruin things…

"I've missed you, Arahime-chan," he said.
Arahime steadily held Harun in her gaze, her grey eyes trying to puzzle out his feelings, and her own. "I have missed you too, Harun. Very much. I am so happy you are here. But I need to know: why did you come?"
"Well," he said, taking a moment to consider his answer. "After Toshi Ranbo father—my living one—had agreed it was a good idea that I get some distance from...what had happened.”
“Was this when you were sent to Seawatch?” Arahime asked.
“Yes,” Harun answered, but he didn’t elaborate.
Arahime blinked. But why would they send him there? “I guess it was...quiet?”
“Yes, yes it was,” said Harun. “But it was not long after that when we received word that you were alive and..." He took a breath, choked up with a little excitement. "And after that, it wasn't hard to find a way to get down here. So," he said, as casually as possible, "I came to see you, I guess."
Arahime looked away, trying to hide her blush. But she was drawn back to Harun's face. "That is very sweet, and Uncle Karasu was generous to permit you to come. But without an official duty, I expect you will have to return soon?"
Before Harun could actually answer, he heard footsteps coming from the street towards them.
Arahime lifted her parasol so that they could see who approached. A trio of native Ivindi women came forward and bowed deeply to the pair of samurai, their hands held to their forehands in their sign of deference.
They wore colourful garments of deep yellow and orange, some sort of wrap, that went around the body in a curious way that also came over the back of their head, like the hood of a cloak.
"Aspara, we wish to invite you to my daughter Devika's sagai," the middle-aged woman said in accented Rokugani, nodding to the younger woman beside her. "Your presence and knowledge of our traditions will no doubt be auspicious to her marriage."
The youngest, Devika, smiled shyly.
"Perhaps your friend can come as well," said Devika's mother. "May we know him?"
Arahime touched her forehead and the centre of her chest in response. "It would bring me great joy to share in the joy of your families." She glanced over at Harun. "This is Kakita Harun. Kakita Harun-sama."
It seemed odd she would introduce him like that, until Harun realized she was offering the name and the honorific so the non-native speakers might know the correct term and not accidentally give offense.
The women smiled and gave Harun a second bow.
"He is my....classmate,” Arahime explained. “We went to school together and our families were close."
The third woman, the oldest, her white hair slipping out of the folds of her wrap, gave a toothless smile. " have not taken him as your lover yet. That explains his dhang."
Arahime's cheeks blushed and her eyes widened with embarrassment. She blurted out a few phrases in rapidly-fired Ivindi. Harun had never heard her speak a different language before, except for a few halting practice phrases at her father's knee....Kousuda was a linguist, but his daughter was never one for those gifts. The women giggled and spoke back in the same language, but Arahime responded with a terse phrase.
The old woman bowed deeply again to Harun, her face composed in a sincere apology. "I apologize, Kakita Harun-sama. The stories say that to be with an Aspara is the greatest of all gifts. But I know your ways are different, and the Aspara is of your lands. I meant neither you nor the Aspara shame."
"There is no shame," said Harun, quickly finding his voice. "I do look forward to observing the customs of your people. Arahime has been telling me how welcoming you have been to her."
The three laughed at Harun's polite response, and Devika's mother said, "Then you are welcome to come, Kakita Harun-sama. We will be at the house of Bhrigu Mahanti, the Potter, two hours before the sun sets. We thank you."
They bowed again and headed off into the crowd.
Arahime, managing somehow to tame her blushes but still embarrassed, stood, putting her folded parasol over her shoulder. "We've been talking for hours,” she said. “I should return to the Embassy before people start asking questions."
Harun agreed. They left, Harun staying close to Arahime as they made their way back through the Temple District. As they went, Harun felt a pricking sensation at the back of his head. Were they being followed? Harun glanced behind them, but all he could see was a throng of faces, nothing stood out.
He escorted Arahime back to the embassy, cautious as they went. When she was safely inside, he made a leisurely stroll back to the inn. Taking his time, seeing if he could draw the pursuer out. He caught a glimpse of him here and there in the crowd, bald, a green robe and...was that a staff?
A monk?
Now satisfied that he was alone, the monk approached.
"Is it not a little unusual for a monk to move with such stealth?" Harun asked casually.
"Perhaps you don't know much about monks, Kakita-sama," said the monk. "I did want to trouble you with a question."
"Is it of the Tao?" Harun asked. "It seems a little hot to discuss such deep matters."
"No, no, far more pedestrian," said the monk. "Just curious about one such as yourself, garbed as you are, looking as you are have come to the Second City on the first ship?"
Harun examined the monk warily. This might have been an impertinent question for a samurai to ask, but not a monk. "I might ask why a monk is asking such questions."
"You might," said the monk with a wink. "It could be perfectly innocent, it has been years since I was in Rokugan and I could simply be asking for news from home."
"Or it could not be," suggested Harun, grinning. Innocent or not, he decided he liked this monk.
"Let me buy you a drink and you can decide," said the monk, gesturing towards a tavern. "My name is Midori.”

Midori? thought Harun with astonishment, Midori the Monk? The one who met Yoritomo? Who took an epic voyage to Merane? That had faced down a giant Oni with seven legs? Surely, this must be some sort of joke...
If it was a joke, neither of the were laughing. They entered the tavern, Agni's Fire. Aside the worked wood screens, it was similar to others Harun had been in. Places to sit and drink, places to stand and drink, and places where games of chance were played and then the results disputed over outside.
Midori ordered them sonti, a beverage similar to sake in its make and taste. Harun thought it not a bad likeness, though drier than he liked.
"You're staring," said the monk. "Do I have a wart on my nose or summat?"
"No, no," said Harun, shaking his head. "It's just...Midori the Monk, I didn't think you were real."
Midori slammed his fist on the counter and ordered more drinks. "That's real enough, ain't it?"
"I guess," said Harun, taking a sip of the second drink. "But the stories of Midori the Monk, the pirate captain who joined the brotherhood..."
"Hmmm?" Midori said, cocking an eyebrow. "What’s it that they say about me?"
"That you met the Emperor, that you met Yoritomo," said Harun. "That you fought a seven-legged Oni."
"Bah, that last one's not true," said Midori. "The thing had eight legs, not seven. Ripped one off to beat it to death with."
Harun shook his head.
"Does it matter if it's true?" Midori asked.
"I guess not," said Harun.
"Ahhh!" said Midori, smiling and pointing at Harun in satisfaction. "Now, I think you're starting to get it."
Harun smiled back, finished the second drink. It was good, this sonti stuff, but it went to his head deceptively easily. When he looked up again he caught Midori staring at him with a sly smile on his face.
"What is it?" Harun asked him. "Do I have something on my face now?"
Midori shook his head. "No, it's just that a dark face isn't something that is seen often above Crane fashion," he said slyly. "Nor is it oft found close to pale-haired Crane maidens who favour wearing Invindi jewellery."
Harun frowned. "All that proves that you were following me, which I already knew."
"Oh, I know more than that," said Midori, ordering more drinks.
"What else do you know?" Harun asked.
"I know who you are," said Midori said, giving Harun another sly smile. He pointed at Harun again. "Kakita Harun, former Topaz Champion, Chui of the Takano Unit, one of the ‘heroes’ of Toshi Ranbo, the Gaijin Crane, slayer of Shi..."
“Keep your voice down,” said Harun, warily looking around. "And that's hardly revealing if you have spoken to the right people.” He put his cup down; he was starting to have second thoughts about this monk, and his head was starting to spin a little.
"I may already have," said the monk, dropping the jovial tone in his voice and lowering it slightly. "Like your mother, Utaku Yamada."
Harun narrowed his eyes. While his real mother and father weren't exactly a secret, it generally wasn't known by people who didn't know him or had at least known his parents.
So he has either done his research well, Harun thought, Or...he is telling the truth.
"You have my attention," said Harun, lowering his voice as well.
"The Crane girl, there are those who wish her harm," said Midori, his voice low and with an edge of steel.
"She told me that none would touch her," said Harun.
"Bah," said Midori. "The ones I’m talkin’ about don't care about that, and they know how to get close to her."
"How?" Harun demanded, his voice rising a little.
Midori finished his drink. "You're a smart boy, Harun, you'll probably see more traps than your mother did," he said. "You should know what to do."
He stood up.
"You can't tell me more?" Harun asked.
"I can," said Midori, picking up his staff. "But I ain't going to. I'll find you again if I need to." He left the tavern, using his staff as support for his wavering footsteps.
Harun sat there for a moment, stunned in silence by the revelation. Then he stood up, headed out quickly. He had to tell Kousuda.

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Tue Jan 15, 2019 7:05 pm

Arahime trailed up the steps to the Embassy, leaving Harun behind as he passed through the building's great gates. She left the parasol with the servants of the Embassy, asking in flawless Ivindi for a meal to be sent to her room.
She slid the door shut behind her and sank to the ground. Her side hurt.
Are you all right, Little Sister?
The soul within the navrathan haar seemed as serene and patient as ever.
"Yes." It was just pain. Nothing more.
You like him.
He had changed. She hadn't missed the tightness in his stance, the tension in his broad hands when she asked him about Toshi Ranbo. It truly must have been as terrible as she feared. He did not speak of finding his mother, though Arahime had not forgotten what it was that he had left to seek. There was a great pain there that he was keeping hidden.
She remembered vividly hiding him in a cupboard when the bullies would come to take another swipe at him for his gaijin name and his gaijin skin. How she would threaten to fight the whole school if she had to to protect him.
She could not protect him from what haunted him.
She saw the way he moved, now. The easy grace. The effortless saunter as his blade rode lightly on his hip. The steady confidence. She had walked like that. Maybe not quite the same. But in the way Harun himself leaned over her protectively as they walked, she knew. He was just like her father. Just like Doji Sawao and Asahina Manami who had told her plainly, and the other courtiers who had hinted. Harun did not think she could protect herself. Helpless. Useless.
"I'm not useless!"
The servant sliding open the screen to bring her meal glanced up, nervous and surprised as Arahime said the words aloud. The samurai-ko turned her head away and let the heimin set the tray down and quietly depart.
Is being useless truly what you fear?
Arahime hesitated, and had to acknowledge Big Sister with a slight tilt of the head. "I know what use I am. No school will take me now. I am marked by the gaijin. I will serve to bring glory to the Crane in a prestigious marriage." Not in Zogeku...but Unicorn, Phoenix...Mantis. Someone who would ignore the barbaric reputation she was developing in light of her great revelation and the glory it bestowed. Proper service to the clan in a proper way. And she feared it.
Is marriage what you truly fear?
The spirit within the necklace, the navrathan haar, was calmly insistent, pushing. Arahime's breathing slowed. She closed her eyes and tried to examine her own feelings one by one in the peacefulness of the void.
"No. I don't fear marriage. I fear losing him."
Arahime ate her meal in silence, and there was no sense of Big Sister for a time. When she was finished eating, she stood and went to the saraswati veena that had been given to her by the Ivindi. It held a pair of rounded gourds, but had strings like the shamisen she used to play. She knelt and rested one end on her shoulder, her fingers picking out a traditional Rokugani shamisen piece on the unfamiliar instrument. Her fingers fell easily to their places on the strings.
You let the world move you. Like the candleflame, you bend to the breeze created by the wings of others. This is why you fear.
Arahime wanted to deny the truth in Big Sister's words. But all her life she had been bound by her duties and promises and her desire to fulfill all the obligations that had been placed on her. Last of the line of Kashiwa....the line of Kenshinzen since the founding of the Empire. But that line had been broken a generation ago with the death of her grandfather at the hand of Daigotsu Shimekiri. And though she had dreamed of picking up that fallen standard, there was no hope for it now. At least her brother Mushari still served.
Even acknowledging she could no longer be Kenshinzen, she still bent to the will of others. Too much fire and air.
"I cannot oppose my Lord. I have duties to my family and my clan and the Empire. I can't just abandon that to chase after Harun or anything else."
No. But that family does not know the gifts you have. They cannot see your strength, because you have not learned your own strength in order to show them. Once you have learned, then they will see. You will be able to shape your own path, in the courts, in your life. You will show your lord you can still serve in a new way. Is that not what you wish?
She was right. Courtiers were supposed to shape the hearts of men, move the courts, direct the actions of the clan and the Empire. That was what her mother did. Bushi served and obeyed. But if Arahime was to serve without a sword, she must see the world as something that could be shaped, not just survived. Maybe she could shape out a future with Harun in it somehow. And if not, at least she might be able to shape some measure of say in her own destiny.
The schools of the Crane would not teach her those skills. She was too old, and she had been branded with a gaijin taint for the things she had done. They would not accept her now.
I will show you. There are many ways. But you must be patient, with yourself. With me. I can only teach as I was taught. We have been very far apart, lost little sister. You are so innocent. But you can learn.
Images slipped through Arahime’s mind. The concerned looks. The pain. Harun’s easy grace…protecting her, when she was supposed to be protecting him. Helpless
“Teach me.”

When Kakita Kousada returned to his chambers late in the evening, he heard the sound of music coming from his daughter's room. He had been the first to teach her how to pick her notes out on the shamisen, taught her the traditional melodies of Rokugan, and a few from the lands of his travels. He had seen the strange instrument the Ivinda had given her, the songs she had played before on it were familiar, a peaceful reassurance to him as he drifted off to sleep that his daughter was here and unharmed.
But tonight, the instrument twanged with a completely new melody, quick and resonant, similar in many ways to the gagaku music he was so familiar with, but building into dancing crescendo that was beyond the capabilities of the shamisen and accompanied by a sustained drone from the extra strings. It was not displeasing, and yet, thoroughly...gaijin.
I am losing her. I need to take her home, but she will not go. And I am losing her.

Kousuda was still lying in the sweltering darkness, seeking Yumi-Do, when an Embassy servant rapped on the door to his chamber. He bore a terse message from Kakita Harun, begging to see him even if he needed to be roused from his bed. Kousuda sent the servant away to show the boy in and roused himself, straightening his indigo juban. Nights like this would make any man go grey. He took the moment to lay out his tea set.
Harun entered, rumpled and sweaty, as though he’d walked the day in the city and not yet had the chance to bathe.
"Konichwa Harun," the older man offered. "I do hope this late arrival of yours isn't serious."
"I am afraid it is, oji-san," said Harun, sitting opposite him.
While Kousuda poured the tea, Harun outlined the conversation he had had with Midori the Monk earlier that evening. Kousuda's kept his face carefully controlled, his on perfect, but it was only a mask for his worry.
"Are you sure you can trust this?" Kousuda asked, his voice low and tense.
"I'm not sure," said Harun. "But I think it is a mistake to not treat it as serious, given the tension with the Rinjin."
"That is true," Kousuda said, thoughtfully. He took a sip of tea. "What did you say the monk's name was again?"
"Midori," said Harun. "I thought it was a joke..."
"Wait!" Kousuda said, putting down his teacup and snapping his fingers. "Midori....Waito?"
"Waito?" Harun looked at him in confusion.
"Midori the Monk was Yoritomo Waito, before he joined the Brotherhood," said Kousuda. "Did he speak like a Mantis? Like a pirate?"
"He did..." said Harun, remembering. "Why? He is certainly a monk now."
Kousuda shook his head, remembering. "Desert cats don't change their spots too easily. I know he wanted to make good, after what had happened..."
"What happened?" Harun asked.
"It was before you were born, in the darkest days of the Onyx War,” Kousuda explained. “The Mantis were being led by a man, Yoritomo Ichido. He claimed to hold the power of Yoritomo, and bore Yoritomo's kama. He did hold a great power, power he needed to save his people. But that power was given to him through an artefact of dark and evil magic...a Black Scroll. That scroll was given to him by the monk you met. Yoritomo Waito as he was named then.” He sighed. “As I understand it, this all came to light in a meeting in the Emperor’s chambers. Much that happened during that meeting is held secret. But the Emperor understood, considering the dark times and the ways many clans had sinned, that it was done to allow the Mantis to survive. He permitted Waito to retire to make amends. This was very unusual. Waito was a charismatic and charming man, and we all felt then that he had acted out of the best intentions. But the harm done by using the Scroll did a terrible blow to the heavens, a sacrilege which will never fully be made right. Kyoumi and I have done our best, over the years, to make things better. But I don’t think that our relationship with the heavens will ever truly heal."
Harun listened to this thoughtfully. "Why would he be sneaking around like this if he is trying to ‘make amends’?" he asked. "It all sounds a little...sordid."
"Yes, that word aptly describes Waito,” Kousuda agreed. “Though if it would describe Midori...well, he could have presented this information to the Embassy at any time. A Daidoji escort could be provided for Arahime immediately. He could have come to me...her father and a man he knows. But he chose not to. He came to you. A stranger to him. Why?"
He steepled his fingers, thinking aloud.
"He is a man who would, at least once upon a time, do anything, no matter how evil or how much dishonour it brings him....use a black scroll, sacrifice his samurai status, lie, achieve his goals,” Kousuda continued. “While those goals might be most worthy, it is important to know what those goals are. He is loyal to a fault. So who is he working for now? He did not share those things with you."
"No, he didn't," said Harun. "I think he wanted me to trust him. That's why he gave the warning. He also told me he had known my mother Yamada...did he?"
"We shared a winter court. They were acquainted,” answered Kousuda. “I would not say that he was a man your mother was close to or confided her secrets to, but he knew her. It was a small court, and Yoritomo Waito made a big impression.” He thought a moment. “I think you are right...he wished for you to trust him. And I doubt his warning was made with ill intent." Kousuda's dark eyes looked away, as if reflecting on a lifetime of memories. "It is important, I suppose, that you remember there are good men, and evil men, and many who are some of each. Now....what about this threat to Arahime-chan?"
"He wasn't specific," Harun said. "He said that there were those that wished to do her harm and they knew how to get close to her. I would not have thought there was anything in it if I hadn't seen it for myself." He paused, looking down at the table. "The Rinjin, looking at her as we passed them yesterday..." He looked up at Kousuda with pleading eyes. "Oji-san, how much longer is she going to be here? Surely with the danger to her, the best place for Arahime-chan to be is back home in Rokugan."
"I know, and I have said the same to her, Harun-kun," said Kousuda with a sigh. "She feels that she has a duty to stay."
"A duty?" Harun asked. "For what?"
Kousuda shook his head. "I do not know. I think it is related to what was asked of her by Shiba-no-kami,” he said. “But she will not say. She believes I will stop her if she tells me." He sighed. "I need to leave and return to Rokugan, and soon. Kyoumi deserves word of how Arahime fares, and the Daidoji will get angry with me if I linger longer. Perhaps you will be able to find out what I have not. Or maybe you can convince her to leave."
"I don't think I will be able to convince her if she feels so strongly," said Harun. "But…” To Kousuda, he sounded like an eager child, begging to be taken to the marketplace. “...I could stay here with her, it's not as if I have anything to get back to, save going back to Seawatch, and this is one duty I will undertake gladly."
Despite misgivings, Kousuda relented. He means well, at least. "For now, certainly,” said Kousuda. “Watch her. If the opportunity arises to find out what her goal is, or to persuade her to come home, then take it." He allowed his expression, then, to turn dark...finally allowing the true depth of his concern to show, if only slightly. "I must tell you. Things have changed, since she was lost. Not merely the injury. There is more; I cannot put my finger on it. I need you to keep her safe. I need you to bring her back, Harun. Hopefully this threat is nothing. Midori heard some random mutterings from some angry Arashi upset that their coup was thwarted, and he is using it as a way to win your trust. But she could use your help."
"I will," promised Harun solemnly. "I have noticed the change in her myself, it is...hard to explain. But I am hoping, with time, she will tell me herself."
Soberly, tiredly, Kakita Kousuda answered, "I hope it will be so. Let me know if anything happens."
Harun bowed. “I will disturb you no longer, oji-san,” he said, departing.
Kousuda returned to his futon, but all hope of Yumi-do was lost.

