Storm Heart By Matt Dalen

Storm Heart

By Matt Dalen

The man stood on the terrace, looking out into the mountains.  A thin grey haze enveloped him, the upper regions of a storm currently watering the valleys.  The mountains were barely visible in the fog, lending an otherworldly feel to the spectacle.

Tamori Shosei loved this weather.  That time right before a storm hit, when the sky was a steely grey, and he could feel the energy in the air as the kami swirled around him… it was a magnificent feeling.  Silently, he stood there, letting the mists soak his rough-sewn traveling clothes, and wash his cares away.  Nothing mattered but the storm.  Nothing spoke but the wind.  If only he could stay like this forever, forgetting his duties, leaving his life behind.  He wouldn’t have to deal with Isei.  He wouldn’t have to worry about the information Gisei had brought him.

“Mirumoto Isei is a dangerous man,” she said.  “His dealings are cutthroat, and he has many allies among the clans, especially in the Scorpion and the Mantis.  You would be wise to avoid him.”

Shosei laughed grimly to himself.  Avoiding Isei was not an option.  The man had already tried to kill him once; no doubt he would try again.  The next time, Shosei might not be so lucky.

“The assassin, Hanae, is almost impossible to track down.  There are no records of her among the Shosuro that I can find, but that may not be significant they dont always keep records of their more dubious activities.  But if she knew Isei, then its likely they met when he was a minor ambassador to the Scorpion.

            Hanae.  His fathers killer.  She had been Iseis hand.  Now she was dead, and could not tell her secrets.  All Shosei knew was that she was somehow linked to the Shosuro.

“Isei is currently ambassador to the Tsuruchi family.  He is well respected, but not exactly trusted.  Those who cross him tend to turn up dead.  Gisei paused, a look of concern crossing her face.  Shosei-kun, be careful.  No one has yet proven him a murderer, but court gossip has him connected to at least three other deaths.

            A cough from behind caused Shosei to start.  He turned, his one good fist clenched.

            A tall woman stood in the doorway, a studiously blank expression on her face.  Several years older than Shosei, she was dressed in the rough traveling garb of a samurai.  Rigidly, she bowed.  Konnichi-wa, Shosei-sama.

            Shosei relaxed.  By the kami, Tomoko, you scared me.  Dont sneak up on me like that.

            A shadow of a smile crossed Mirumoto Tomokos face before it resumed its customary blandness.  Gomen, Shosei-sama.  But you know that it is my duty to protect you.

            Shosei turned back to his contemplation of the storm.  Here, I am home, Tomoko.  I can take care of myself.

            She walked up next to him.  With apologies, Shosei-sama, but your grandfather feels that you need a yojimbo, for your own safety.  With only one arm, you are in no shape to protect yourself.

            Instinctively, Shosei rubbed the stump where his right arm had once been.  Some days, he thought he could still feel it there, a ghost of a limb.  I can protect myself fine.  I am a skilled shugenja, and a master of kagaku, neither of which require two arms.

            Nonetheless, I must protect you.  Tomoko stood erect, eyes searching the storm-lit shadows for any signs of movement.

            With a noncommittal grunt, Shosei resumed his meditations, leaving the older woman to her own thoughts.

            Masaki crept through the underbrush, sword at hand, his eyes scanning the ridge for any sign of his quarry.  Off to his left, a branch moved.  He watched it intently for several seconds before moving on.  Just a bird.

            Up ahead, he saw a flicker of movement.  There she was.  With a fierce grin, Masaki leapt, sword held straight out in front of him.

            Aha! he shouted.

            Tamori Mieko shrieked and ran, barely suppressing giggles as the little boy chased her, his stick-turned-sword outstretched.

            No fair! the girl shouted back at her pursuer.  You didnt wait long enough!

            I did too! Masaki responded, dodging around a large rock blocking his path.  I counted all the way up to one hundred!

            Mieko turned her head to look back over her shoulder.  Liar!  You- Her words were cut off in a cry of pain as the young girl collapsed to the ground.

            Mieko?  Masaki asked hesitantly, dropping his stick as he approached her.  Are you all right?

            She made no sound, lying limp as the blood from her broken leg dripped into the hole she had stepped in.

          
Tomoko looked around Ryoko Owari in bemusement, hand fingering the hilt of her katana.  Is this where were to find your friend? she asked.

            Shosei didnt respond, his expression growing, if anything, more dour as he stomped past her into the small teahouse.

            Tomoko shrugged and followed him in.

