Dedication: To Hida Togeriso, for his friendship, his stories, and for showing me that purity can be worth the price;
And to Helen Keeble (Kuni Mirutai) for the inspiration to write about the Legion.
Lady Moon cast her cold gaze down upon the lands of the Crab. The night was her domain – the favored children of the Sun did not stir while she was abroad. There was activity atop the Carpenter Wall, to be sure, but in the small clearing she now looked down upon, nothing moved at all. She strode across the sky, giving not a second thought to the grove as she left it behind.
The samurai looked up at the Moon as she passed overhead. He had stood motionless for several minutes – not out of fear of Hitomis glare, but simply because this was where he was supposed to be. He thought of the sacrifices that the Thunders of the Crab and Dragon had made – how Hitomi and Yakamo had given their lives for Rokugan, and become something greater because of it. Still, their feud had not ended – every day they chased each other across the sky.
The clearing was quiet – only the chirping of crickets disturbed the otherwise silent evening. The amulet around the samurais neck began to glow, and he knew the moment he had waited for had arrived. He peered into the darkness along the tree line, but could not see what he was looking for. He was no Hiruma, but he did not need her keen eyes to know that she was there. Shukushi-chan, he sighed, I knew you would not leave me here, in this place, alone.
A woman stepped from the darkness and padded softly into the meadow. She was clad in the garb and equipment of a Hiruma scout, and moved with the silence and confidence of her kind. Koukai-chan, she whispered, raising one finger to his lips but not touching them. She gazed at him in the moonlight. He was clad in a sleeping kimono, over which he had tied his hakama. His daisho was thrust into the straps of the garment – he had not taken the time to don an obi. He wore no sandals, merely tabi slippers. But it was the amulet, of course, that always captivated her eye. It was fashioned of jade, a miniature gauntlet. It glowed brightly before her, shedding nearly as much light as the jealous moon above.
Koukai longed to kiss the delicate finger, but knew he could not. He held out his hands to her. Her hands hovered above his, but she did not touch them. He looked upon Shukushi. In the light of his pendant, her eyes took on an almost serpentine quality. He could see the lines upon her face – lines that spoke of a longing and an unbearable sadness, lines that spoke of a burden and a price paid. He opened his mouth to speak, but she answered the unspoken thoughts that shone in his eyes. I know you feared that I would not come, Koukai-chan. But you have known me all these years. Have I ever let you down?
No, Shukushi-chan. Since childhood, you have always been true. But I thought that since… His words died in his mouth as he saw the tears trickling down her face. He knew that the memory of their last meeting, and what had happened since, was as painful to her as it was to him. And somewhere in his heart, he knew that this would be their last meeting in this place.
It was here that they had first met in childhood, playing in the meadow and the forest. They had played hide-and-seek, but she always seemed to find him and he never could locate her hiding places. As they grew, so did the bond between them. Upon their gempukku, Koukai was sent to the Yasuki Estates to serve in the diplomatic corps, and Shukushi was sent to the Wall to serve in a scouting party. They agreed to meet here each Midsummer, after the Bon Festival. It was not until they were apart that Koukai realized how he truly felt for her. Each year, they were able to reunite for one night before their duties carried them away from each other again. Koukai wrote frequent letters, but he knew the life of a scout held long journeys from home, often for weeks on end. He did not expect frequent replies, and so he cherished each missive she was able to send.
As the years passed, Shukushis replies grew even more infrequent – but each year they met at the usual place and time. Then in early spring, Koukai had received word that Shukushi had been wounded on a foray into the Shadowlands. He feared she might die, but his duty kept him from her side, where he longed to be while she recovered.
But now she stood before him once more, and all those months of uncertainty and longing evaporated like the dew before a new sun. How he longed to hold her in his arms just once more, to tell her all the things that his heart demanded he speak of – but though they stood so close, he knew his beloved was farther from him than she had ever been before.
I know, Koukai-chan. Once, I said that our love could never be, because you were the son of a Yasuki diplomat and I was the daughter of the Hiruma. How I wish I could have back all those moments – all those midsummers. It seems so silly that such a small matter should have kept us apart so long. But now, she sighed, We have no choice. To touch you would bring pain to us both. But to never touch you again is just as painful.
Hai, Shukushi-chan. Ninjou tells me to follow my heart, heedless of the risks. But as different as we are, we are still Crab. And there is no room for ninjou as long as there is giri. My duty is to represent the interests of the Crab in the Courts. Where does your destiny carry you, beloved?
In the morning, we march back beyond the Wall. Two weeks ago, a dozen young warriors ventured into the Shadowlands to complete their gempukku. None of them returned. A few days ago, a scouting party was sent to locate them. We have heard nothing since. We do not leave our own behind. Even if they are dead, we must make sure they do not rise again in service to the Dark Lord.
Yasuki Koukai wondered at the mask of determination that Shukushi wore. And he knew that there was as little hope for her as there was for the children who had fallen during their trial. For though she had survived her injuries, the Taint had taken hold in Hiruma Shukushis soul. He could see the skin that had peeled from her cheeks and the backs of her hands, exposing scaly flesh beneath. He realized that soon, she too would give her life for the Crab and the Empire. Either she would fall in battle with the Horde, or her comrades would take her head before the Taint overwhelmed her. He understood now why she could not touch him, though they both yearned to.
Shikata ga nai, Shukushi-chan. It cant be helped. We are Crab – we do what must be done. I will pray for you at the shrines each day, for as long as I live.
And I love you as well, Koukai-chan, though I fear that there is no hope for my soul and that the days I have left are few. Remember me as we were – and as we have always longed to be.
Hai, Shukushi-chan, Koukai replied, his throat tight and his chest heavy with sorrow. In my heart, you will always be here with me in this meadow. He turned away and left the clearing. He did not look back, and for the rest of his years he never returned to there.
* * *
Lord Yakamo rose into the sky as morning broke, his warmth falling upon those who stood atop the great Wall. Lord Suns fire dried Koukais cheeks and carried the mist from his eyes. He looked down upon a small formation of soldiers as they emerged from the tunnels across the river. He knew that Shukushi was among them, but from here he could not tell which one was she. She did not turn to see if he bid her farewell, the group simply marched on with purpose.
There goes a brave lot, I tell you, said a bushi who stood beside Koukai as he clapped the diplomat roughly upon the shoulder. Now thats what it means to be a Crab. Sacrifice. They fight and die while you sit in the Court in your silk kimono and sip your tea and talk of your service to the Jade Hand. What would you know about sacrifice?
Hai, Hida-sama, Koukai sighed as he turned away from the Shadowlands and the group that surely marched to their death. What would I know of sacrifice, indeed…”
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