I’m not really disobeying my father, Arahime thought with a slight pang of guilt as she scrambled, carefully, down the drooping flowered creepers that hung near her window and let herself fall with a thud to the manicured garden below. After all, he never really told me I could not leave. She just had overheard him ordering the Embassy guards to not allow her to leave until he returned. That she had hid from him after overhearing after that…well, truly she was doing the guards a favor. She would not want to inconvenience them by making them go to all the trouble of finding her and stopping her. I’m sure they’ll even thank me later for letting them have such a peaceful afternoon.
Besides, she thought. Harun was invited too. He’ll guard me.
Arahime shoved the pulse of anger at that deep inside as she trotted across the cobblestones towards the gates between the Imperial District and the Military district. It was broad daylight. The Rinjin all had been ordered not to touch her. Surely she should be able to defend herself from common bandits! “I can defend myself against a few bandits, she grumbled to herself. But Harun was invited anyway.
After a deep breath, she pushed the jealousy aside. She did feel grateful to the Ivindi for the invitation to the sagai. Sometimes it seemed like her father wanted to keep her like a caged bird. She’d been trapped in cages too long.
A few inquiries about the distinctive Crane samurai quickly directed Arahime to the military district and the Harada Dojo she had pointed out to Harun the day before.
There he was, naked to the waist like the other bushi there, training in the heat of the day. He stood before them, a few Crab but also some Lion,watching him do the Thousand Days long form, his training sword a blur as he moved. Arahime sidled up to the window and peeked in, masking the twinge of pain that reminded her that such feats of endurance was beyond her now.
But still, it was something to watch Harun dance with his blade, the practice sword painting the sky with his motions. It was comforting, reminding her of the days at the Academy when they used to watch each other to critique their form.
It was familiar…and yet different. He had clearly improved since the Academy, not just in technique but in confidence.
What would he be like to face? Arahime wondered.
She noticed the scars that crossed Harun’s skin, from battle no doubt. And then as he turned, something else on his left shoulder blade. A tattoo.
The corner of Arahime’s mouth twisted in a quiet smirk. So, how many other things have you not told me, Harun?
The blade was stilled, and a younger student passed Harun a towel to wipe his face. The bushi crowded around him and Arahime could hear bits of their discussion, comparing techniques. Harun gave a nod and all but one of them stepped back.
The two took up fighting stances and bowed, then stared each other down. Harun’s opponent was slightly bigger than he was, but that didn’t matter; Harun was faster. He attacked first, lunging in with his practice sword before his opponent could guard. Arahime couldn’t even see it, but she knew where it went. His opponent tried to attack again, but Harun was ready with an upward diagonal cut, throwing him back.
He’s good. He’s very good. The realization hurt.
But where Harun’s kata showed purity in form, sparring showed the changes in his technique. Faced with an opponent, Harun’s style was fiercer, more aggressive. Even so, Arahime sensed that he was holding back, keeping his true strength in reserve. Like a hidden fire.
Arahime had begun to slowly turn away when Harun saw her. He stopped, staring at her in a white hot fury.
“Arahime! What are you doing here?” He ran out of the dojo and dragged her inside, looking around as they went as if he expected assassins to jump out from every shadow.
“I…I came to take you to the sagai” she said choked out, face flushed with embarrassment. “It’s starting soon, and we promised we’d go.”
“I was going to come for you,” said Harun. “You didn’t have to come here; you shouldn’t be here.”
Arahime glared at him, letting the anger cover her shame. “I can take care of myself.”
“I know…it’s just…” Harun took several deep breaths to calmed down. “I’m sorry I got angry with you, but I get worried.”
“It’s fine,” she answered, her hand forming a fist at her side. Helpless.
Harun quickly introduced Arahime to the other bushi. Most of them were guards or Yojimbo, but Matsu Hayate was gunso of his unit.
“I need to wash,” said Harun, drying his face with the towel and draping it over his shoulder. “Arahime, you need to stay here until I get back.”
“We will stay with her, Kakita-sama,” promised Matsu Hayate.
“Thank you,” said Harun.
Arahime glared at his departing back. She had once more been put in her place.

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Wed Jan 16, 2019 4:56 pm

Much research has gone into this chapter, enjoy!

The sun had not yet set, but the day was cooling and the sun was low in the sky when Arahime approached the Ivinda district of the city. The houses there were of stone, like many others, built to resist the rains. Tile-roofed balconies encroached on the street, and each house was wall-to-wall with the next. As soon as they entered the district, they were met with a small group of happy children who eagerly grabbed Arahime's hands as they led her to the potter's house. A younger child, too little to know better, took Harun's hand to lead him along also, forcing him to carry the box of brightly coloured spring mochis in the other hand. Arahime glanced back over her shoulders at Harun as she was pulled along, giving him a concerned expression to make sure he did not get angry. She seemed more a part of this Ivinda district than a daughter of Rokugan in the waning light. She had changed in the back of a small shop before they had reached the district, and now wore a strange wrap of blue and gold over a shirt of gold, and also more of her gaijin jewelry: a nose ring with a delicate chain, earrings, and bracelets, as well as the collar of gold and diamonds. Harun looked at her in surprise when she emerged wearing it, but decided he rather like it
He also saw some sour looks that she had earned from some of the Rokugani they had passed on the streets. But from the welcome she received, it was clear that these clothes and these jewels meant something to the native people who welcomed her.
"Apsara! Apsara!" the children shouted as they herded the samurai into one of the houses, stacked with brightly glazed pots in front of the door, from which there was the sound of music playing.
The houses was loud and crowded and hot. People sitting on the floor and so close they were almost elbow to elbow in some places. Talking loudly, laughing, drinking and eating and passing platters of strange food to each other. In a small corner were the musicians, playing an exotic and wild tune on strange string and wind instruments.
This came to a stop when Arahime entered; many of the locals stood and came close to greet her. Bowing in the strange way the Ivinda did: pressing their hands vertically together and pressing them against their foreheads. Some of them even tried to touch Arahime, brushing against her as they invited her closer. This worried Harun, they seemed friendly but there could be easily one among them with a knife or something far more insidious.
Fortunately, they dispersed at the sound of several curt, but perfectly jovial, words of Ivindi. A man emerged; he wore a bright green tunic that put Harun in mind of the deel that some of the Moto wore. By his side was a woman in a green Ivinda wrap, her head covered at the back. Both bowed deeply to Arahime.
"Apsara, you greatly honour my house, my family and the wedding of my son with your presence," he said in heavily accented Rokugani. "I am called Javed and this is my wife Kaliyani. The sagai will proceed shortly, please treat my house as your own."
Arahime, in response, kissed her finger tips, pressed them to her heart, and bowed to Javed and his wife. "I rejoice with you in this celebration of life," she offered in Rokugani, followed by a string of Ivindi as fluent as any other in the room.
Harun bowed as well, a formal Rokugani bow that until now never felt out of place.
Formalities over, there was a great cry of excitement as the would-be groom entered the room. "Sackhcham! Sackhcham!" The women and the children moved to the edges of the crowded shop, while the men were pushed forward close to the handsome, and nervous-looking, young man who stepped into the chamber. Javed pulled Sackhcham further into the centre of the room, and then gestured for the other men come and sit around the handsome boy, including Harun. The men came and sat on the carpeted floor in a circle.
Arahime stood to the side and gave a conflicted smile to Harun to offer encouragement.
Harun looked uncomfortable, but not for the reasons Arahime thought it was. True, the crowd of people in the room was unsettling, but that was nothing compared to the threat that could be coming at her at any moment.
Or is it?
Around him were smiling happy people, not one would harm a hair on Arahime's head. And all he knew from the threat to her life was from a Monk whose word was not known to be completely reliable.
Not a reason to completely let his guard down, but at least reason to not be completely on edge.
The music started to soften a little and someone started to sing, a slow haunting tune in Ivindi. But the talk and laughter didn't really stop. One of the women stepped out from the group against the wall, she carried a bright, colourful silk scarf in her hands. She approached the men, a broad smile on her face, and looped it around Sackhcham's neck. She then gave a little laugh and went back to the women. Sackhcham himself had his head bowed, his hands clasped together.
Then one of the men sat opposite Sackhcham, old enough to be his father. This was Eshan, Harun found out later, the bride's father. A tray with several items on it was passed to him. Eshan put his hand in a small bowl of some sort of red paste and applied a small smudge of it to Sackhcham's forehead. Sackhcham bowed and raised his clasped hands together. Eshan then began to give more of the items on the tray to Sackhcham, who held out the scarf in his lap to receive them. From where he was, Harun couldn't really see what was being given, but he thought he could see the glint of gold being passed between them.
More gifts were given, from Eshan to Javed the bride's father, ending with the two men draping bright floral garlands around each other’s necks.
The music started up again, the exotic, excited droning and the hand-drums. Eshan signalled the men to stand and leave the groom's side, and, with a shout of excitement, the young woman Harun saw the day before, Devika, entered, dressed in a beautiful wrap of red and yellow. She was smiling shyly as the women pulled her forward and sat her down near Sackhcham. The women gathered around her.
Devika's mother, Minakshi, tugged Arahime to the front to kneel right before the bride-to-be. Harun caught Arahime's eye as she was pulled past him. Her eyes widened, momentarily startled and confused. Harun took a step forward, ready to move Arahime to safety based solely on her expression. But then her grey eyes seemed to darken in the flickering light and she turned away from him. Her back straightened, her shoulders were set back and she gave a dazzling smile. She stepped towards the front of the women and knelt before Devika with a sensuous grace that Harun had never noticed before. She spoke warmly in Ivindi, her voice deeper, almost sultry. Arahime moved with a calm assurance as she joined hands with Kaliyani and Minakshi to recite some sort of prayer before Kaliyani passed several small items to Devika.
Kaliyani then put her own thumb into the pot of red paste, made a mark on Devika's forehead, and invited Arahime to do the same. Arahime smiled as she made the mark as if she had been doing this all her life.
Harun froze where he stood, watching this complete change go over Arahime. He had seen the like before, different but the same, when a powerful maho-tsukai would take possession of a person, forcing them to do terrible things. He had seen it himself first hand from the Mirumoto bushi he had killed in Toshi Ranbo, he had heard the Crab telling stories about it. Is this what had happened to Arahime?
Harun's hand instinctively went to his daisho. His eyes quickly went around the room, assessing the situation, how to minimise casualties. Would he have to kill Arahime? He hoped not, and without any Jade on him his blade would do little.
A trill of laughter pierced his thoughts. Full of joy with no ill. He saw Arahime smile at him, not quite herself but enough there to reassure him.
This can't be Maho, it's not like this, Harun realised, relaxing, his hand moving back to his side. This is different though, and I will need to know what it is if I'm going to stay.
The details of the ceremony over, Arahime turned back to check on Harun with the same storm-grey and concerned eyes as ever. Seeing he seemed to be doing all right, she gave a small smile and stepped back as the mothers of the bride and groom exchanged wreaths of colourful flowers and everyone cheered the happy couple. The musicians led everyone out into the street for dancing, and Arahime beckoned Harun to follow as she went out into the street.
The narrow square outside had been decorated with prayer flags and lanterns in honor of the celebration. The musicians found a mat to sit on in front of the potter's shop, and their musical efforts were driven to new heights as their melodies enticed all to dance. Drinks were poured and served freely to all who came, and quickly men and women were coming forward into joyous dance. It took only a few minutes until Arahime was pulled into the dancing with the other women, and she moved with the precision and grace of....
A Kakita duelist.
Harun stood there, the drink he had been given forgotten in his hand as he watched her dance. He had forgotten how good she was, even with her injury. Every movement, every gesture, practiced and perfected. But she made it look effortless, easy. Arahime was a soft breeze, rippling the grass; a lithe reed, bending in the wind; a graceful bird, raising its wings in joy to the setting sun. And as her hand came around in front of her face, he could almost see the blade in it.
What a marvel she would have been in the courts, what a joy it would have been to see her duel and what a tragedy that now no one ever would.
He almost wanted to cry for the shame of it.
Arahime had whirled away, caught up in the dancing and music with the other women...Devika, Kaliyani, Minakshi, and others...when a confused shout of concern came from one edge of the gathering. The dancers stopped to look around and the music trailed off. A black shaft tore through the dancers, straight towards Arahime as she was starting to turn. Minakshi, the mother of the bride, threw herself in the path of the arrow and it pierced her chest through. She slumped backwards into Arahime's arms, a short, fat black crossbow bolt jutting upwards, just below her collarbone.
The shouts of confusion turned into screams as Arahime lowered the woman's body gently to the ground.
Harun didn't speak, didn't even think. He just ran. Clearing the space between himself and Arahime in several long strides, drawing his katana and standing between Arahime and where the shot had come from.
It took only a quick glance to assess the entire scene, the confusion of the Ivinda, screaming and running in all directions in panic, the body at his feet with Arahime bending over her. He looked out into the darkness, from where the crossbow had been fired. Another shot could be coming, and there would no doubt be more with weapons.
He grabbed Arahime by the arm, firmly. When he spoke, his voice was cold and hard with the authority of an order. "We need to move, now. You need to leave her."
Arahime's face burned with humiliation, grief, and rage as she shook her arm free of Harun's grip and started pulling Minakshi's body back towards the relative safety of the Potter's shop. The Ivinda were beginning to clear the streets, and two of the men, Javed, the groom's father, and another joined her. They picked up the dying woman and brought her inside.
Eyes blazing, Arahime glared at Harun and put her hand on her wakizashi, ready to defend the Ivinda as they retreated.
Out of the shadow, closing quickly on Arahime, a number of men in Arashi armor advanced. One held a crossbow, its bolt expended, the others had drawn their katana. One cut down a young man that had stepped in his path to beg in broken Rokugani that the gathering was peaceful, that the Ivinda had done nothing wrong.
And out of the shadow came Harun. His face a mask of fury, his katana shining with cold steel in the dim light. With three swift cuts of his sword, he took out the first group of men advancing on Arahime.
One, a cut to his neck and shoulder, he collapsed to the ground.
Two, his sword arm severed at the elbow, both clattering to the ground.
Three, a strike at the neck, severing the head clean off and spurring blood everywhere.
All over Harun and Arahime. He quickly turned to her, the blood of the samurai he had just killed running hot down his face.
"They are after you! Get inside! Now!" He shouted, quickly turning to intercept the blade of an attacker with his own. "Take them! Go!"
For less than the space between two heartbeats, Arahime looked Harun in the eye with the defiant gleam she once used when facing down his bullies. But then, she obeyed. Barking out a few crisp words in Ivindi, turned, and ran into the potter's house. A second crossbow bolt slammed into the door as she hid behind the doorframe. When the last Ivinda had made it into a house, she slammed the door shut..
Within the house, her eye was pressed to the crack between the door and doorframe. Be careful, Harun, she silently urged. Be careful.
There were at least five Arashi remaining on their feet out of the eight that she could see. One carried a crossbow that he was currently reloading, in front of him two others with the curved talwar swords that the Rinjin used. Two more were coming from the sides. Harun's defiance had caught them by surprise. The Arashi clearly were not expecting to face anyone armed and ready to fight, let alone someone with experience in combat.
Harun’s quick dispatch of three of the attackers inspired courage in the Ivinda. A few doors opened, and they emerged, armed. They were not soldiers, they were not even warriors, but they had taken what they could--tools, sticks and rocks--to stand in defiance beside Harun in defence of themselves and theirs.
It wasn't much, and Harun wanted to save as many of them as he could but wasn't sure how much he could do by himself.
What I wouldn't give for Daidoji Akemi, Utaku Kenji or even Koharu to be here right now, Harun thought. But he couldn't want what he didn't have.
And they had to take out the rest before the crossbowman could reload.
Beside him was Sackhcham, a clay knife in his hand. "Are we going to rush them, samurai-sama?" he asked. His face was angry but his voice was eager.
"Yes, stay behind me," said Harun.
Hopefully I can draw them to me, he added in thought.
They charged at the Arashi, shouting battle cries at the top of their lungs.
The world narrowed to the gleam of steel and the spray of blood. The bright, lantern-lit street and starry moonlight could have been the muddy, rainy streets of Toshi Ranbo. The battlecries and shouts of pain became one with the memories from yesterday.
A sharp crack of pain across his hip was enough to snap him sharply to the present. He thrust forward in a low, brutal elegance, just efficiency. He saw a man in the green and gold of Arashi armour running down the street away from him. But as he looked up, there was a large unit of at least ten more Arashi bushi, led by a handsome man his own age with armour finer than the rest. The Ivinda, their numbers bolstered by a few more who had returned from the houses carrying tiger spears, stepped back in fear,
A roar from the other direction of the street, and Harun checked over his shoulder to see a unit of Lion bushi, so out of place for Second City, come running down the street towards the sound of fighting. Even as they ran, they drew their katana from their saya, seeing the bodies of Ivinda and Arashi Bushi, with a greater unit of Bushi ready to begin the fighting.
This is death. May the Lion stand with me against my enemies.... Arashi...Spider...Living....Dead...Harun set his stance against the incoming wave of Arashi, ready to meet the charge. His face was ice and his heart was stone.
A streak of gold and blue and white, moving with uncanny speed, darted between the converging forces.
The voice rang as clear as a horn's call through the clanging and battlecries of the fighting men's charge. A voice of command.
They froze. The street a mess of confusion between samurai and rinjin, Lion and Arashi. Harun and Seiho, glaring daggers at each other, their blades about the clash in combat.
And at the centre of it, Arahime, holding her hands up in a gesture of peace.
She's going to be cut to pieces, thought Harun.
"Arahime, get out of the way!" he shouted, more harshly than he intended.
"No! Listen to me!" she insisted.
He refused to. "You what these rinjin are like! You saw what they did!" He glared at Seiho. "There's no honour in such a massacre, not that they have any!"
Not after what they did to you…
Arahime turned away from Harun's fury. She shouted a few words in Ivindi, and then took a step towards Seiho and the samurai that followed him, both hands still raised. "Seiho-sama! Any day you could have killed me in the street! Or struck at these Ivinda whenever you wished! You have chosen not to. Your strength showed discipline! What has happened that you attack now?"
Arashi Seiho held out his arm to his side, blocking his men from charging forward towards the mad Crane. "I don't know what you are talking about,” he retorted. “It is he who slaughtering Arashi and Ivinda alike! I will not let this madness continue in my city."
"All is not as it seems." Still, satisfied that Seiho had answered with words and not weapons, Arahime then turned to the Matsu and her Lion bushi who had, with disciplined formation, checked themselves at the Matsu's command when she heard Arahime's cry. She pushed forward until she stood before them.
Harun, the blood slowly clearing from his vision, realized that this was Matsu Hayate whom he had met at the Harada Dojo earlier that day.
Arahime bowed to Matsu Hayate. "Thank you, Matsu Hayate-sama, for coming to our swift aid. But it is time for us all to reassess." She stepped out, vulnerable to the full forces of all three groups, still holding her hands up. "Seiho-sama, Harun-san, Matsu-sama, please let us determine what happened before more blood is shed."
Arahime returned to stand before Seiho. "There is some error that has happened and we must rectify it. Though, if I have given a new offense to you and that is why these men..." She gestured to the bodies of the Arashi that Harun had slain... "have come to kill me, then tell me. Let no more innocent lives be taken today."
She bowed with humble grace before Seiho. The Ivinda and the Lion slowly lowered their weapons.
Harun took a few deep breaths, the pounding in his head began to fade. But he did not lower his katana, not yet.
"Men in your colours slaughtered Ivinda where they stood," Harun said, not taking his eyes off Seiho. "Such an outrage must be answered with steel."
Arahime remained between the two bushi, slowly lowering her hands, and intentionally and visibly slowing her breathing. Seiho, facing her, subconsciously mirrors her own breathing and slowly lowered his weapon.
"It looks as if you slaughtered these Ivinda, not I." Seiho frowned. "But I brought these men when I was told there was a group in the city wearing our colours and false mons. We came to capture them. We had presumed they were ronin using our clan colours to gain favours without earning them in service."
Arahime interceded. "Harun-kun, let them pass. Seiho-sama...come, look at the faces. Bring your men. See if any of these are ones you recognize as your own, or if they are those you were looking for."
She spoke a few more words in the native tongue, and the Ivinda withdrew further, while one went to fetch some burakumin.
HE’S LYING HE CAN’T BE TRUSTED… But as the pounding in Harun's head faded, he could hear the earnestness in Arahime's voice.
Harun lowered his sword, and stepped aside to let Seiho pass showing his reluctance to do so. And when Arahime went with Seiho to examine the bodies, he was but a step behind her, his blade naked and ready.
Seiho stepped forward with his men. The Lion had lowered their blades, but stayed tightly in formation, observing silently, ready to strike at any sign of threat. Arahime offered Harun a calm, reassuring expression as Seiho bent over one of the corpses.
The burakumin arrived, and, at direction, turned the bodies and retrieved the missing head so the faces of the fallen could be seen. The men with Arashi Seiho looked over each in turn and consulted with their leader.
Seiho scowled. "These men are strangers in the city...not known to us,” he said “They must be the ronin. You said it is they that attacked you and the Ivinda?"
Arahime answered calmly, "Yes, Seiho-sama."
He sheathed his blade and eyed Harun with distrust. "You.” Seiho’s eyes bored into Harun’s “Don't think I trust you because of this. But I will let this incident pass. For the moment. Until we find the truth behind this."
"Indeed," said Harun, meeting Seiho's hard stare with one of his own. "I would welcome the truth as well."
He watched Seiho leave with the rest of the Arashi, making sure they were all gone. Only then he cleaned the blood off his sword and sheathed it.
The Lion dispersed, heading back from where they had come from. And the Invida were left to mourn their dead.
Arahime seemed torn...looking around at the grieving Ivinda as though she wished to help them. But they couldn't stay, Kousuda would no doubt hear about the disturbance in the streets, and he had promised to keep Arahime safe.
He stepped beside her, as she was about to go to Devka who was being comforted by her grandmother.
"Arahime-chan, we have to go back," he said to her, his voice was calm but insistent.
"No, not yet," she said, shaking her head. Her eyes were dark grey and clouded.
"Yes, now," said Harun, his hand firm on her shoulder. "We can come back in the morning."
She turned to glare at Harun, fists clenched. But then the darkness in her eyes cleared and she answered in a small voice. "I understand. I put them at risk. We need to get to the bottom of this."
But Harun could still feel her anger.
She followed Harun into the darkened street outside. In the square, a burakumin, wearing little more than a loincloth, came running up to the pair of Kakita samurai and dropped his forehead to the ground in front of them. He spoke quickly in Ivindi, his words and posture carrying his abject respect.
Arahime nodded as he lay a small, cloth-wrapped bundle on the ground at her feet, said a few words back, and lay down on the ground before him a number of bu which he snatched up eagerly. He backed up a respectful distance, stood, and ran into the twilight.
Arahime picked up the bundle, and continued to follow Harun. "The burakumin were required take the weapons and armour of those that attacked us to Seiho. But he has brought me all of the other things they carried,” she explained. “He said they had no tattoos or other markings on their bodies, though he said none yet have identified the men who did this as being of their own clan or family."
Harun nodded in acknowledgement, but he was far more focused on getting Arahime back to the embassy. They stopped at the Harada dojo to change and purify themselves but other than that, they did not stop, did not talk any further, just kept walking until they arrived back at the Crane Embassy.
It was well after dark by then, and a servant was waiting outside with a lantern. He ran to meet them, relieved.
"Kakita-samas," he said, bowing and conducting them inside. "Kakita Kousuda-sama has asked that you speak with him as soon as you returned." The servant led them to one of the main reception rooms of the embassy. He then quickly left to fetch Kousuda who arrived almost at a run.
"Arahime-chan, Harun-kun." Kousuda looked worried but relieved to see them. "Please, tell me you are unharmed. I heard there was some sort of disturbance in the Ivinda village."
"We aren't hurt, oji-san," said Harun. “Mainly due to Arahime. The attackers were dressed as Arashi soldiers. Then a group of actual Arashi soldiers arrived with some Lion bushi. Without her it would have been much worse."
Kousuda fixed Arahime with a firm glare. She glared back, then lowered her eyes, acknowledging her father’s authority. Kousuda sighed and had the servant bring tea.
"Tell me everything," he said.
Kakita Arahime straighten herself to sit properly before her father and Harun with proper respect. "We were invited to the sagai of Javed the potter's son.” She neglected to mention sneaking out the window of the estate. “During the dancing, a group of men armed with crossbows and tulwar, dressed in Arashi armor, attacked the group. There were maybe eight, maybe nine? I could not see. Harun defeated most of them. They killed Minakshi."
"She died saving Arahime's life," said Harun quietly. "She threw herself in front of a crossbow bolt." He looked up at Arahime. "You mean a lot to them."
Arahime looked away. Her voice was distant as she answered, "They are like us. Like what we almost were. They lost too much. They know I'm only trying to give some of it back to them."
Kousuda's eyes crinkled at the edges, though with laughter or to hide the mark of tears, it was hard to tell. "I forget sometimes, Arahime-chan, how like your mother you are. And then you remind me." He turned to Harun. "Is your leg all right? Shall I fetch the Asahina? I noticed your limp."
"It's fine," Harun said quickly and dismissively. Then he looked down at it, there was a nasty gash there from an Ivinda tulwar. He had been barely conscious of the pain in the urgency of the fight and to get Arahime back to the embassy. "Perhaps it's a good idea."
Kousuda nodded to the servant standing outside. "There will be one in your quarters when you get to the inn," he said. "I won't keep you much longer, but let me clarify one thing: these attackers were dressed like Arashi but were not?"
Harun almost wanted to say no, but nodded. "They wanted us to think so," Harun said. "Which I did, at first."
Kousuda raised an eyebrow at this. He had his own ideas about what had happened but said nothing of them.
Arahime drew from her obi the cloth-wrapped bundle the burakumin had given her. "They were carrying these. Maybe they will help us figure out who was behind this. " She unrolled the bundle, laying the contents out on the table.
Within, there did not seem to be anything unusual. A few small coins of various mint. Some dice. A brush. A small knife. And eight identical horn spoons, one broken.
Arahime shook her head. "Nothing seems unusual, except perhaps these spoons. "
Kousuda picked up one of the one of the spoons, and examine it turning it over in his hands. "Most curious," he said, putting the spoon down. " But I am sure we will be able to get more answers in the morning."
He bid them goodnight and when they left he was alone in the room. Then he let his guard down, letting the worry show in his face, running his hands through his greying black hair. Harun had saved Arahime, but how much longer would his luck hold out? He was a good swordsman but he was only one man against however many these attackers decided to throw against Arahime.
If only she would just come home with me…
It was another long and sleepless night for Kousuda.