            The teahouse was abuzz with the voices of people enjoying themselves.  The pervasive, imminent threat of the Bloodspeaker had not obviously dampened the spirits of the denizens of Ryoko Owari as they celebrated the festival of the cherry blossoms.  Even so, an undertone of tension flowed through the conversation.  For all their celebrations, people were worried.  Looking completely out of place among the revelers in his rough traveling robe, Shosei walked up to the proprietor of the tea house and bowed slightly.

            Gomen, sir, but I am in search of a person whom I know to live near here, and I was hoping that you would be able to assist me.  He looked down at the slight man, attempting unsuccessfully to smile genially.  Her name… he paused.  Her name is…

            Amaya!  The young man ran through the fortress, shouting.  Amaya!

            Masaki?  Is your gempukku over so soon?  A young woman hobbled out of a door ahead of him, her crutch supporting her crippled leg.  Nine years earlier, when she had still been known as Mieko, no healer had been able to properly set the leg.  Now the crutches remained as a grim reminder of childhood.  Her eyes noted the pair of swords, newly tucked into the sixteen-year-olds obi.  Congratulations, Masaki-kun, she said, smiling somewhat wanly.

            He skidded to a halt in front of her, panting.  Its Shosei now, Amaya.  He stood erect proudly.  Im a man now, and my name is Tamori Shosei.

            Amayas chuckled softly, her long black hair falling down to hide the faint wetness in her eyes.  It is a good name, Shosei-kun.  It fits you well.

            Shosei looked at her, his jubilant expression fading.  You dont seem excited.  He stepped forward, reaching out for her hand.

            She jerked away from his touch.  Im sorry, Ma- Shosei-kun.  Its just… Ive received word.

            From him?  Shosei stepped even closer, his voice growing quieter.  There was an edge in it as he spoke again.  I dont want you to go, Amaya-chan.

            She stepped back slightly, involuntarily.  Im sorry.  I wish I didnt have to go either.  But this alliance is important.  You know that.  She turned away, back towards her room.  I leave tonight for Ryoko Owari.  Yuudai awaits me there.

            Ill…  Shoseis voice was barely audible.  I…  Amaya paused, waiting for his next words.  Goodbye, Amaya-san, he whispered, turning away.  May your life be happy.

            Shosuro Amaya? Tomoko asked as Shosei tramped down the streets of Ryoko Owari.  I cant protect you if you refuse to tell me what were doing, you realize.

            Shosei sighed, obviously irritated.  Shes an old friend, and well leave it at that, ok?  Resuming his silence, he continued inspecting the houses for the one the teahouse proprietor had described.

            Tomoko nodded, resigned.  If the fool wanted to risk his life, who was she to stop him?  She was just his yojimbo.  As she had learned in the past several months, when he got into these moods, there was little to do but let them pass.  Looking around, she drew her cloak tighter about her.  Ryoko Owari was surprisingly chilly for this late in the spring, as if even the weather felt the presence of the Bloodspeaker in the world.  This would not be a good year for crops.

            Turning onto a small side street, Shosei stopped before a nondescript building nestled between two larger mansions.  This is her, he announced, stepping up to the door and rapping on the doorframe with his fist.

            The door slid open to reveal a luxuriously appointed hallway and a tall servant.  Konnichi-wa, samas, the servant said, bowing.

            Shosei nodded politely, a forced smile on his face.  I would speak with your mistress.  Tell her… he paused.  Tell her Masaki seeks an audience.  A faint grimace crossed his face as he said it.

            The servant bowed again and closed the door.  As Tomoko studied it, Shoseis face returned to the blank expression he had been holding all day.  Idly, she wondered why this woman would know her charge by the name Masaki.

            Again, the door slid open, this time revealing a slight woman, her weight supported by a dark wooden cane.  Shosei-kun?  Her face broke into a wide smile.  It is you!  It has been so long…  She limped aside to let them through.  Come, come, it is a bit chilly outside.   I will make some tea.  She seemed to notice Tomoko for the first time, almost as an afterthought, Tomoko thought.  And you must be his yojimbo.  You are, of course, welcome to come in as well.  I am Shosuro Amaya.

            Grimacing inwardly at this womans subtle dismissal, Tomoko bowed and followed Shosei into the building.  Despite its quiet exterior, the house was rich in decorations, and she quietly studied the tapestries and artifacts lining the walls.  Treasures from across the empire were on display here.  Whoever this woman was, she was certainly rich.