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Mon Jan 28, 2019 8:46 pm

Asahina Masami was pleasant and friendly, she chatted with Harun as she tended to his leg, healing and binding the wound. Another scar to add to the many that were all over him. When she left, Harun settled quietly for a long time in the bath. His body was tired but his mind was full and whirling. And, from experience, he knew there wouldn't be no sleep for him until he was able to quell them a little.
So he didn't think about the attack at all, he focused on pleasanter things. His walk with Arahime through the Second City, how she had looked when she had danced with the Ivinda women...
When he did sleep, his sleep was troubled by nightmares. He was back at Toshi Ranbo, leading his unit through the winding, narrow streets that twisted and turned before his eyes and never seemed to end.
Then all of his men collapsed, clutching their bloody throats that had been cut. A figure in black turned to face him, Shimekiri, grinning manically just as he had when Harun had killed him.
"I told you that I would never leave you," he said, laughing hysterically as if at some hilarious joke. "You won't ever be as good as you need to be, you won't ever be as perfect as me."
"I don't need to be," said Harun, drawing his katana.
Harun attacked, but wherever his sword was, Shimekiri wasn't. Always appearing just over his shoulder, laughing raucously.
"You're not even a real Crane!" Shimekiri shouted, grabbing Harun's sword from out of the air twirling it around so the tip was facing Harun. "That's why you had to cheat. You'll never be one of them. They will never accept you! She will never accept you!"
"No! No!" Harun shouted, flailing for his sword but he was so clumsy.
Then behind him an explosion, a shot rang out and struck Shimekiri in the head, splattering blood and bone everywhere with acrid smell of gaijin pepper. Harun turned, and saw a figure in black holding a Tanegashima. When the smoke cleared he could see who it was. It was his mother Yamada.
Harun awoke in a cold sweat, panting hard.

A rainy autumn evening in Otosan Uchi. The occasional soft rumble of distant thunder interrupted the steady patter of rain.
Kakita Karasu sat behind his desk lost in thought. A painting of a waterfall in a valley hung behind him, above the Emerald Blade and his pistol.
The papers were stacked deep...reports from the various generals and magistrates reporting to the Emerald Champion. Before the fall of the Onyx, it was nice to imagine that a beautiful peace would settle over the land, but it was always unlikely. After a generation of knowing only war, even with the Onyx gone, peace seemed as hard to find as ever.
With victory, had come sacrifice.
Moshi Janisha’s last painting had arrived in Kyoumi’s house in the spring, it showed the former Mantis Champion gazing on Rokugan one last time. He and Kyoumi both knew what it meant, Yuhimi was dead and so was Janisha.
Toshi Ranbo, now firmly in their hands but one could only guess when it would be habitable again. Decades perhaps until they cleared the taint from the Onyx occupation.
And then there was Harun, his sacrifice of his future to kill Shimekiri had perhaps been the deepest cut of all. Karasu had hoped for much for him after the war, perhaps becoming a Kenshinzen. But that had all been gone in that explosion of gaijin powder, a disgrace that the Crane were still reeling from. It had been six weeks since he had left Rokugan to visit Arahime in Zogeku and Harun’s future was still uncertain.
Karasu felt tired.
There was a knock at the shoji, requesting permission to enter.
"Enter," said Karasu
The First Magistrate entered.
Kitsuki Shinpei was only a few years younger than the Emerald Champion. A solidly-built man with an appearance that might make him appear slow, nothing escaped his intelligent black eyes. He had risen through the ranks due to both his skills in investigation, but also because of his ability to document and assess the information sent to the Emerald Champion and manage such affairs well.
He slid the screen shut behind him and bowed. "Karasu-sama. I have tallied the reports for the last three months for those murders that match the Black Hand pattern, as you requested. There are...troubling trends."
Karasu let out a silent internal sigh. "Arigato, Kitsuki-san. Please go on." He motioned for Shinpei to sit.
Shinpei took his place opposite Karasu. He unrolled the scroll he was carrying.
“I believe it is better if I let this speak for itself,” he said, handing the scroll to Karasu.
The tallies were stark, the numbers all neatly copied from the records gathered by the Brotherhood of Shinsei, who recorded the death of each man, woman, and child in the Empire.

Crab Samurai - Scalded within the Do: 6
Crane Samurai - Exsanguination by Quill: 7
Dragon Samurai - Choked by Bamboo Scroll: 3
Lion Samurai - Disembowelment by Tree: 4
Mantis Samurai - Drowning by Gold: 4
Phoenix Samurai - Removal of Tongue and Hands: 3
Spider Samurai - Bisection by Impalement: 2
Scorpion Samurai - Flaying of the Face: 5
Unicorn Samurai - Removal of Heart: 6
Investigating Magistrates - Duel/Sword attack: 4

All in six months. The numbers were stark before him.
"For the previous eighteen months, the murders had decreased, as you had hoped they would, to no more than one or two per month,” elaborated Shinpei. “However, six months ago, the numbers had increased to thrice that. Since then, for the last three months, they have more than doubled. I have sent investigators to speak with witnesses and look at the incidents for at least a third of these, and they were all definitely the work of the Black Hand. And not from the Acolytes, either. Many are works too..." He hesitated to say 'Perfect', given the morbid context and the Crane he was speaking with. "have been executed with great practice and skill...more than would be expected by any but the original."
Karasu looked over the entire report, reading over the morbid details. Each bit of information cemented his resolve more and more.
Karasu put down the scroll down and turned to watch the rain for a moment. I know his task was ordained by heaven but this is becoming unbearable. Yamada is clearly not able to damn the river any longer.
"It is time,” he said decidedly. “With the end of the Onyx we must now turn our attention to this. The Black Hand must be found and stopped. Ready our magistrates. The Empire can no longer turn a blind eye. Their leader, Shiba Michio, is a brilliant tactician and he has powers beyond mortal man. He is too dangerous to be given free reign. But he is too clever to be found so easily."
His eyes fixed on the sheeting rain outside, Karasu listened to the musical pitter-patter of rain on the roof. Finally he accepted what must be done.
I am sorry Yamada, you tried, but I can’t leave it you to you anymore more, Michio has forced my hand…
"Find me Utaku Yamada."
Shinpei bowed from seiza. "As you will, Kakita-sama,” he said “The Silent Maiden may prove as elusive, but I will turn all available magistrates to the task. Is there anything else?"
Karasu closed his eyes and crossed his arms. "No, you are dismissed."
The First Magistrate silently withdrew, leaving the papers.
When his subordinate has left Karasu looked over his shoulder at the painting. "One day," he sighed. He pulled out a new piece of paper and a brush and began writing a letter.
To my son Harun…
The rain, and the echoes of thunder, continued their song.

[div]The sun was beginning to filter through the pale shoji screens as Kakita Kousuda stood outside Arahime’s doorway. Unwilling to allow his daughter to slip out again, he was waiting for her when she arose.[/div] "Arahime-chan,” he said to her, firmly but gently. “You are not permitted to leave the Crane Embassy today. Not until we know who the assassins are who were trying to kill you."
His Wildflower Princess frowned. “You don’t know it was me. What if it were the Ivinda they were after?” She argued. “They could be trying to cause trouble between the Ivinda and the Arashi…It could lead to a rebellion.” He eyes smarted with defiance. “ I said I was going to check on them today…I was going to investigate.”
"No.” Kousuda’s tone invited no further objections. “The assassins were targeting you. We received word two days ago that there was a plot to kill you. You must stay in the embassy where you will be safe."
"If you want me to be safe, let me have back my katana. I can defend myself." Arahime’s eyes blazed with anger.
Kousuda sighed. " You grow winded fighting one opponent, Arahime-chan. Your knees buckle after your second sparring match. Yesterday, there were maybe nine standing against you. Would you have been able to fight them?" He quipped an eyebrow up sceptically.
Arahime's pursed her lips in a pout that Kousuda could remember well from her childhood. Though it made his heart ache to do it, he continued. “The Embassy has received four challenges against you for duels already.” Not all of the Phoenix are pleased with the message that Shiba sent to you. Those duels have been denied due to your injuries, and Doji Sawao and the other Kenshinzen have been offered in your place.” His voice grew grave. “If you were take up the sword again, you could be compelled to fight some of the best duellists the Phoenix have to offer. And if you fail, where would Shiba’s will stand then? You know this. We’ve spoken of it before.”
Arahime’s anger banked a small amount, but in Kousuda’s mind’s eye, he could see in his daughter a hawk throwing itself against the bars of its cage in its bid for release. “It’s not fair,” she answered, voice hardly above a mutter.
“I know,” he said, closing his eyes. “Finish your mission here in the colonies, and you can return to Rokugan. You will be safe from these assassins and we can figure out how to place you, and the Phoenix, in such a position where your word will not be questioned. Then you can take up the sword again.”
She looked at him steadily for a moment, and then turned away in shame. The dawn’s light sparkled on the elaborate gaijin necklace around her throat.
They would trust you more, Arahime, if you did not indulge in such Gaijin things… Kousuda kept the thought to himself. After all, considering the way he served the Crane, the gaijin weapons he carefully designed, he would be the worst of hypocrites to deny her the trappings of her gaijin experiences.
“I’m trying to finish it,” she said. “But I don’t know where to look.” Arahime’s voice was small. Vulnerable. He did not answer as she swept past him, out into the courtyard.
When she was gone, the hallway was still.
Kousuda watched her go. She’s looking for something….
It didn’t take long for the pang of conscious to give up all its hesitation, surrendering as the ex-Ide slid the screen to his daughter’s rooms open and slipped in. You may have been married to a Crane for the last twenty years, but they haven’t killed off your Unicorn curiosity yet.
Arahime’s room was neat, as he expected from one trained at the Kakita Academy. He could see a small table with a beautifully carved box gleamed with the sparkle of exotic jewels. The gaijin jewellery she often wore when visiting with the Ivinda. The necklace, of course, was missing. The blue and gold wrap she wore that she called the sari was neatly folded separate from her other kimono. Kousuda poked around at the jewellery, but there was nothing there useful.
A small stack of books and scrolls caught his eye and he knelt down to read them titles. The Unicorn’s Return, The Glorious Exploits of the Mighty Chagatai, The Epic of the Son of Storms, The Song of the Sands, In Praise of Shinjo... So many titles having to do with his own birth clan, and yet Arahime had asked him nothing since she had returned relating to the Unicorn Clan. These stories verged on legend, myth…far displaced from the day to day realities of his own life in the clan. He smiled as his fingers brushed the cover of one of the books. This one was familiar; the cover was comfortable, bound by elaborately designed worn leather. The book had seen time on the road. He turned the page to see the list of stories within: Riders of the Wind, Djinn's Dilemma, Dragon Slayer, King of the Sea, and The Wandering Wizard. I gave this to Kyoumi, years ago..
Still there were no secrets here.
Finally, he turned to Arahime’s futon, neatly rolled in a pile at one end of the room, the sturdy wooden pillow neatly a its head. How long had it been since his little girl’s futon was rolled in his own house?
A knowing smile curved Kousuda’s lips and he went over to the wooden pillow, lifting it up. Yes. She has not changed that much. Just as she had hidden treasured Bekko-ame candies there as a child, here was a small scroll, scratched over with many notes in fine, tiny calligraphy. Kousuda settled himself beside the Futon and began to read.
When he was done, he carefully hid the scroll again and left the room, calling out to a servant.
“Bring me paper and ink, and messengers to Kenshinzen Doji Sawao and Ambassador Mushari. I need to meet with them as soon as possible.”

Harun didn’t go to the Crane embassy that morning, instead he looked for answers. He knew Arahime was waiting for him to take her back to the Ivinda village, but this was far more important. Until the threat to her life was removed, she had to stay safe. Surely she would understand that.
Midori the Monk though proved elusive. Many had heard of him, he was regaled with a number of stories including some he had not heard before, but no one could tell Harun where to find him.
“He comes and goes, like a bad wind,” said a glassmaker. “You know what he is like.”
“I am beginning to,” said Harun dryly.
As the day went on, the sun grew higher. The streets of the Second City started to empty as people sought relief from the heat of midday. Harun also sought shelter, heading in with a group of people into the House Morishita Embassy.
The embassy had an extensive garden in its grounds, wild and untamed and with no sense of order or traditional aesthetics that Harun had seen in in Crane gardens. The rocks, trees…even the stream had very little sense of design about it. Except for one place, the almond grove. Planted in a rough circle, the almond trees provided a shady floral canopy, their white blossoms giving off a soft scent, the hum of conversation blended in with a buzzing of bees overhead.
Harun sat beneath one of the trees, his back against the trunk. He closed his eyes, but only for a moment he promised himself. The heat had affected him more than he anticipated.
Then a soothing and thoughtful voice drifted towards him. “If one would gather honey, one must be prepared for bee stings.”
Harun opened his eyes to see Midori the Monk grinning at him.
“Did that sound good?” the monk asked. “Wise? Profound? I’ve been practicin’.”
Harun frowned and got to his feet. It had been a long hot morning and he wasn’t in the mood for jokes. “Where have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” He demanded. “And why didn’t you tell me more about the attack? I could have stopped it, people died!”
“You want the bees to hear ya?” Midori hissed. “Lower your horn.” He gestured for Harun to walk next to him. “I’ve been busy…monking. So have you, I heard—well obviously not monking.”
Harun glared at him but Midori seemed to be more interested in the butterflies.
“As for the rest…well, firstly, I told you all I knew,” he continued. “And second, had I told you more you’d have done something daft. Am I wrong?”
Harun didn’t answer.
“Ha, I thought so,” said Midori triumphantly. “Now, I could take you to the person who told me about this. But, I doubt you can be more convincing than I am.”
“I can be very convincing,” said Harun.
“You know, this is the sort of convincing you do without your sword?” Midori asks raising a sceptical eye brow. “And this is assuming he will talk to us, I’m not sure he will like you.”
“Take me,” said Harun, his eyes were set, his tone left no room for argument.
“Bah,” said Midori dismissively. He quickened his pace. “Keep up then.”

Doji Sawao slid the shoji screen shut behind him and scanned the room with the well-trained eye of a hawk of the courts, but there was no threats present except mild-speaking ambassador to the colonies…Doji Mushari, and the Daidoji’s pet Unicorn, Kakita Kousuda.
He repressed his contrary mood, dismissing it as an artefact of this wretched Zogeku heat. Those judgements were not fair. Doji Mushari was an accomplished courtier, dancing on a battlefield far different than the courts of Rokugan. And he had shown at least some steel in his dealings with the Warlord of the Colonies, the one they called Arashi Aram, son of the gaijin warrior Anshu. The Crane had at least managed to establish a relationship there after years of disrespect.
As for Kousuda, as a Kenshinzen, Sawao had strongly mixed feelings about him. He was a pleasant and genial courtier, skilled as many Crane courtiers he had met. On the other hand, he was born and raised a Unicorn, with their many gaijin ways. He was married to the Voice of the Emperor, truly a powerful position for one of unimpeachable honour, but there were rumours that he…made…things for the Daidoji. The weapons that threatened the art of the sword itself. For now, though, the concern was not for the father, for the child. Sawao knelt at the table. “You have summoned me to speak of Arahime, I suppose.”
Kakita Kousuda’s hands moved smoothly through the various motions of preparing tea, but it was clear his heart was far more intent upon his words. “Indeed. New information has come to light.” The once-Unicorn kept his face firmly impassive and his tone bland. “In addition to the threat that we have recently been alerted about upon her life, I have discovered what it was that Shiba sent her to find.” Kousuda shook his head. “She was a little foolish not to have come to me to begin with. But she will discover it very soon, and then depart. Have there been further decisions from Kyuden Doji?”
Doji Mushari, a genial-looking older gentlemen, picked up his cup. “Not yet. That poor girl. Kemari is a fun sport, if I remember the days of my youth. But I suppose not for the ball.” His voice was mild and unassuming. “ The Warlord still wishes to go ahead with this marriage with Seiho. He feels that it will help keep the Ivinda in line and he wants to use her to support his rule as he roots out this disloyalist faction among his own, and prevent that unrest from spreading to the Ivinda. They are quite taken with her. Of course...there are others that claim she has been corrupted with gaijin magics...”
Sawao scowled. “I’ve received two additional requests to duel her in the last ten days. Another Phoenix claiming that she has hidden the Soul of Shiba, demanding Ofushikai be returned. And a Dragon claiming this is a test of faith, and such a duel will prove that Rokugan still has faith in Tengoku in return for Tengoku’s blessings. Soon there will be blood.”
Kousuda stared deeply into his own cup. “The Phoenix wish to either duel her, or have her wed into their clan so that the new destiny of the Phoenix can at least come from a Phoenix. It is hard to deny them.” He shakes his head. “But it is not Shiba that she is looking for. She’s been sent with a message for Shinjo.”
Ambassador Mushari took a thoughtful sip. “Well, that is interesting, considering, if I remember my history correctly, Shinjo ascended to Tengoku shortly after the Twenty-Seven Days of Darkness and the….” he furrowed his brow “...the War between the Unicorn and Moto Tsume? More than a hundred and fifty years ago.”
Kousuda shook his head. “It is true that is what is generally known. But it is known, in secret, among the Unicorn, that she was reborn here, among us, in the Unicorn Clan, to whom she always swore she would return. She was reborn into the body of Moto Naleesh.”
Sawao fought the urge to roll his eyes. “The Unicorn Champion died nearly forty years ago, did she not? All respect to the Kami, but no one can know their past lives. You must make do with the present one.”
“So, perhaps, we all thought. But the Kami are something more,” Kousuda replied. “I learned two winters ago that Moto Naleesh lives. She was shot by a tainted arrow, and perhaps it was the power of a goddess’s blood or the will of the heavens, but her arm, and, with time, her body became encased in pure crystal. The shugenja of the Unicorn clan have kept her safe and hidden all this time.”
“Heh.” The kenshinzen Sawao felt a ripple of dark amusement.
Doji Mushari also seemed amused. “From the expression on your face, I see you know where she is.”
Kousuda seemed surprised at Mushari’s response. “In general, yes. And Arahime will learn it soon enough. I believe Shiba has given her the secret to break Moto Naleesh free.”
Mushari nodded. “I see. You called us here because we must make a decision now. For with Shinjo, she may earn the interest of the Unicorn too. And it will be difficult to favour one without causing insult to the others. Despite my personal distaste for the boy, the Crane have the most to gain with a marriage to Arashi Seiho, or one of the other Zogeku families, and keeping the peace in the colonies is of the utmost importance.”
The Ide-turned-Kakita sighed. “I do not want her to come to harm. If she were married into the Phoenix, the demands to duel will stop. The Phoenix should figure out their own destiny. She’ll be honoured with them, as she should be. The Nakados sent me word of one Shiba Tokikiyo. He seems a nice young man...a hero in the Emerald Legions...”
To Sawao’s eyes, though, it seemed as though Kousuda, however persuasively he argued for the cause, did not have his heart in the words.
Mushari had also noticed. “I know you pity the Emerald Champion’s son, Kousuda-san. But after what happened at Toshi Ranbo, it would take something truly extraordinary for Doji Ayumu-ue to allow such a marriage to go forward.”
“We await the Champion’s decision, in any event. The silence is frustrating, and I do not wish to force my wife to intervene,” Kousuda sighed.
Sawao could keep his peace no longer. “Then there is no reason to meet. What must be done is blindingly obvious. You must tell Arahime what you know of Shinjo, and let her get on with it. I see no purpose for keeping her here. If the kami have a destiny for her, let her get about it.”
Both of the courtiers looked shocked. “But what of the danger? The duels! Not to mention the political ramifications if she were to be captured!” They both protested over one another.
Sawao’s dry voice dripped with contempt. “We all live three feet from death. You do, and so do I. Arahime has a duty to perform. She’s been hurt, but she’s no invalid. She can’t duel, but she is not a child. She’s not a Phoenix, or a Unicorn, or a Rinjin or whatever it is they call the people of this kami-forsaken land. She’s a Crane. You took her sword. Let her keep her honour at least.”
Kousuda’s shoulders sagged, and his voice was soft. “You’re right. I lost her I have lost others before. I feel I could not bear it if I were to lose her again. The decision on her marriage can wait. I will tell her when she asks. She can travel north up the river by boat in relative safety. I have friends in Journey’s End Keep who can guard her for the rest of the trip, and that city is under Unicorn control with less unrest than here. She will be safe enough. She will need a yojimbo, though.”
“Kakita Harun is skilled enough to do the job. He was Topaz Champion, and battle-tested,” Sawao growled. “I cannot fault his swordsmanship, despite my contempt for his actions.”
“He may yet redeem himself,” Kousuda hastened to reassure. “At least I know Arahime-chan will accept him as a yojimbo. I am not certain she would accept another.”
Doji Mushari set down his cup and steepled his fingers. “I do not like this, but who am I to argue with a Kami about such things? You have my permission to arrange this expedition, Kousuda-san. The rest we must leave in the hands of the Champion of the Crane.”

Harun didn’t like this. The deception, the sneaking around. It was as he said to Kousuda a few days before, sordid. He preferred to deal with problems head on. But for Arahime he was willing to do anything to keep her safe.
Midori didn’t volunteer much as he led Harun through the narrow streets of the Second City’s merchant district. But he kept up a never-ending chatter of whatever came to his mind. Just as Midori was finishing a story which involved him being chased by three tigers, they arrived.
“This is it?” Harun asked sceptically. They were standing outside the residence of a spice merchant, signs in Ivindi and Rokugani advertised the far away places the wares came from.
“What were you expecting? A smelly dark alley?” Midori chuckled. “That’s how you get stabbed, boy.” He pushed open the door and they both went inside to the tinkling of bells.
Inside the shop was dark and pungent, what little light was given by the lanterns that hung from the ceiling. Harun could also see various bundles of spices handing from the ceiling too a few he recognised but many he did not. The spices were also lined up in jars pile high on shelves behind a counter, all the jars neatly labelled. The smell was overwhelming, but not unpleasant.
A curtain between the shelves parted as Midori and Harun entered, out came a tall man in a long haori, deep red with exotic embroidery. He wore a turban that drooped down over half his face and obscured his eyes. But as he walked towards them, he seemed to blend in with the darkness, as if he and the shadows themselves had made an agreement. The man examined them both, nodding at Midori but stopping—very briefly—when he saw Harun. He then turned to Midori.
“What is he doing here?” he demanded.
“Pleasure to see you too, Tosaku,” replied Midori mockingly. “And I have been well, thank you.”
“Subtle as a taiko drum as always,” said Tosaku. “I know who he is, why did you bring him?”
“Brought himself, that one,” said Midori. “Couldn’t stop him. Stubborn.”
“Well, if he’s like his mother…” Tosaku said thoughtfully.
“What?” Harun had been looking between them and had no idea what was going on. “How do you know who I am?”
“I knew who you were when you arrived here,” Tosaku replied. “Someone called the Gaijin Crane isn’t that subtle.”
“I suppose,” said Harun. “But can you help?”
“Why should I?” Tosaku asked, rather angry this time. “How do I know you’re not going to betray me like your mother did?
Harun blinked. “You knew her?”
“So much the worse for it,” answered Tosaku.
“I have only met her once,” said Harun. “I do not approve of what she has done or what she is doing…and I told her this.”
Tosaku looked at Harun curiously. Harun knew this was his only chance.
“Look, if you don’t want to help me, that’s fine,” said Harun. “But please, help Arahime-chan, if you knew my mother you knew her parents. Someone is trying to kill her. Help her…please.” He reached inside his clothing and brought out one of the spoons they had found on the attackers.
Tosaku looked at the spoon and then at Harun. “Fine,” he said, pulling back the curtain to give them access to the back of the shop. “Just don’t make me regret this.”
The followed him to a curtained room at the rear with a low table and cushions. There Tosaku left them with a servant who poured tea.
Once they were alone, Harun couldn’t wait for answers. “All right, who is he and how does he know my mother?”
“His name is Shosuro Tosaku,” Midori replied. “He has had…other names since, but that is how your mother knew him. He was one of the desert Scorpion the Unicorn were sheltering during that court where your father died.”
Harun frowned. “That doesn’t explain why he doesn’t like me.”
Midori shrugged. “I can’t answer that,” he said. “Perhaps its to do with your father Nakura?”
Harun nodded, it made sense.
Tosaku returned and sat across from them, the shadows seeming to cover him like a cloak. Midori slammed his hands palms down on the table, making the teacups rattle.
“So! Who is trying to kill this nice young lady?” he asked with a broad grin.
“I am not in the habit of giving gifts,” said Tosaku. “This will be an exchange. What can you offer me?”
Midori looked at Harun for a moment. Harun felt uncomfortable. The truth was, Harun did know things that he could offer in exchange. Kumo…the Kitsu’s prophecy… He was told never to reveal those, but if Arahime was in danger…
Midori’s voice cut into Harun’s thoughts. “Do you remember Suneki? The little girl the Dragon Champion Mirumoto Shikei had with the geisha?”
Tosaku nodded.
“Well, she’s Ide Ryuko now, got that marriage perhaps thanks to her mother,” said Midori. “Saw her at Journey’s End last winter. And the Dragon still don’t know about her. And as her father has been in the High House of Light so many years, they ain’t likely to.”
Tosaku was quiet as he considered this. Harun looked between them, would he help now?
“That’s enough,” said Tosaku. “What you are looking for are Spider Clan, they have several cells operating out of Second City. This one is the Spoon Cell, you can find them above the Third Eye Inn.” He looked directly at Harun, his eyes glinting behind his mask. “Three days from now, at the hour of the wolf is when they are going to gather with the rest. And if you are going to be as foolish as I think you will be, you may wish to take jade.”
Midori laughed.
“How do you suggest I find this place?” Harun asked Midori after they had left.
“I’m pretty sure I know it, I’ll take you by,” said Midori. “Need to make sure you make it back to your girl in one piece.”