            They walked into a small garden, open to the sky.  The faint sounds of the Ryoko Owari streets came over the walls of the house, breaking the otherwise idyllic scene.  A low table was set up in the center of the garden, with mats around it.  Obviously the woman entertained guests here often.

            Amaya seated Shosei at a low table and began preparing the tea ceremony.  Seating herself, she gestured for Shosei to join her.  Tomoko positioned herself by the door.

            Delicately, the woman began pouring out the tea.  The tea set was old and well made.  Decorated with green and red dragons, it was just possible to see light through the faintly translucent china.  Tomoko marked it down as one more example of Amayas wealth.

            Most of the ceremony was carried out in an uncomfortable silence, Shoseis eyes studying Amaya carefully, Amayas eyes downcast.  Tomoko shifted her stance awkwardly, brushing her long topknot from her shoulder.  She felt like an intruder on a private moment.

            After the ceremony was complete, Amaya finally looked up at Shosei.

            I heard about Yuudai, he said awkwardly.  Im sorry.

            Amaya grimaced.  He was serving the Scorpion.  He died as a samurai.  She studied him carefully.  So, Shosei-kun.  You have refused every one of my invitations so far, and made sure never to be home when I visited your mother.  What is it that brings you into my life after all this time?  She sighed.  We havent spoken since…

            Since you left, Shosei said flatly, his eyes flinty.

            Amayas expression grew ever so slightly sadder.  I… see.  When did you grow so hard?

            I need your help, Shosei said, ignoring her question.  I need information about someone with connections to your family.  A ronin assassin.

            An assassin? Amaya asked, looking miffed at Shoseis bluntness.  Why do you think she has connections to the Shosuro?

            Shosei brought out a scrap of paper.  I found this note on her body after she attempted to kill me.  I think I know who hired her, but ancestral testimony isnt admissible in any court I know of.  I need proof.  And shes the only link I can find.  He looked at her defensively.  For the sake of our friendship, and the debt you owe my family, I ask you to help me with this, without asking any questions.

            Amaya studied him carefully as she took the note, weighing his intentions.  As she read the note, her eyes widened in surprise.  Your father.

            Yes, Shosei whispered.  She was the one who killed him

            Looking up from the note, Amaya nodded her acquiescence.

 

            Tomoko looked out at the night-shrouded city of Ryoko Owari, the lanterns of many buildings giving a fiery glow to the light fog that filled the streets.  Shosei had his information.  Amaya could not give them complete details, but she did give them one clue.  Look to the Tsuruchi, she had said.

            Shosei was growing harder, turning in on himself.  Tomoko had seen it before, in her fathers so-called friends.  Just before they turned him in for a series of murders that he hadnt committed.  It had led to all of their deaths.  Shosei was headed for the same place, if he was not careful.

            Tomoko looked out at the night-shrouded city of Ryoko Owari, her thoughts as dark as the clouds roiling above.

 

               Later…

               The man rolled in the straw, barely noticing the stench that filled the small stable.  In recent years, he had smelled much worse.  But this place was dry, and warm.  The owner did not know he was here, and probably wouldn’t be happy if he knew, but the ronin was long past caring.  He had lost everything.  Everyone had deserted him.

               Even those friends outside his former clan wanted nothing to do with him – an exile, a murderer.  He had tried traveling to the Wall, to see if there was work for him there.  They had turned him away.  He didn’t blame them.  He was a danger to everyone around him.

               The man was drawn out of his reverie by a savage kick.

               “You!  Ronin!  Get out of here.”  The stable master kicked him again.  “I’ve got enough problems without some crippled drunkard hanging around.”

               Slowly, he stumbled to his feet, mumbling a reply.  “Not a drunkard…” he whispered raggedly.

               “Do I look like I care?” the stable master asked with a sneer.  “Just get out.”  He kicked the man a third time, causing him to stagger out into the narrow street.

               The back streets of Nanashi Mura were dusty and sparsely populated, and most of the denizens gave him a wide berth, pretending to ignore him.  Typical, the man thought bitterly, samurai refusing to see what they did not like.

               Carefully, he made his way to the nearby temple to Inari, trying to avoid the eyes of the samurai walking the streets.  The monks of Inari would often give out small bowls of rice to those in need, and were discreet enough not to report a returned exile.

               “Isei.” he whispered under his breath, almost chanting the name as he crept along.  The name had been a mantra long enough to be second nature.  “Isei.”  The one who had wronged him.  “Isei.”  The one who had doomed him.  “Isei.”  The one who had caused her death…

               Distracted, the ronin almost walked into a slight woman limping purposefully down the alleyway.  Falling to the ground, he cringed from her outstretched hand.