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Wed Feb 06, 2019 2:06 am

The interior courtyard of the Crane Embassy was a quiet garden. It served primarily as a stone garden, the better to withstand abuse from the heavy monsoon rains. Some trees grew freely, but most of the plants stood in many pots of various sizes and shapes, clustered as if they were a natural garden now that the monsoons had ended. Although the flowers were tropical in nature, very foreign to Rokugani sensibilities, they been trained and shaped to Rokugani tastes. For many years, the garden had been woefully neglected, but the bevy of new servants that had come with the new influx of Crane dignitaries meant that there were fresh eyes on the inadequately-tended greenery, and everywhere there were signs of fresh trimming and training as the Crane once against tried to cut the wildness out of their Embassy garden.
Arahime entered the garden as the sun was setting in the west, painting the sky with delicate hues of pink and orange. She could feel her frustration bubble hot beneath her surface. She wanted to check on Devika and the others and had asked to leave, but her father and the guards denied her, and Harun had not returned to take her as he had promised.
I know it's dangerous. And I will obey. But...The pain of her own helplessness. The fact they considered her unable to use her sword...her heart knotted.
I can't live like this... She sank to her knees at the heart of that garden, on a stone by the edge of the pond full of colourful fish. The fish, recognizing her, gathered at the edge of the pond to greet her, their glistening, muscular bodies sliding smoothly past each other in a graceful dance.
This attack...why? Do they know about Shinjo? Are they trying to cut out the wildness from the Ivinda too? Or are they just trying to provoke a fight? Who would want to do that?
She tossed a handful of lentils to the fish, who churned upwards with mouths open, rapturously eager to see her.
It took effort, but, as she had before, she pushed all the frustration and impatience into the void, just as she had done during the long months of waiting and recovery. I will find another way. I can be patient. If only it didn't feel like it was her own family that was holding her back. She tossed another handful and watched the fish celebrate her coming to their tiny pond.
Harun had quickly changed before he returned to the embassy. He was directed to the garden and smiled when he saw Arahime by the pond. “Arahime, it is good to see you,” he said. “I have had a day.” He sat down gratefully beside her.
Arahime slowly turned stormy grey eyes to look at Harun. Incredulity coloured her voice as she said, "It must have been, for you to not come as you promised."
“I’m sorry, but it was important,” said Harun. “I was chasing up a lead as to who did the attack. He was hard to find, and his source was hard to convince. But I got it, I think.” Harun grinned. “He found me in the end, just like he did the first time.”
"You could have brought me, Harun." Arahime's voice was like ice, brittle and taut. "You could have told me about the threat. You could have been honest with me."
“What good would it have done?” Harun asked, trying to keep his voice calm. “We had no idea where it would come from or even if the source was reliable. At least, not until the attack...”
There was no mistaking the anger in Arahime's tightly controlled tone. "It would have meant something to me. It would have meant you had some small grain worth of respect for me, rather than treating me like a child...or a cripple." Her words were clipped. "But I guess that is too much for me to ask."
“Don’t say that, Arahime,” Harun said. “But you do understand things have to be different now? The quicker you accept that, the easier it will be for you.”
Pain rippled across her side as Arahime sucked in a deep breath and abruptly stood. "Accept it? You don't get to say what I must or must not accept! If I accepted what people wanted for me, I'd be dead twice over by now." Raw pain from recent memory mixed with her embarrassment and shame to turn into a smouldering heat of anger. "I have a right to know what's happening in my own life."
“You do, I completely agree,” said Harun. “But it I also know that sometimes we aren’t told things until we were ready. Even things about ourselves.” He looked down. “That’s what happened to me.”
Arahime's anger still flared, but her curiosity won out for the moment. "What happened to you?" she asked.
“Well, it was about my parents, my birth parents,” said Harun with a sigh. “I was told things by my know, right after Topaz. And while they weren’t lies they...weren’t the entire truth.” He was quiet a moment. “My birth father Nakura, he was foolish. He threw himself in the path of the Scorpion, he died to save people from his own mistakes. And my mother...” He was quiet again. “She is a murderer Arahime, she left me so she could follow Shiba Michio and the Black Hand.”
Arahime stood in stunned silence for a moment. "I am sorry Harun." Her lips narrowed though. "I can see why that would be too difficult for a child to bear. But I am not a child now. If someone wanted to kill me, I should know about it. I should be allowed to find out who it is. I should be able to decide for myself if I can take the risk."
“I won’t keep it from you any longer, but you do need to be careful,” said Harun. “I don’t think you’re useless,” he quickly added. “What you did that night at the sagai saved us all, but from what I have learned of these people I don’t think they will be as...reasonable.”
Arahime's shoulders trembled, but she kept her voice controlled as she said, "Tell me what you have learned of 'these people'."
“They’re Spider Clan,” answered Harun. “Well former Spider Clan, I guess they’re really ronin now. There are a few cells in Second City, and they want to cause as much unrest and chaos here as possible. Between Rokugan, Zogeku...the Ivinda even.” He shook his head. “I saw one of their hideouts, they’re having a gathering soon. Who knows what else they are planning.”
Arahime reach up to hold her left shoulder with her right hand, lowering her head until her face was veiled by the mask of her hair. "The Spider Clan is after me?" she said, in a much softer, hurt voice.
“Yes, they realise what they can cause by going after you,” said Harun. “ almost did happen. So they’ll try again. Unless...”
The young woman's thoughts seemed to turn inward, missing the 'Unless' completely as she said softly to herself, "I can't wait any longer...they're trying to stop me. I thought there was time, but I have to find her...really soon..."
“Find who?” Harun asked.
Arahime hesitated for just a moment before looking up at Harun with eyes the grey of a sky after an autumn storm. "Shinjo. I was told to find Shinjo. I have a message for her."
“Shinjo-no-Kami?” Harun asked. “I might be able to help you. She’s at Journey’s End Keep.”
Arahime's eyes widened, startled, at Harun's casual was clearly not what she expected to hear. But before she could respond, a pair of servants entered the courtyard on running feet and bowed deeply to the pair of them, still breathing heavily.
"Forgive us, Kakita-samas. The Warlord has requested you both attend him at the Palace. We were sent to bring you right away."
Arahime shot Harun a look that promised a later discussion, and nodded at the servants. "Of course."
Harun didn’t like the sound of this, but it looked like they didn’t have much choice. He went with Arahime to where an armed escort of Arashi soldiers were waiting for them.

The Arashi soldiers did not speak as they led them through the city, their green enamel of their armour almost black, the silver flashing glints in the moonlight. They led the pair of young Kakita to the looming edifice of the Imperial Palace where another servant met them at the door. She bowed gracefully and led them to a large receiving chamber deep in the palace. The pair entered, and the servant left, sliding the screen shut behind them.
Flickering oil lanterns hung from sconces around the room. A small throne dominated one end of the room, but it was empty. In the centre of a room was a table where a map was spread out, showing the various districts of Second City and the surrounding regions.
A greyed, muscular man was approaching the table as Harun and Arahime approached. His deeply tanned skin was dusky in the lamplight, and his rich kimono only hung from one shoulder, leaving the other bare. Harun saw Arahime's eyes widen, and she bowed deeply. Harun did as well. He didn’t recognise the older man, but he was pretty sure who this was. The Warlord, ruler of Zogeku, Arashi Aram and heir of thunder.
The Warlord was surprisingly genial to them.
"Kakita Harun-san, Kakita Arahime-san," he said. "Apologies for the abruptness, I had intended to send for you seem to have taken a darker turn."
"A tragedy that will hopefully not be repeated," said Arahime.
"But many were saved that night, thanks to Arahime," Harun added.
"True," said the Warlord. "But from what I have heard, you should give yourself some credit too, Kakita-san. Or is it Chui?"
"I serve as best I can," said Harun with another bow.
Why is he being so nice to me? Harun wondered.
They heard voices from the next room, one louder than the others.
"Ah, that sounds like my grandson," said the Warlord.
Arashi Seiho entered, crossing the room quickly in long strides. Like the Warlord, his rich clothing was worn in a way to show off bare skin. But for Seiho, this further highlighted his youth and strength.
And arrogance, Harun added in thought.
Seiho's bow to Arahime was both dashing and graceful.
"I have heard you may be leaving us soon, Kakita-san," said Seiho. "Please say this is not so, my grandfather's court will be lessened by your absence."
Arahime's expression did not change. "I believe you have met my cousin, Kakita Harun, son of the Emerald Champion, Kakita Karasu. We were classmates at the Kakita Academy and Harun was Topaz Champion for his year."
"A pleasure," said Seiho, yet his tone indicated anything but and his bow was much less sincere.
"Seiho," said the Warlord in a warning tone. "You do remember who Kakita Harun-san's true father is?"
Seiho looked a little confused, but Harun realised what the Warlord meant. Of course, the ashes! They are both Aramasu's descendants!
"My birth father, Yasuki Nakura, died before I was born," Harun said to the Warlord. "But it is pleasing to know his sacrifice is remembered, even far from home."
Harun watched Seiho's face fall.
Ha! That squelched the baka! He looked at Arahime, but all he saw on her face was an expression of distaste at the two posturing young men.
Clearing his throat, Harun looked down at the map. "This is where they are hiding, the Spoon Cell." He pointed on the map. "The others will gather there three days from now."
"I know the area," Seiho said, leaning over to look. "It's very tight, lots of tenements close together. With the amount of men we may need, there may be confusion. Especially if civilians get involved"
"We had a similar problem at Toshi Ranbo, we managed," said Harun matter-of-factly.
Seiho looked up at Harun. "You were at Toshi Ranbo?"
Harun nodded. "I was Chui of Takano Unit."
Seiho looked a little surprised. "Wait... you're the Gaijin Crane?"
"Yes," Harun answered.
Seiho looked a little impressed.
Arahime pursed her lips. "We should …”
All eyes turned onto Arahime. The Warlord spoke. “The warriors will complete the planning. You can go.” His tone was cool and dismissive.
Arahime’s eyes darted from one to another, finally settling on Harun, seeking an ally. She failed to find one.
"I must agree. Arahime, you can't come, it's too dangerous, " said Harun. "I am sorry." He looked at Seiho and the Warlord. "It's not my fight, but I would like to join you if I may."
"Your blade and experience will be welcome, Kakita-Chui," said the Warlord with a nod.
"But...." Arahime protested.
"You may return to the embassy." The Warlord’s tone would brook no argument.
Harun offered a little nod, encouraging her to go. “I’ll speak with you later.”
Arahime turned and left.

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Sat Feb 16, 2019 5:39 pm

The night was awash with stars, but Arahime couldn’t see them. She stormed out of the palace of the Warlord of Zogeku, anger and humiliation burning in her veins. Four Zogeku palace guards, from those who had accompanied her and Harun to the palace, were left scrambling in her wake, hastily grabbing their spears and trailing behind her as they tried to catch up. Arahime ignored them.
Men. There. The thought was out. For so long, she had fought to be the best duelist, the fastest, the most refined technique. In the dojo, before, she’d received the reward for her hard work. Top of her class, awarded the right to stand at the Topaz Championship. Yes, perhaps, Harun had exceeded her, but she was the one who defended him from the bullies that used to pick on him. And now, everything had fallen apart. Once she had been a bushi known for the bite of her steel, eager to face the Onyx with everything she had. Now they shut her out of even planning a raid against a minor cell of Spider in the city. A cell targeting her. Arahime wanted to scream.
She strode to her room and pulled out a bag. I’ll arrange river transport in the morning. If I can’t…I’ll walk. Then I’ll just be done with this. Simple clothing. Some travel supplies. A calligraphy kit…. Gifts and books, I’ll have to leave behind…
“Arahime-chan?” The voice from the door was soft. Father. “May I come in?”
Kakita Kousuda slid the shoji open and shut the screen behind him. His dark, jet eyes took in the open bags, the scattered books, the half-done packing and immediately assembled the pieces of this puzzle. “You’ve found what you’re looking for then.”
“Hai. You can’t stop me from going. Shinjo-no-kami is in Journey’s End Keep. Shiba-no-kami told me I must find her and take to her his message, and I will.”
Kousuda was silent for just a moment, then nodded. “Of course.” There was sadness in his tone, but he did not try to stop her the way she had expected him to. “I can arrange a boat for you. Can I make one request before you go?”
With a soft sigh, Arahime nodded. “All right.”
“Take Harun with you.” Arahime’s father spoke earnestly. “I know you will do what you must do. But you don’t have to do it alone. I know Harun will do everything he can to help you. And it would give me, and your mother, comfort to know you were not alone.”
It would have been easy enough to say yes before this evening, but Arahime still felt her anger simmering hot in her veins. “I’m sure that a Chui of the Emerald Legion has more important things he should be doing," she deflected.
Kousuda frowned, and he stepped forward, trying to reach his daughter. “Arahime-san. He can be of use to you. Journey’s End Keep is held by the Unicorn, and if Shinjo is there, she would be held as one of the Unicorn’s most sacred treasures. Harun has lived with the Unicorn for a season, has met and fought beside the Champion. He can be of assistance to you in getting access to wherever Shinjo is.”
Arahime moved to refuse Harun again when that quiet voice that nestled in the back of Arahime’s mind chimed in, He is right. Wars and negotiations have been lost when leaders spurn potential allies out of pride. Big Sister, again.
What do you want of me? Arahime shook her head to clear it, while Kousuda looked on with constrained worry. He took her answer as a no.
“I will make Harun swear to follow your orders, Arahime-chan,” Kousuda said. “Then he will not get in your way and will do what you say. Will that suffice?”
Arahime sighed. Why does everyone have to be so damn sensible? Their logic didn’t make the pain go away. “Very well. I will wait and take Harun,” she answered with resignation.
I can wait a little longer. Then, maybe once I’ve told Shinjo to go to her rest…then I’ll have done everything.
Your happiness Big Sister finally replied in answer to her question.
What is happiness? The future was a solid, black line, drawn across Arahime’s horizon. She could not see beyond it.
Maybe she didn’t want to.

Harun returned to the Crane embassy that evening, but when he asked to see Arahime he was told she had retired to her room for the evening.
“Please inform her that I will returning tomorrow afternoon,” said Harun. Then he returned to the Inn of the Silver Lantern to eat a solitary meal.
The next day he went first not to the Crane embassy, but to the Arashi barracks. He would have a part to play in the raid two nights from now, and until then he had to be more familiar when them and with Arashi Seiho.
Harun couldn’t help but notice that Seiho’s attitude towards him had changed. Seiho had introduced Harun to him men, loudly proclaiming the Kakita’s accomplishments as if they were his own. Harun stood there beside him, looking modest but inwardly boiling with anger. Seiho’s respect was not something Harun sought for or wanted, especially not after what he had done to Arahime.
That evening, Harun returned to the Crane embassy as promised. But when arrived he was informed that Arahime was once again unable to see him.
Harun took a deep breath to maintain his composure. “Please, can you tell her I called and that I will come again tomorrow.”
“Of course, Kakita-sama,” said the servant with a bow.
Harun came again the next day, and again a servant gave Arahime’s excuses. He left with a heavy heart.
Is she still angry with me? This is all for her! Once we have dealt with the Spider, she’ll be safe and not have to stay in the embassy.
The day of the raid, Harun spent most of the day with the Arashi. Training with them and then going over the plan with Seiho and his officers. He left early, returning to the in to bathe and change, stopping by the Crane embassy on his way back.
He wore his armour, the familiar feeling of its weight gave him confidence. He felt ready for action, carrying his kabuto under his arm. He asked about Arahime and was told he would find her in the garden.
So eager he was to see her, Harun almost ran. He saw her, sitting by the koi pond beneath the frangipani tree. He approached her slowly, quietly, as if she were a wild animal that would startle easily.
A single white and yellow blossom fell from the tree and into the pond. Arahime looked up and she and Harun locked eyes for a long moment. Harun tried to smile but Arahime’s gaze was cold. She looked him up and down. At his armour, his swords.
She stood, turning away from him without a word.
“Arahime! Wait!” His voice rang through the garden, he didn’t care who heard.
But Arahime kept walking.

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Sun Feb 24, 2019 7:55 pm

The tenement building where the Spider were gathering was three stories high and had several entrances on the ground floor. This was the place’s strength—and also its weakness.
As the moon rose over the Second City, the Arashi bushi took up their positions. Harun waited in a doorway for Seiho’s signal, the small group he had been asked to lead waiting with him. They followed him willingly, despite even the youngest of them being older than him. But, given what Seiho had said about him, Harun wasn’t surprised.
From where they were, Harun could see the entrance to the building. People passing by, no one stopping as they passed the doorway. All quiet.
He then heard the measured tread of soldiers as the Arashi bushi walked down the street. Seiho in the lead.
It begins, thought Harun.
He led his men around the rear of the building. Harun held up a hand; they halted, waiting. They heard the shouts of the Arashi, the clash of steel and crash of wood as they forced their way into the building.
Harun gave the order to attack. They shouted as one, drawing their weapons and rushing through the door. They smashed into the Spider who were running away from Seiho’s onslaught, from the other groups that had forced their way in through the other entrances.
The ring of steel on steel, the rush of people…the noise…the hot blood…it was all so familiar. And Harun liked it. There was nothing here but the will to survive, and not just for himself but the soldiers who looked at him for direction. All uncertainty, all doubt about himself, fell away in the heat and din of battle.
He saw Seiho, a whirl of steel as he swung his kama—one in each hand—blood pouring down his wrists as he cut his enemies down. The pincers of their attack had merged.
Seiho grinned at Harun as he sank his kama into the head an enemy. “Is this what you do for fun, Kakita-chui?”
Harun shrugged. “I have other pastimes.”
When the Spider were finished off, they searched the building.
“This looks to be all of them, Arashi-sama, but we will continue to search,” an officer said to Seiho.
“Looks like we took them by surprise,” said Seiho, grinning again.
Harun shook his head. “This can’t be all of them…not with several cells coming together. Let them check everyone with jade.”
The Arashi officer looked to Seiho who nodded. The officer left. “They can hardly be hiding behind every shadow,” said Seiho.
Harun ignored this. He looked around. It couldn’t be this easy. There had to be more to this.
An Arashi bushi approached Seiho. “Arashi-sama, we have found something.” He handed Seiho a ratty scroll.
Seiho unrolled it, frowning. Then handed it to Harun. There were small pictures of everyday items, a cup, a furoshiki cloth, a spoon. Next to each item there was another decoration. A spoon… The symbol of the spoon was next to a curving symbol that Harun recognized as the decoration that hung above the Warlord’s palace. Another spoon lay by a stylized image of a crane with a chain around its slender neck. Arahime… “It’s a list of targets…” he realized, speaking aloud. At the bottom of the scroll was something Harun couldn’t read.
“That last bit is Ivindi,” Seiho explained. “Don’t know what it says.”
They heard shouts from the next room. “What’s this?”
Harun tucked the scroll underneath his armour.
Two Arashi came forward with a prisoner. An old man in dirty rags, he was thrown on his face before Seiho.
“We found this one hiding,” said an Arashi. “Shall we kill him now or later?”
Seiho looked down at the prisoner. So did Harun.
“Have mercy, great lords,” said the prisoner, his voice muffled from being pressed to the floor. “If you have compassion, spare my life.”
“Your masters, is this all of them?” Seiho demanded.
“No sama,” replied the old man.
“Where are they?”
“Gone sama.”
The old man dared look up. “I don’t know sama…they…they don’t tell me anything.”
Seiho shook his head in disgust. “There’s nothing there.”
Harun frowned at the old man; he wasn’t so sure. They just happened to find this old man when the house had been a battle site not so long ago.
His mind went back to the wall. The ring of Crab bushi that surrounded him as the Crab Champion’s son made him take the Test of Jade.
We all do it, Harun, no exceptions, Hida Nasu had said.
As Seiho started to turn away, Harun held out his jade finger. The Arashi bushi next to Seiho looked at it. The heimin seemed to notice this. He turned, ever so slightly, but this was enough to see what Harun held in his hand.
“Get back!” Harun screamed. With one hand he reached for his sword, with the other he pulled as many back as he could, one of them was Seiho.
“What?” Seiho asked, confused, as there was an explosion of blood and taint.
Most of the bushi had heard Harun’s warning and had had time to react. But not all of them. Some were caught in the blast, lying writhing on the floor.
“Jade! Now! Everyone!” Harun bellowed.
“Archers!” shouted Seiho as he got to his feet. “Take out that Maho-Tsukai!”
The Tsukai made a gesture, the arrows bounced off with no effect. They surrounded him, weapons ready, but no one wanting to engage. The Tsukai reached into his clothing, pulling out a dagger.
“Stop him!” Harun shouted.
They loosed arrows again. But this time they got through, landing in the Tsukai’s arms and legs, streaming blood everywhere. He smiled.
“No…no…” Harun murmured.
The Tsukai waved an arm, spraying blood everywhere as he recited an incantation. There was a low moaning from the bodies on the floor, they began to move, to stand.
“To arms! Attack!” Seiho shouted, attacking with his kama in a fury of steel and rage.
Harun didn’t think, he just attacked. It was a mad, desperate fight. Worse than before as they constantly had to evade the undead’s touch. They pulled back and back, and they kept coming and coming.
Somehow…and no one ever knew who…a lamp was knocked over. The flames began to spread, catching on the debris on the floor, climbing the walls, engulfing them in smoke. Taking advantage of the flames, the maho tsukai turned and charged up the stairs.
This is good, Harun thought, doing his best to push the risen dead into the flames. Dangerous, but good.
“Pull out!” Seiho shouted to his men as he slammed two undead, one with each kama. “Take down as many as you can!”
The Arashi began to withdraw, pushing as many undead as possible into the spreading fire as they went. The flames quickly surrounded them, licking around the room, lacing up the staircase. A flaming beam crashed to the floor, cutting off the nearest exit. The Maho-Tsukai disappeared into the chambers at the top of the stairs. His clothes on fire but he did not appear to care.
“Go! You get out too!” Harun said. “I can take him!”
“No,” said Seiho. “We’ll take him together.”
The pair of them charged up the burning staircase, quickly gaining ground on the old man. He turned to confront them, flames dancing around them all. But between the two of them and the fire, the Maho-Tsukai was outmatched. Harun’s katana was fast, Seiho’s kama seemed to be everywhere. Together they drove the Tsukai back into the flames, their jade-coated weapons burning the Tsukai’s flesh, making him scream. The Tsukai tried to get off another spell, but Harun sank his katana into his chest; Seiho’s kama severed his head.
They quickly jumped back as Tsukai fell into the fire, the flames lessening the explosion of taint somewhat. Harun turned to run back the way that they had come, but found the staircase burning heavily behind them, the rooms below an inferno.
Need to get out, need to get out… Harun’s thoughts raced as he looked for a way out. The flames continued to climb higher; the smoke was suffocating.
He finally found a window, but as they approached it, flames licked across the ceiling. Wood groaned in pain, and then split with a loud crack, sending down an avalanche of burning debris down upon them. Burning boards and plaster fell on them both, sparks scattering like fireworks.
The sparks burned Harun’s face and hands, but he was able to shove the wood free quickly. But Seiho was pinned, dazed from a blow to the head that had left him stunned. Choking for breath, Harun pulled the burning wood off him, the flames scorching his fingers. Seiho’s face was cracked and blackened with burns, his eyes shut fast.
“Seiho! Get up!” Harun shook him awake.
Seiho stirred. Reaching out with a hand towards Harun and then touching his own face. “My eyes! I can’t see! Oh, Kami...”
“It’ll be bad for us both if we don’t get out now,” Harun said.
Seiho coughed, struggling to sit up. “I...We’re not going to make it,” Seiho said. For the first time Harun could hear fear in his voice. “Fortunes...Harun...I’m sorry…I’m sorry about everything.”
“I’m not the one you need to apologise to,” Harun felt his frustration rising, drowning out his own fear. “And I’ll see that you give it to her in person. Now get up!” He grabbed Seiho’s flailing hand to heave him to his feet.
Seiho’s hand gripped his. Harun guided him through the flames towards the window. With a quick kick, Harun took out the window frame. Below they could see the ground where there were people gathered. Some were watching the fire, others forming a bucket chain to try and put out the flames. Some Arashi bushi then looked up and pointed at Harun and Seiho. The ground looked a long way away.
“We’re going to have to jump,” Harun said. “Get ready!”
They jumped together, landing hard, but without serious injury. Harun immediately collapsed onto the ground, letting his exhaustion take him. The Arashi surrounded Seiho, talking frantically. He was alive…thanks to Harun.

Posts: 176
Joined: Thu Mar 30, 2017 6:01 pm
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Wed Mar 27, 2019 9:21 pm

Sorry about the delay, here's an update.


It was the next afternoon when Harun returned to the Crane embassy.
A shugenja attended to him at the Arashi barracks before he left, but not before he had seen Seiho whisked away on a stretcher.
After asking for Arahime, Harun went to the garden watching the fish swirl around in the pond. He felt flat, the excitement of the raid drained out of him. Would she see him? Was she still angry?
When I left Rokugan, my path was so clear… he thought with a sigh.
He sat down on the bench, deep in thought.

Arahime peeked around the pillar towards the entrance. The servants had carried word that Harun had returned, but she wanted to see for herself.
Some footsteps brushed the shoji nearby, and she pressed herself into the shadows. Hiding like this isn’t honourable, she thought. But what do I say to him, with my petty jealousy? It’s not his fault I was hurt. Once the footsteps had passed, she stepped out again to see her father approaching the figure in the entry hall.
The figure turned. Well, he’s all right. A few bandages on the backs of his hands, maybe. A missed night’s sleep. Nothing worse than that. That’s good.
Would she take him with her to Journey’s End Keep?
It couldn’t hurt, could it? At least for as long as it took to sort out what he really meant to her.
And more important...for her to find out what burden he was carrying. And why he was at Seawatch Castle.
She continued to watch them talk.

Harun turned to see Kousuda approaching him. “Oji-san,” he said, making a bow.
“Heard you had a time of it, last night,” said Kousuda. “It is a relief to see that you are unharmed.”
“Thank you, but not everyone was,” said Harun.
“Oh yes, I heard about the Warlord’s grandson,” said Kousuda. “Will he recover his sight?”
“They don’t know,” admitted Harun. “In time perhaps? The Morishita who attended him were not certain.”
“It is a cruel fate, even for him,” said Kousuda.
“I agree,” said Harun. “So, you leave for home tomorrow?”
“I am,” said Kousuda. “Arahime is determined to stay…for the time being at least. There is something I wished to ask of you.”
“Anything to help,” said Harun amiably.
“Arahime told me her path takes her to Journey’s End Keep,” said Kousuda. “I want you to go with her.”
Harun looked down. “I…of course I will, but…will she accept me?”
“She understands,” said Kousuda. “I had hoped you both would come home with me, but…you staying here with Arahime means I can leave with a clear conscience.” He looked directly at Harun. “You need to swear to me to do as she says.”
“I promise,” said Harun without hesitation. “And I will make sure she makes it home safely.”
“That I don’t need to ask,” said Kousuda.
“Oji-san,” said Harun. “There is something I have to tell you…before you go.”
“Yes?” Kousuda’s voice suggested that he might not like what Harun was about to reveal.
“While I was at Seawatch, my mother came to see me,” Harun said.
Kousuda was very still. “Your mother…Yamada?”
Harun nodded.
The former Ide was silent for a long, long time. “Well,” he said at last. “I suppose it makes sense she would try to find you. How was she? How did it go?”
“Not well,” Harun admitted. “We…we had words. About the Black Hand…about how she gave me up…” He looked into the pond. “Part of me wishes that I had not said them, but I knew I needed to.”
“And how did she take this?” Kousuda.
“She accepted what I said…in the end,” said Harun. “But I still don’t understand…”
“Harun,” said Kousuda a little sternly. “Do not think for one moment that your mother gave you up willingly. Did you know that she lived with us when you were born? I saw for myself how she cared for you, how she loved you, and how it cut her to the core to leave you.”
“But why?”
“Because sometimes you have to choose between two courses of action that are both right…or both wrong,” Kousuda said. “And I think you know something about that already.”
Harun didn’t answer.
“I know it is difficult to understand her sometimes, I struggle too sometimes and I perhaps have known her the longest.” A small smile settled on his face. “Did you know that she saved my life?”
Harun turned in surprise. “She did?”
Kousuda nodded. “Years ago, in the Jewel of the Desert, but that’s a story for another time.” He pulled out a folded, sealed piece of paper. “Here is a letter, it explains everything for Ide Ujinari who Senchou at Journey’s End. You should have some help as well, Kaiu Oda and his wife Megumi will be meeting you there.”
Harun took the letter. “Who are they?”
“They work with Kyoumi,” said Kousuda. “They’ll explain it better themselves.”
“This sounds like a way for you to keep an eye on us after you leave,” said Harun.
“Well, a little,” said Kousuda with a chuckle.
They watched Arahime approach. She looked calm, quiet. She acknowledged them both with a nod
Is she still mad at me? Harun wondered. He couldn’t quite tell if this calmness was just the wall she held back her anger at him. He decided to ignore it, at least for now.
“Arahime-chan,” he said, bowing. “The raid went well, we managed to kill all the Spider samurai. But it looks there could be more, elsewhere.”
Arahime considered this. “So, the threat to me is still there?”
“I doubt they will try again, after the mess we made,” said Harun. He reached into his clothing and pulled out the scroll from the raid. He unrolled it and showed it to her. “We found their plans, the targets they had chosen. Everyone is being put on alert.”
Arahime didn’t appear to hear him. “May I…see that…”
Harun gave her the scroll.
She read it carefully, reading it all the way through down to the bottom. To the part that was written in Ivindi. “This is worse,” she said softly. “These Spider…they’re going after Shinjo.”
“What?!” exclaimed Harun and Kousuda at once.
“That’s what it says here,” says Arahime. “I’m not sure why its Ivindi, probably because not many Zogeki can read it.”
“And you can?” Harun asked, raising an eyebrow.
Arahime looked up at him.
“Arahime-chan, Shinjo is very well protected at Journey’s End,” Kousuda said. “She lives, but has been encased in crystal for a number of years. Ever since she was shot with the tainted arrow by Kanpeki. It would be hard for them to be a threat to her…not without freeing her.”
“And the Unicorn have tried to free her,” Harun added. “I don’t doubt you,” he quickly added, seeing Arahime’s dismay. “If you have a way to help her…or free her…I know the Unicorn would be grateful.”
Kousuda nodded in agreement.
Arahime rolled the scroll back up. “I hope I do,” she said. “I just hope we can get there in time.”

The next day, Kousuda departed for Rokugan. Harun and Arahime came with him to the docks to see him off.
Harun’s farewell to Kousuda was brief, they had said everything they needed to the previous day. Harun then walked some distance away to give Arahime and her father some privacy.
Kousuda embraced his daughter, just as he had done many times since she was a little girl. He hoped, by taking her in his arms, he could protect her from all arm, whisk her away so she would never be in danger again. But he couldn’t, she wasn’t entirely his anymore. She had returned to the world with a new maturity and insight beyond her years. And then there was Harun, ready to take her by the hand once she was ready.
“I still do wish you were coming back with me,” Kousuda said. “I know we have decided, but I did promise your mother.”
Arahime gave him a bundle of letters, tied with a blue ribbon. “One of these is for her,” she said. “Hopefully this explains everything. I’ll write to you as soon as I get to Journey’s End. I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
Kousuda smiled. “You’re even more like your mother than you were before.” He tucked the letters into his kimono.
It was time to go.
Harun and Arahime stood side by side on the docks as they watched Kousuda’s ship depart.
This wasn’t part of the plan, Harun thought, but perhaps, this is better…

Several days after Kousuda’s departure, the Warlord gave a reception at the palace inviting the notables in the Zogeku houses as well as from the Rokugani embassies. Doji Mushari and Sawao were invited, along with Harun and Arahime.
Harun was reluctant to go, but he couldn’t see a way out of it. So, he went with the Crane party to the palace. His court clothes were heavy in the humid evening, his swords on hip but peacebound.
The guards were checking invitations at the palace gates, yet when they saw Harun with the Crane they made a bow and let them though.
“It seems that your reputation proceeds you even here,” Doji Sawao said dryly to Harun.
Harun frowned, he didn’t like it but said nothing. He glanced quickly at Arahime but she didn’t seem to notice. She looked rather distant.
The palace gardens were alive with light and colour and music. Bright lanterns hung from poles, the air was filled with perfume and saffron. There were also entertainers wandering around the party. He could see a woman with a snaked draped around her shoulders. A man who ate a flaming torch and then spat out a burst of flame. And a tall thin woman who seemed to swallow a sword. A straight one, fortunately, Harun didn’t like the idea of doing that with a katana.
It was a fairly informal affair. Chairs and couches were groups around tables throughout the garden. Servants walked around with trays of food and drink.
Mushari was approached by an acquaintance, Sawao stayed at his side. Harun looked for somewhere to sit down with Arahime following benignly behind him. She still looked distracted.
I have to talk to her, Harun thought, there’s so much I know she hasn’t told me. Could she still be mad at me?
They found a seat to one side of the reflecting pool. Arahime sat down, staring at the fireflies among the water lilies.
“Arahime?” he said gently. “I…I wanted to apologise to you for my behaviour. Coming back and seeing everyone treating you differently…I understand it must be frustrating.”
Arahime sighed. “It is,” she said. “But perhaps…things have to be different. After what happened, after what I went through.”
Harun looked at her carefully. Perhaps this is the time to final ask her.
“Arahime, what did happen, out there in the jungle?” Harun asked.
Arahime didn’t answer.
“Look, I swore to protect you,” said Harun. “To do whatever you say. You can tell me.”
“All right,” she said with some resignation. “When I was with the shojo, they gave me this.” She touched the necklace she wore. “It…translates for me, that’s how I know Ivindi.”
“But it does more than that, doesn’t it?” Harun asked.
Arahime nodded. “I…I know things now,” she said. “Not just the dancing and the music…it’s little things.”
“Like at the sagai?” Harun asked.
“Yes,” she said, nodding again. “But…when that happens, I feel different. I know I look different. I don’t feel like myself which is strange…but it feels good.” She smiled a little. “I feel confident, like I know just what to say. What to do.”
Harun frowned, if it was up to him he would take that necklace off her. “Are you sure this is a good thing?” He asked sceptically.
“Of course it is,” Arahime said, a little angrily. “How could it not be?”
“I don’t know,” said Harun. “All I know is if you stop feeling like yourself, it could be because there’s something else taking over.”
“It’s not like that,” Arahime said, shaking her head. “Look, forget I said anything.”
“I’m not sure I can,” Harun said.
Arahime turned away to look at the pond. They sat there in silence for what seemed the longest time.
“Kakita-chui?” An Arashi bushi approached them and bowed.
“Yes?” Harun said.
“The Warlord wishes to see you,” said the Arashi.
“Tell him I will be there presently,” said Harun.
When the bushi had gone, Arahime looked at him. “It looks like he finds you more useful than me now.”
“Trust me, I don’t like it,” said Harun.
Arahime frowned.
“I am sorry…again,” he said. “If…what you’re talking about has been with you for a long time, it probably isn’t bad. I need to trust you…but you need to trust me.”
“I’ll…I’ll think about it,” she said.
And I guess that will have to do…for now, Harun thought with a sigh. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he said, walking off.

Arashi Aram, Lord of House Arashi and Warlord of Zogeku, sat in a prominent position by the reflecting pool. He was not alone, around him on chairs and couches were people of varying prominence. On his left was a man in green shugenja robes and red hair with matching beard.
The Warlord looked up as Harun approached. “Ah, Kakita-chui,” he said. He indicated the chair next to him. “Please, sit. I have not yet thanked you properly for the great service you have done to me and to House Arashi.”
“I was doing my duty, Warlord,” said Harun, taking the seat. He took the cup that was offered. “I do trust Arashi Seiho-sama is improving?”
“Modest as well,” said the Warlord, with approval. “My grandson’s strength is returning, slowly. As for the rest…we shall see.” He gestured to the man on his left. “This is Konjo, Lord of House Morishita. He was telling me before that he knew your birth parents.”
“Briefly,” said Kanjo, his beard hiding all expression. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Kakita-chui.”
“And you,” said Harun, bowing slightly. “I was at your embassy a few days ago. The almond trees were very beautiful.”
“Thank you,” said Konjo. “Did you know that the first seedling of those trees was a gift from your mother, Utaku Yamada? It is most interesting what beauty can come from…unusual origins.”
“I cannot say I disagree with you,” said Harun. His attention was diverted by a blur of red fur that suddenly hid from view. What was that? A Cat? A fox cub? Perhaps it was just a trick of the light.
“Humph,” said Konjo. “Perhaps you will be an improvement on her.”
“I do try to be,” said Harun.
“Will you be in the Second City much longer, Kakita-chui?” The Warlord asked. “Your actions have put House Arashi in your debt, one that honour demands be repaid.”
“Please, do not trouble yourself,” said Harun. “As for your question, yes I am leaving soon. I am accompanying Arahime to Journey’s End Keep.”
“Seeing your Unicorn kin?” Konjo asked.
“Yes, we both want to see more of Zogeku,” said Harun.
“Well, I can tell there is nothing I can do to persuade you to stay,” said the Warlord. “But I do hope that you return one day.”
“So do I, Warlord,” said Harun. “But we cannot predict what fate the Fortunes have in store for us.”
“That is very true,” agreed Konjo.

Harun returned as soon as he could, and as he neared the chairs he could see that Arahime was not alone. There was a woman in the green of House Morishita sitting across from her, but from her posture and form she looked more like a bushi.
Arahime introduced her as Hogune, wife of Lord Konjo.
“A pleasure to meet you,” said Harun, bowing. “The Warlord just introduced me to your husband, I was telling him how beautiful the gardens in your embassy were.”
“Praise indeed, from a Crane,” said Hogune. “But the pleasure is mine, Kakita-chui, I knew your mother Yamada slightly. To meet her son is a privilege indeed.”
“I have been told many things by those who knew her,” said Harun evenly.
Hogune nodded. “Yes, it must be difficult for you.”
“It can be,” said Harun.
There was a moment of silence, broken by the arrival of a woman wearing the colours of the Lion Clan. It was Matsu Hayate.
“Kakita-chui, Kakita-san,” she said, bowing. She glanced slightly at Hogune.
Hogune rose to her feet. “Do not let me keep you,” she said. “A pleasure to see you both.” She quickly took her leave.
“I come from Arashi Seiho-san,” said Hayate. “He wishes to speak with you.”
“He does?” Harun asked.
Hayate nodded. “Both of you.”

Hayate took them into the palace, upstairs and along terraces overlooking the garden, and then inside to a door where Arashi bushi were standing guard. On seeing Hayate, the bushi let them through, pulling open the big wooden doors.
The room inside was colourfully decorated, the was the faint smell of sandalwood. It was also quite warm, there was a well-built up fire in a brazier despite the evening also being warm. In the centre of the room was a futon, sitting on some sort of frame, a deep sheer silken curtain was draped in front, obscuring it slightly.
Hayate stepped forward, pulling the curtain aside, revealing the bed’s occupant. Arashi Seiho.
The once proud bushi lay propped up by pillows, his breath coming in heavy gasps. Most of his face was covered in bandages, only his mouth and chin were visible. And beneath the heavy robe that Seiho wore, Harun guessed there were more bandages, covering him where the fire had burned him right down to his fingers.
Once so handsome and proud, his charm, wit and not to mention his strength…all gone, taken from him in but one moment.
He’s pitiable… Harun thought, I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it.
“Seiho,” said Hayate. “They are here as you asked.”
Both Harun and Arahime bowed.
“Arashi-sama, I pray that the Fortunes will make your recovery rapid and full,” said Harun formally.
“As do I,” said Arahime warmly.
Seiho tried to laugh, but then started coughing. It took him a few minutes and a few sips of water to recover.
“You’d have both rather seen me dead,” Seiho said at last.
“No!” said Harun and Arahime at once.
“I would have wanted it, after how I treated you,” said Seiho. “After what I’ve done, I don’t blame you.” His voice cracked as he spoke. “Arahime…may I…?”
“Yes,” she said, moving to his side. There was genuine compassion in her voice.
“I am sorry, I was such a fool,” Seiho said. “What I did to you…what happened to you…”
“It’s done now,” said Arahime. “It’s in the past.”
“It still matters,” Seiho said.
“Then, I forgive you,” said Arahime.
“See that you deserve her, Harun,” said Seiho.
“I am trying,” Harun answered.
Seiho collapsed in another coughing fit. The servant came in again to help with some water. Hayate quickly took them out.
“Will he recover?” Harun asked when they were out of the room.
“They say he will…some,” said Hayate. “But in time…months they say. And then…”
“You’ll be married,” finished Arahime.
Hayate stared at her. “Yes, we will…how did you?”
Arahime only smiled to herself, saying nothing. Her eyes looked a little darker.
This time, Harun recognised the change in her. This must be the necklace, he thought, there must be more to it than she has told me… But this was no time to ask her about it.
“I wish you well then, Matsu-gunso,” said Harun, giving her a bow.
“Thank you, Kakita-chui,” Hayate said. “He has changed…for the better I hope.”

The next day, Harun and Arahime returned to the docks to board their ship that would take them to Journey’s End Keep. It felt good, being on their way again, but he was a little sorry to leave Second City. Perhaps one day they could return, but as he had said last night, there was no knowing where the Fortunes would take them.
“Ah lad, there you are!” said a rough voice from across the docks. “And I see you have brought your lady.”
Harun laughed, he didn’t have to turn to know who that was. Midori the monk came traipsing towards them, grinning from ear to ear.
“Arahime, may I introduce Midori the Monk,” said Harun. “He helped me find the ones who were trying to kill you, and was the first to tell me you were in danger.”
“Midori the Monk?” Arahime looked as if she couldn’t believe what she saw. “My father has told me many stories about you, I wasn’t sure if you were real.”
“I’m not so sure how real I am, meself,” Midori said with a grin. “Though if you want an interestin’ story, you might want to ask your father about how he tried to become Mantis Champion.”
Arahime stared. “Mantis Champion? Surely, that’s not true.”
“Actually, it is,” Harun said, remembering. “I heard it from Moshi Janisha.”
Midori raised an eyebrow. “Janisha? You saw her?”
Harun nodded. “Last winter at Kyuden Hida, saw her and her son and her husband,” he said. “This was before she…”
“Left,” finished Midori, looking a little sad. “Well, we can’t always get what we deserve, unfortunately. I should know.” He grinned again. “Anyway, I just came to see you off…and to meet you of course. You take after your mother.”
“Thank you,” said Arahime.
“Just some monkish advice before you go,” he said. “Keep your noses clean...unless there’s something worth sticking it into. And keep your socks dry.”
“What kind of advice is that?” Harun asked.
“Mine!” declared Midori.
Arahime laughed. A horn sounded from their boat.
“Better not keep your captain waiting,” said Midori. “I am not sure if I will see you again, but I am glad to have met you both.”
“Thank you for your help,” said Arahime.
As the two boarded the ship, Harun stopped look back. He could see Midori looking longingly at the ship, wishing he could go with them.
You can take a man out of the Mantis…
Harun turned, boarded the ship. But when he looked back, the monk was gone.

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Sun Apr 07, 2019 7:46 am

The Black Hand had been here for several days, so far undiscovered. A deserted hamlet on the borders of Dragon lands. Famine and war had not just left the village abandoned, but in a bad state of repair. But it was suitable for their purposes, until they moved on again.
The followers were scattered around the village, sitting around fires or taking shelter in some of the houses. Talking amongst themselves, they could have been perfectly ordinary but for the black hand imprinted on the front of their clothing.
Utaku Yamada sat on the edge of the village, apart from the others. She faced west, towards the lands of the Unicorn, where she had been born and had always hoped to return. When Shiba Michio asked her to be at his side, she had given up that dream, that life along with many others. Including her only son.
Harun, so like her father, so like her.
His words came back to her that night, as they had done many other nights since she had seen him at Seawatch Castle. The anger, the hurt there…
I know what you have done, Mother, all the deaths, the murders…the people you flayed alive…You talk about duty, what about yours to me? You gave me up! You left! That is not something that you can just wish away…
And she could not wish away his words. She stood by her choice, Harun would not be the man he was today without them. The man he needed to be. The hurt was there still, it could not be denied. Perhaps, someday he might understand. Hopefully.
At the sound of people arriving she turned. It was Nawa, returning from a scouting trip with a few others. They went straight for the ramshackle hut where the Obsidian Hand himself, Shiba Michio, sat in seclusion.
Nawa was considered fairly senior in the Black Hand, one of the first to join, before even Yamada had arrived. Yamada stood up and followed them inside.
Michio sat in shadow inside the hut, what moonlight that could penetrate through the holes in the roof. The light only revealing more blackness from his armour and twisted black right hand.
In front was Nawa, flanked by more Black Hand acolytes. His voice was low, his face almost bland, but he had the determined eyes of a fanatic.
“It was more former Onyx, they seem to be gathering together,” said Nawa. “Most of them civilians, and free of the taint, but that doesn’t change things.”
Michio nodded at Nawa to continue.
“I found out who was doing it, and there seems to be some sort of amnesty given,” said Nawa. “It might even be official…eventually.”
“Who?” Michio asked, his voice low and gravely.
“The wife of the Emerald Champion,” answered Nawa.
“Hitomi,” finished Michio. “The first time she crossed the Hand, we spared her. There will not be a second time. Not for her or for those who stand with her.”
Nawa bowed. “They are north of here,” he said. “If we leave soon, we should arrive with the dawn.”
Michio nodded again. “See to it,” he said.
They all left, leaving Yamada alone with Michio.
Hitomi…I can’t let this happen…she thought frantically…they come after her, Harun could be next.
“This isn’t right, Michio,” she said, her voice seeming lost in the darkness. “You know Hitomi, she works to rebuild. You knew this before and know it is still true.’
“You are questioning me?” Michio asked, staring her down with his cold black eyes.
Was there any life left in them? Any compassion? Mercy? Or had Lord Moon taken it all from him? Drained it until he was but a vessel of vengeance and retribution.
Where is the Jade Hand for balance? Surely it is past time for them to appear?
“If this is truly Heaven’s will, then I cannot stop it,” said Yamada, storming out.
As she walked through the village, she saw Nawa making preparations to leave. Calling for people, weapons, horses. It would be a while yet until they left.
Yamada went to her own horse and got it ready to ride. A dusky mare named Kiriko. She was capable, but nothing compared to her old Utaku steed, the stallion Yoru. Yoru was long dead, and she felt his loss every day. One more piece that connected her to her old life, gone forever.
Unseen by anyone, she led her horse out of the village. Mounting and setting a good pace, she headed north.

Yamada was a much faster rider, she knew she could get to Hitomi ahead of the Black Hand. If she could just warn Hitomi, then she and whoever she was with could perhaps get out of reach in time.
She finally tracked them down at an abandoned farm, the fields were overgrown with weeds and the buildings were in disrepair. But Yamada saw a dim light flickering from one of the barns. She approached.
A shape came out of the darkness. She was thrown to the ground, pinned. There was a rasp of steel and a knife was put to her throat.
“Hello Hitomi,” Yamada said, her voice perfectly calm.
“Yamada?” Hitomi let her get to her feet. “Why are you here? Now?”
“You’re in danger,” Yamada told her. “The Black Hand is coming, you need to be gone from here. And quickly.”
Hitomi frowned. “Come with me,” she said.
She took Yamada to the barn and pulled back the door. Yamada followed her inside to see…a mass of children. Boys and girls, of varying ages, all spread out on the floor asleep.
“They’re the children of Onyx refugees,” she explained in a whisper. “Their parents hid as the Onyx legions fled south, took me a while to track these all down. No one is sure about amnesty for them but…”
Yamada nodded. These were children, mercy should be extended towards them if they were free of the taint. “This doesn’t change things,” whispered Yamada back. “They’ll still come and…” She looked down at the sleeping children. “I’ll help you.”
It took a long time to wake all of the sleeping children and get them ready for their journey. Hitomi said that she was taking the children up river to where some families were ready to take care of them, but as Karasu’s camp was much closer they should probably head there.
The sky was lightening to grey as they all headed through the fields, the sun would be rising soon. Yamada rode her horse, trying to urge the children to go faster without sounding worried, but many were flagging. Blinking their bleary eyes in the dim light.
Yamada kept looking back, then stopped. A small plume of smoke started to rise from the farm behind them. They were here.
“Go!” Yamada thundered, drawing her sword. “I’ll hold them off! Go!”
She wheeled her horse around and charged away.
At the sound of her approach, several figures came into view. All with the black hand on the front of their clothing, they carried spears and clubs, closing in.
Good, Yamada urged her horse faster, angling her katana for an attack and charged straight at them. As she closed in, all was lost in the thunder of hooves and rush of speed. Nothing else mattered, for those few minutes she was a Battlemaiden again.
Two of them fled as Yamada closed in, the third stood his ground right up until Yamada’s horse barrelled into him and her sword severed his head. Then she quickly caught up to the remaining two, leaving them dead on the ground.
There was still Nawa to account for, and none of them could leave here alive. She spurred her horse, cutting through the fields, heading back to the barn. There, right in front stood Nawa, defiant.
“I will not forget this treachery against the Hand, Silent Maiden,” he said mockingly.
“You cannot speak for the Hand,” Yamada answered angrily. “You only use its name for your own ends. I knew Michio for what he was. He was a man, he had honour, you have none.”
“Once,” said Nawa. “Now he is the cleansing fire that will purge all of Rokugan.”
“At your urging,” said Yamada, charging towards him. “But no more.”
Nawa didn’t move, as Yamada neared him several arrowed flew through the air towards her. One hit Yamada’s horse, making it stumble. Another landed in Yamada’s shoulder, sinking into just as she fell off her horse. She sprawled in the dirt, but kept a hold of her sword.
“Not much of a Battlemaiden are you now?” Nawa taunted. “What’s stopping me going after that son of yours once I kill you?”
“You wouldn’t dare!” Yamada growled, staggering to her feet.
Nawa laughed, then stopped suddenly. He then gurgled, blood coming out of his mouth then fell face down on the ground, a knife in his back.
Quickly, Yamads grabbed the knife and threw it at the archer that had shot her. It didn’t kill him, but it gave Yamada enough time to finish him off with her sword. She then saw Hitomi standing over the body of the last one.
“You came back,” Yamada said.
Hitomi nodded, she ran over and looked at the arrow in Yamada’s shoulder.
“It’s fine,” said Yamada through clenched teeth. “Ow!”
Hitomi had snapped part of the arrow off. “Can you walk far? They can see to this back at the camp.”
“Hitomi, you and the children are safe now,” Yamada said. “I can’t come with you.”
Hitomi shook her head. “You can’t got back there yet, not if you want to go back there at all. Besides, Karasu has been looking for you for months. And you can warn him yourself.”
“Fine,” Yamada agreed reluctantly.
She followed Hitomi back to the fields where the children were hiding. The oldest of them approached, he looked about twelve.
“You should have let us fight them,” he said accusingly.
“Not yet,” said Hitomi. “This isn’t your war.”
“And hopefully, it never will be,” said Yamada

Posts: 176
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Sat Jun 01, 2019 8:43 pm

Sorry about the long delay, here’s more

All lights from the shore had vanished an hour after sunset when the riverboat came to a stop. Arahime stood on the deck near the railing, watching the vine-woven jungle redolent with the scents of vanilla and hibiscus as it slowly unfurled beside her.
The simple excursions of the day..carrying their bags, making it to the docks through the crowds, saying their had been a more tiring day than Arahime cared to admit.
Surely, it was just weariness that bored down on her. Her chest ached, that familiar pressure she had come to know, as though someone was crushing her beneath their weight, where she could not get quite enough air. Like trying to stay afloat as a wave washes over you, leaving you sputtering… Her hands tightened around the railing and she felt acutely aware of the lack of a katana on her obi. Below her, the moonlit river rippled on a V shape at the surface…
She heard a heavy step behind her at the same moment as the redolent reek of fish and tobacco hit her nostrils. A rough hand grabbed her arm, and Arahime froze. A wave of terror washed over her as she stood stunned, too overwhelmed to move. Please don’t leave me here! A panicked child’s voice erupted in her thoughts. A thousand moments flashed through her head. Gasping in the freezing waters, fighting for breath. Crocodiles and tigers inches away from her feet as she clung in the dark to the limb of a tree. The coils of a giant snake falling around her, knocking her to the ground and crushing her beneath its weight. The feeling of insects crawling under her skin as death slowly poured blood and pus into her failing lungs… The fear turned her knees to jelly and she almost collapsed at the man’s strong grip as he turned her to face him…
The muscular sailor’s stone-cut face went pale as he saw her face in the dim light, and he let go immediately, dropping to the ground in fervent bow. “Fergive me, samurai-sama….I didn’ git it were you in the dark. Wanted to warn ye about the giant snake in the water...that’s all…I swear…”
Her heart racing, Arahime waived the sailor way dismissively, but could not keep the tears from squeezing out of the corners of her eyes. She turned away quickly to hide them, but that turned her back to the gently bobbing water. The dense jungle...the giant snakes….the pain in her lungs...her weakness...her fear…
I’m a coward…. The thought bubbled up, filling her with shame. But she could not deny the terror she’d felt at the sailor’s touch. She felt once more Arashi Purashi’s hands upon her, heaving her into the water. Smelled him and the salt air….her vulnerability. But now, she wore no armor. Carried no sword...and even if she had… Coward.
Not a bushi. They hadn’t let her go on that raid, even though she was the target of the Spider cell’s assassination attempts. Not a duelist. The kenshinzen didn’t believe she could handle the duels that the Phoenix wanted to honor her with for the message she had carried. She could not champion her own honor. They pushed her aside, pushed her back, kept secrets from her that it seemed everyone knew but her. About Shinjo. About what Harun had done. About….
She had been angry. Furious even.
But it was all a lie. Her own reaction just now laid the truth bare to see. There might be a place for a bushi who could no longer fight.
But in the Emerald Empire....there was no place for a coward.
No wonder they didn’t trust her.
A gray pall fell across Arahime’s heart, and she turned to go below decks.
She didn’t want to see any more.

Her name was Ksani.
The whirlpools and eddies of time had scoured flat much of the sharpness of her memories over the centuries, but she still had her name.
There were other memories also…the oldest and truest of them, from the time before. She was old now, so old, but she remembered when she had once walked in the sun.
She was the daughter of the Maharajah, he who sat upon the Peacock Throne. One of many, though a true-born daughter born to his fourth wife. She had played in the Gardens of Eternal Harmony, overshadowed by the golden dome of the Ivory Palace.
Not for her, though, to weave a garland to lay at the feet of the man she chose. Her weaving was chosen, she was chosen, to be taught the secrets of the Apsara. Not because her cloth was the finest, or the most beautiful. But because she had guided each thread herself; learned to spun it at the spindle and dye it with stained hands and set it in place. To be an Apsara is to see each thread in the tapestry of lives, and to bind each to common purpose.
Not for her, to bear children of her own, to add threads to the fabric of the future. For one among the Apsara was chosen to remain apart, to be made mother to the whole world, care for them and guide them and raise new leaders from amongst them, until the time when another chose to take her place as Divine Apsara.
One among them had also stood alone, a divine guardian following the steps of Shiva, the Divine Rathi to give courage in battle and inspire the hearts of men. Ksani wondered where her dearest brother Gutbalam was, now. Had he also been lost? Did he wait for her with her ancestors, or had he journeyed along the path towards reincarnation?
These things had always been so in the Ivory Kingdoms. The Rathi were the war leaders and battlemasters, who guided the armies against the demons who threatened the lives of all. And the Apsara served, to rally and unify and rebuild when the war was done so that the Kingdoms might be strong. The Rathi danced the spears and sang war into the hearts of men. The Apsara wove tapestries of connections. Hopes and fears and wants and needs and secret desires, binding common threads of humanity to create common purpose. For hundreds of years, perhaps always, it had been so. She was young, once. She thought it always would be.
The Goddess Lakshmi had chosen her so long ago, and she had taught the ways of the Apsara to a generation of her sisters that followed her. But the Rakasha were relentless, driving the demons before them, tearing the armies apart with teeth and steel. Worse still, their vile sorceries sowed hatred between the peoples and turned them against each other. The armies failed. The palace was overrun and all had fled. When she chose to take up the Goddess’s burden, to serve as Divine Apsara and enter the navrathran haar, her students were few, scattered. Within two generations they were gone.
She had waited, in silence and darkness, for a new daughter of the maharaja to take up the navrathran haar, but none came. Until her.
This new princess was unlike anyone that Ksani had ever met. Ksani had been trained since infancy to serve, to bring peace and understanding between peoples of different faiths and cultures and passions. But this girl Arahime seemed to know only of war. Ksani treasured life...her own, or others. But this girl seemed to feel guilty for not throwing her own away. Ksani had been graced with love in her life, but to her it was a source of suffering. This princess bore a great wound in her heart, a deep emptiness that mirrored her wounded body.
Despite that, this strange foreign princess did show promise. She valued things like folding paper over cooking and weaving. But they shared a love for music and flowers, and the girl learned quickly the chords of the saraswati veena that she had been taught. The threads of the world were not so different than the threads of melody found in a great work of music. She could be taught, with patience and time. Ksani hoped so.
The Divine Apsara was tired. There were no ivory palaces bursting with color and life. The gods had been forgotten. Her people, here, poor servants. They still found joy, but they were a mere shadow of what had gone before. Instead, there were these stern, cold warriors, like this Harun, whom the princess favored, ignorant of the pain he caused, bearing his secrets and blood and hidden shame. She pitied him.
She pitied Arahime too. It was hard to lose a way of living, even if it was a destructive path, and Ksani grieved at the pain the loss seemed to bring the girl. It was hard to know fear, for one who had never known fear. But she knew she could give her a new life and new purpose in the ways of the Apsara. There was joy to be found in that path, and this was a world desperately in need of the healing a new Divine Apsara could bring. A Divine Apsara that understood both peoples? Surely Lakshmi had sent the girl to bring such a world into being! And then Ksani could rest. The world would be safe and tended as it should have been all the years that she was gone.
The thought sent a warm glow into Ksani’s heart, breaking through just as she could feel the rays of dawn’s light touching the princess’s skin through the tiny cabin window. If only this poor, broken princess would surrender her foolish dreams of being a warrior and let Ksani teach her actions correctly...instead of this gray bleakness that had settled in on her….she would learn so much more quickly. She would be ready if she just surrendered and let Ksani guide her...control her…
Control. She had only ever advised, suggested. The girls brought to her as students long ago had been eager to meet her, unlike this one, and sought out all she had to teach. But this princess was so strange….and in this bleakness of the heart, would she even try? Would it be wrong, to bring new life and joy to this sad girl...and show her...prove to her...the value of a new way? Could she?
Ksani concentrated, speaking calmly...allowing her voice to be a warm caress to Arahime’s spirit. She reached out and focused on the girl’s arm...her hand...blending a memory of her own into this other princess’s skin and muscle. Then...flex….Arahime’s arm twitched at her touch.
It’s all right, Little sister,[/i] Ksani said smoothly. Don’t be afraid. I know you are grieving. I know you think you are lost. But I can take care of you. I will take care of everything. Even if your people believe you are useless now, you will take my place as Divine Apsara, and you will never need to suffer again. All peoples will need you again. Just surrender to me...and learn...[/i]
Arahime gave a small whimper of protest, but Ksani was right, of course. The Apsara gently pushed the protest aside, forcing Arahime’s body from the futon where the girl’s desire to had failed. I will get you up….

Arahime rose early. Big Sister’s urging, though Arahime could not sense her presence right now. A heat haze floated over the surface of the water, much like the haze that floated over the surface of her thoughts, these days.
She just needed to get to Journey’s End Keep. They were almost there. She just had to figure out how to give Shinjo her message. And then...did it matter? Learn more, she guessed. Become an Apsara. That was Big Sister’s goal for her. It was better than becoming nothing.
Her next lesson would begin again soon.
She went to find Harun, but when she found him she noticed he was still asleep on the deck, near the rest of the men on the ship. He was curled up on his side, arm tucked under his sleeping head.
He looks so sweet. I won’t wake him., She sat down a foot away from him to wait. She considered trying to tell him more about the necklace, about Big Sister. How she was trying to teach her to be an Apsara. He would probably think I was tainted or something, though. Weak. He’s probably right. She tried to shake away the pesky thought. She was being a child. A child’s voice whined in her imagination, once again, But I wanted to be a kenshinzen…
She sighed, feeling guilty for even considering bothering him.
Then Harun stirred slightly, his head turned, his hands twitched and he called out in his sleep. “No…no…don’t listen to him,” he said, panic in his voice. “No, get behind me…I’ll take him.”
“Harun?” Arahime knelt down beside him. This had to be a nightmare, but she wasn’t sure if she should wake him.
Harun’s eyes snapped open. He grabbed her wrist with one hand and her shoulder with the other. His grip was like iron, he rolled her onto her back and pinned her to the deck. His weight on top of her, holding her in place. His breath, scented with kafe like the sailors drank, in her face. An image flashed in her memory….her day spent with Seiho A Crane maiden on a kabuki stage….The sea taking everything she had left…
“Harun! Get off me!” Arahime gasped, her voice strangled. Fear. You coward.
Harun blinked, he stared down at her as if he had just woken up. He blinked again and then got off her.
“Arahime, I’m sorry…” He hid his face in shame. “I…” He shook his head.
“Harun, what has happened to you?” Arahime asked, rubbing her wrist where he had gripped it. “You weren’t like this before. What changed? What made you like this?”
Harun didn’t answer. Hanging his head, he stood up and walked away.
He doesn’t trust me enough to say. Arahime sighed again.
No. He’s embarrassed. Big Sister’s voice arose in her again. You need to give him some space now. I will show you how to get the answer out of him later, when he has had a chance to calm down. For now, you must show him that this does not trouble you and you are all right and all is forgiven. Come… I will show you how. Arahime let Big Sister slide gracefully into her movements as she climbed to her feet.
Might as well let Big Sister out. It’s not as though they need Arahime. I will never be a kenshinzen. If only it did not feel so much like surrender.

A trickle of sweat slid down Harun’s forehead curving around the edge of his eye and disappearing into his curly black beard. Perhaps it was the river or the looming trees of nearby jungle but the heat on the river boat was even more unbearable than anything he had experienced in Second City. Perhaps it was guilt; he felt a surge of shame in his chest at what he had done to Arahime that morning, but even the shame could not push the image of her beneath him out of his mind.
Or it could have been worry.
Those last few days in Second City had been a blur. The assassination attempt on Arahime’s life. Learning of the Spider Clan cell and meeting with the Warlord to make plans. The fight and the fire and carrying Seiho free. And the rush to prepare to travel to Journey’s End Keep, with the secret mission to find Shinjo.
And Arahime.
When he had first arrived, she had been hesitant. Shy. She seemed to brighten as she grew more comfortable with him; at the strange ‘wedding’ of the Ivinda she sparkled, her courage blazing. But that fire seemed to turn to anger in the days that followed, with him, with everyone, and she seemed brooding and resentful for reasons he couldn’t understand. She seemed eager to push him away before they set out on this journey, but at least she was driven towards her goal. Once they’d found Shinjo, surely she would get back to normal, he had believed.
Then she disappeared.
She went into her futon below decks on the ship and stayed there, refusing to join him for meals, or even speak with him. Refusing to come out. When he had stolen a glimpse late one night, she was sleeping, her face puffy and pale. He had thought he was losing her, not for the first time.
And finally, this morning, the nightmares again. The all was coming for him again...he panicked...And she was there, under him, gasping for breath. He couldn’t push the image of her out of his mind. The softness of her skin. Her wide gray eyes. Her white hair spilling around her. He’d fled.
She’d been angry with him before. She must hate him now.
He turned away from the passing jungle at the sound of excited voices among the sailors behind him. His eyes widened to see Arahime, dressed in bright blue silks and radiant. A brilliant smile lit her face as she glided towards the captain to ask with animation about the ship and the journey. He snapped his mouth shut with a click, suddenly aware, with some embarrassment, that his jaw had dropped open. The sailors had also stopped to look at her, her white hair blinding in the blazing sun. Harun couldn’t hear what was said to cause it, but the sound of her laughter carried like bells as her hand lightly brushed the captain’s arm before he bowed and she turned away.
What….what was that?
Nervously, Harun straightened his shoulders and approached her, coughing to draw her from a conversation she was having with one of the ship’s crew.
She turned to face him and again smiled. “Oh! Harun-kun. Isn’t a beautiful day?”
“Uh….yes?” Fortunes, I sound like a school boy… he cursed himself. “I’m glad you are looking so well, Arahime-san.”
Arahime’s smile wavered, and Harun thought he could see in her gray eyes….something. Confusion? Even fear? Then it was gone.
“I should never have put you through so much worry, Harun-kun. I need to be here to take care of everybody. Anyway, I’m going to be cooking a meal tonight to celebrate our journey. Are there any foods that you especially like?”
Harun blinked. Cooking? Samurai had cooked for themselves, sometimes, in the camps on far forward patrol, especially among the Unicorn. And the Crane certainly had master artisans who had thrown themselves into the art of it, creating new kinds of both exotic delicacies and ways to create and store food to allow it to go further and better serve the troops in times of famine. But Arahime had never shown the slightest interest in the subject. “Um...some fruit would be nice, I guess?” he stammered.
She flashed that brilliant smile again. “Food binds all spirits together. Nothing can bring together conflicting parties in common cause like a shared meal with friends. I will get to work.”
He raised his hand to call her back. “Arahime-san…”
Arahime turned back to face him. “Yes?”
The duelist swallowed. “I...wanted to apologize. For yesterday morning. was just a bad dream. I didn’t mean….”
That radiant smile again, this time warm with compassion. “I understand.” She reached out to lay a hand on his arm. “I should not have been frightened. War is a horrible thing, even when it is necessary. It must have left you with so many terrible memories. But you did not hurt me, and we are both safe now. Please do not be worried.”
With that she turned away, headed for the small ship’s galley, leaving Harun staring in her wake.
What is going on?

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Fri Jul 05, 2019 3:55 pm

The sun was high over the boat as it continued down the Shinano River. The sails hung limp from the lack of wind, so it was the current that drew it along. Most of the crew were taking their rest beneath shade cloths that were stretched between the rigging. Drinking, sleeping or playing games of dice.
Harun usually took this time to practice, the quiet was good and he saw the heat as a challenge to push himself. But today he saw it as a distraction from all those thoughts that threatened to overwhelm him.
He drew his katana, started through his katas, his sword an extension of his arms and hands. Soon sweat was pouring off him, dripping down his face, making his shirt stick to his back. He continued, letting the familiar motions flow, letting them drive the thoughts, the images from his mind.
But still, they came. Arahime’s face as he pinned her to the deck, the fear in her eyes, the anger in her voice, the paralysing thought that he could have hurt her.
He quickened his pace. No…No…I would never…
But what was even stranger was Arahime afterwards. She had not questioned him further, had forgiven Harun so easily, and she had seemed so happy. The light in her eyes when she had talked with the sailors over the meal she had prepared, a spicy Ivindi dish with rice that she seemed to enjoy. And there was the way she smiled at them when she played for them after on the saraswati veena. It made him feel a little uncomfortable.
[div]Would you prefer her to be unhappy?
[/div][div]That thought made Harun stop. This was the happiest he had seen Arahime since he had arrived in Zogeku. Should he not be glad that something of her old self was returning? [/div]He saw her now, making her way across the deck. Her head was shaded from the sun with the back of the sari she wore. She carried something under one arm.
Who am I to question her? I haven’t even told her about Toshi Ranbo yet.
He sheathed his sword and went to follow her.
She sat down underneath one of the shade cloths and unrolled a large piece of paper. She took out a writing kit, dipped the brush in ink and started to draw several upon it. Circles, each of them in perfect proportion.
Harun watched her, curious. “What are you drawing, Arahime-chan?”
“Sit,” she answered, not looking up. “You will see when I am finished.”
Harun did as he was told, watching as she finished the circles and then drawing a picture inside each of them. A fox, an oni’s head, a sword, a woman holding a baby, a closed eye, a man bowing, a flower… All of these circles forming a circle of their own. And in the middle of this she drew more circles, each one inside the next one, smaller and smaller until the innermost one was lost to sight.
After she had finished, Arahime sat and looked at it in silence for a long moment, pleased with herself.
Finally, Harun had to speak. “What is it?”
“It’s a mandala,” Arahime said. “They show the universe as it is understood.” She gestured to the circles and these show each realm, ours and the others that also exist.” Her hand moved along them as she named them. “Darkness, slaughter, dreams, rest…”
“Rest?” Harun repeated. “Yomi?”
“You have seen it, haven’t you?” Arahime asked gently.
“I did, through the door Zetsubou opened to cleanse the land,” said Harun. “It was beautiful. Very green, full of sunshine…and my birth father.”
Arahime nodded, smiling sympathetically.
Harun half-closed his eyes, remembering. “He told me that there was much I still had to do,” he said. “He told me he was proud of me…” He was paused, and when he spoke his voice was breaking. “I disappointed him, I disappointed them all.” He looked at Arahime. “And you.”
“Tell me,” said Arahime.
Harun looked into her eyes. So kind, so trusting, so ignorant of what he could tell her could do.
If I told her, it would destroy her. She will shun me, and I will deserve it. How could I hurt her when she has been hurt so much? How can I lose her all over again?
Harun looked away, shaking his head. “Forgive me,” he said, standing up and walking away.
He could face the Onyx hordes at Toshi Ranbo. He could face ten more rounds against Shimekiri. But he could not face her.

Arahime watched Harun’s retreating back with a mixture of anger and dejection. The anger she turned onto Big Sister.
You told me he would listen to me, you said he would talk…and he hasn’t!
No, he has, he has started to open up. It will take time.
Arahime frowned at the mandala. To trust me?
No, Harun is a very damaged young man, I have seen many in my time, including my own brothers. He does not burden you with his pain not because he does not care, he acts this way this because he does.
This stunned Arahime. He cares…still?
But Ksani didn’t answer.

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Sun Jul 07, 2019 7:11 am

Yamada and Hitomi arrived at the camp late the next day, the children carried the rest of the way on carts. They were immediately met on arrival by heimin women who came to attend to the children. Hitomi insisted Yamada see a shugenja for her wound, and when she was done the two of them went further into the camp.
People passed them as they went through, most of them Imperial Legion soldiers. Yamada wondered how many of them were remnants of the Last Legion. Formed in a moment of despair, legitimised in a moment of desperation. And then Karasu had been put in charge so that what had been created could not be destroyed.
Karasu’s words came back to her, from that cold night in Otosan Uchi after Harun had been born. I only wish I could ask for your help, Yamada, quite a few of the Legion know about you and what you have done…
But now she was undoubtedly known for other things. The Scorpion purge, the death of the Shogun. All these things she had done, necessary things.
They stopped at a tent with an Imperial Chrysanthemum outside. A bushi in the colours of the Imperial Legions stood at the closed tent flat. He immediately bowed when he saw Hitomi but looked questioningly at Yamada.
“It’s fine, Senzo, she is with me,” said Hitomi.
They went inside the tent. Karasu sat at a table strewn with maps. Two bushi sat other side of him, they were deep in conversation and one was writing down what was being said.
“I thought the war was over,” Yamada said, trying to sound light.
They all turned to look. Karasu froze when he saw her. “Yamada?”
Yamada bowed. “You summoned me, Champion?”
Karasu nodded. He turned towards the two bushi. “That will be all for now,” he said. “Let me know when those scouts report in.”
“Hai, Champion,” they said, bowing and leaving.
Karasu walked towards them slowly. He smiled “It has been so long,” he said to Yamada. He looked at Hitomi. “How did you find her?”
Hitomi shrugged. “She found me,” she said. “I need to get back to the children, we can speak later.” She gave a nod to her husband and Yamada then left.
“Please, sit down,” Karasu said, gathering up the maps and starting to make tea.
Yamada sat down gratefully, watching Karasu move about the tent. Eighteen years had passed since she had seen him last; very little had changed but she noticed it. He still had that same easy confidence as when she first met him. But he no longer seemed to be straining to prove himself. The air of authority hung upon him as easy as if he were wearing armour, fitting him like a second skin.
There were other things too, the beard which was a surprise. The grey above his ears and lines of worry about his eyes even though Yamada knew he was not quite forty. But with this came a maturity, a wisdom of learned experience.
This was the man she had chosen to raise her son, and she could not have done better herself.
“This is hardly a social visit,” said Yamada as Karasu poured the tea.
“I would never expect that from you,” said Karasu. He sat down opposite her. “Does Michio know you are here?”
“No, at least not yet,” said Yamada. She took a sip of tea, it was still scalding hot but it felt good. “Michio…he has…changed recently. Become more paranoid, more desperate.”
“I have noticed,” Karasu said gravely. “More deaths, more…scenes. And I guess there are more I am yet to know about?”
Yamada nodded. “I am not sure how much is the influence of the Dragon or the followers,” she continued. “He no longer listens to me, he stopped a while ago. Everyone is a potential target. A heretic. No room for compassion or mercy. Not anymore.” She stared dejectedly into her teacup. “Karasu, Harun could be in danger.”
Karasu stared at her. “What? But he would never…”
“Before, no he wouldn’t,” said Yamada. “But not now. I am here because he came after Hitomi. It’s not a stretch to say he would go after Harun as well. Or you.”
Karasu nodded, he ran his fingers along his hairline.
“Where is Harun? Is he still at Seawatch?” Yamada asked. “If he is, he’s not safe there.”
“No, he is in Zogeku,” Karasu said. “When we heard that Arahime was alive, he wanted to go, to be with her. He had it all arranged with Lord Shibatsu.”
Yamada nodded, looking a little calmer. “Well, it is good to know the Lord of the Spider is still spinning his webs. How long will he be there? The longer he is, the longer he can be out of Michio’s reach.”
“I’m not sure,” Karasu answered. “The plan was for him to return with her and Kousuda. They should return soon, unless we hear word otherwise.”
Yamada nodded sadly. “How…how is he? I saw Harun at Seawatch. We spoke, but…”
“Yes, he told me,” said Karasu. “We spoke before he left. He’s better, the time there did him well. He asked me about you, and it wasn’t the first time.”
“He hates me,” said Yamada sadly. “I don’t blame him.”
“No, don’t say that,” said Karasu gently. “Harun is just young and there is a lot he still doesn’t understand. He is changing though, perhaps too quickly.”
“Can you see a future for him?” Yamada asked.
“I have had a few offers, marriage out of the Crane. But I don’t think that is the answer, at least not anymore. What path Harun ends up choosing will be one he forges for himself. I don’t think he would be happy with anything else.”
“That doesn’t sound very traditional,” said Yamada.
“Well, he’s your son,” said Karasu.
Yamada managed a small smile. “Harun should be safe for now if he stays in Zogeku,” she continued in a more serious tone. “But the Jade Hand needs to appear, and soon. Do you have any news of that?”
“None,” answered Karasu. “And I know Kyoumi has been looking for a long time, longer than me. I don’t think the Hand has appeared, at least not yet.”
Yamada looked down into her teacup again. “Then, I must continue to carry this burden,” she said with an air of resignation.
“Yamada,” Karasu said gently. “This is too much for you, you just told me yourself. Let me help you.”
Yamada looked up. “How?” She demanded. “Any magistrates or legionnaires you send will just be cut to pieces. Challenging his will is challenging the will of Heaven itself, you know this.”
“Brutally murdering innocent people can hardly be Heaven’s will,” Karasu argued. “I cannot stand idle any longer. I promised myself, I promised him that I would stop him. If I have to do it personally, I will.”
Yamada saw the steel in his eyes, she knew what he meant.
Oh no, he couldn’t, not a duel...
“No, no!” she said angrily. “It’s too risky, there’s far too many things that can go wrong.”
“I told you, that doesn’t worry me,” said Karasu calmly.
“Well it should, you great idiot,” said Yamada. “He’ll kill you.” And Harun will never forgive me…
“If Michio still has the will of Heaven with him, then he will win,” said Karasu slowly. “But if he is not, if his mind is damaged and the influence of the Black Hand corrupts him…”
Yamada nodded. “He could still kill you,” she said.
“I still have to try,” said Karasu. “Honour compels it.”
“Honour,” repeated Yamada in a hollow voice. “That meant something. Once.”
“It still does.” Karasu walked over to her, he put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
“Yamada, you have been strong for so long, far longer than anyone else ever could. Because of you, so many lives have been saved. And the end is coming.”
“I wish I could believe as you did,” said Yamada.
“I know this,” said Karasu. He crossed the tent to where the Emerald blade and armour were displayed. “We all knew how it ended, years ago. We need to be ready.”
Yamada nodded. His voice, it was reassuring, comforting. Maybe, she could hold on a little longer. Maybe he could help.
“We should be in Crane lands by the autumn,” said Yamada quietly. “Moving north, towards Phoenix lands. There are quite a few abandoned villages near the border.”
Karasu nodded. “I’ll send the challenge officially, if he’s still the man I knew he’ll accept.”
“I know,” Yamada replied.

Yamada left the next day. Karasu gave her a horse and provisions, he watched her leave from the doorway of his tent.
Will Michio kill her? Karasu wondered. I hope not, but there is no telling what he will do. How much of the man I once knew is still in him?
Hitomi stood beside her husband. “I’ll keep an eye out for her,” she promised.
Karasu shook his head. “No, we need to double our efforts to locate the Jade Hand,” he said. He went back to his tent and started writing on a piece of paper. “Every magistrate, every yoriki, every legionnaire is now to have standing orders to report any sightings. Senzo?”
The ronin came in and bowed.
“Find Kitsuki Shinpei,” Karasu said. “We need to put our plan into action.”

Posts: 6
Joined: Thu Aug 29, 2019 12:53 am
Location: Россия

Thu Aug 29, 2019 4:02 am

You are mistaken. I can defend the position.

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