               “Shosei.”  The voice was low, lyrical.  He recognized it.  It was one he had never thought to hear again.  Tears rimmed his eyes as he looked up at her face.

               “Amaya?” he asked hesitantly, fearfully.  She knew him.  She knew his shame.  If she should betray him…

“Shh.”  She placed a pair of delicate fingers to his cracked lips.  “Not here.  You’re a hard man to find.”  She worked her arm under his good shoulder and levered his emaciated frame upright.

“But, your leg,” he protested weakly.

               “Later.”  She still limped slightly, he saw, but without the cane.  Slowly, they made their way to a small house on another back street.  He went with her, docile and uncomprehending.

               The inside of the house was spartan, nothing like Amaya’s grandiose manse in Ryoko Owari.  The floor was rough wood, only distinguishable from the floor of the morning’s stable by its cleanliness.  In the back of the main hall, a half-open door led to a small bathhouse.  Other rooms flanked the hall, their interiors out of sight.  A well-dressed servant stood just inside the door.  Authoritatively, the lady gave him several orders.

               “Follow him, Shosei-kun,” she said, relaxing her hold on him.  “He will take care of you.”

               Four hours later, Shosei felt almost human again.  He had been bathed, clothed, and fed better than he had in the past two years.  He could almost convince himself that he was human again.

               Almost.

               “Why are you doing this?” he asked Amaya when the food had been cleared from the dining table.  “If my erstwhile family should discover that you are harboring me here, there could be trouble.”  It was more words than he had spoken in months, and his throat felt raw at the exertion.

               Amaya examined him carefully for a long moment before speaking.  “Why?” she said.  “Because Mirumoto Isei has wronged us, and he needs to be punished for it.  Because we cannot be seen to have interfered in this situation, and no one would see our hand in your actions.”  She paused.  When she resumed, her voice trembled.  “And because once, a young boy loved a girl, at a time when she needed that love.”

               Slowly, Shosei’s hand came up to caress Amaya’s face.  “Mieko-chan,” he whispered.

               Amaya drew back from his touch, smiling sadly.  “No one has called me that in a very long time, Shosei-kun.  Mieko was a child, in another lifetime.  She has been gone for years.”

               Shosei let his hand fall to his lap.  “You are better to have nothing to do with me,” he whispered hoarsely.  “Everything I touch, everyone I love, turns to dust.  I have surely been cursed by the kami.”

               She moved closer to him, placing her hand on his.  “I cannot imagine what your life has been like these past two years.  But I do know that you are a good man, and that you do not deserve the pain that you have suffered.”

               Slowly, Shosei seemed to crumble, laying his head on Amaya’s lap and clutching her hand.  Tears rimmed his eyes.  “I killed her, Amaya,” he whispered.  “I killed her.”

               The words unleashed a storm of pain and memories.  His thoughts roiled, dark and foggy.  He could not hold on to one for more than a few seconds before it slipped away into the mists again.  The only thing solid was her, this woman, this savior.

               Silently, Amaya stroked his thinning hair, her dark eyes staring into the void as his tears wet her kimono.

 

               The trial had been small, quiet.  If Isei had been proven wrong, the clan would have wanted the scandal hushed up.  And if Shosei’s accusations proved false…

               Tsuruchi Keiichi had gone missing the night before.  Keiichi, one-time lover of the assassin Hanae.  Until Shosei and Tomoko had found him in Mantis lands, he hadnt even realized the value of what he knew.

               Together, they had confronted Isei, goading him into admitting his crimes.  Between the three of them, the courts had to listen.  Now, they were only two.  Only Tomoko was left to testify about Iseis threats.

               “Please state your name and present occupation.”  The little magistrate spoke in short, abrupt sentences as he glared at the witness.  The gold thread of his Kitsuki mon gleamed in the sunlit hall, lending him an aura of authority belied by his small stature.  He moved slowly, almost catlike, as he stalked around the court.

               “Mirumoto Tomoko, yojimbo to Tamori Shosei,” she replied, perfectly calm.  Her silky black hair was loose, half covering her face.  Through it shone her crystal clear black eyes, unblinkingly tracking her questioner.

               “Tamori Shosei has made certain claims about threats leveled against him by the accused,” the magistrate said.  “Were you there when they spoke?”

               “I was,” she said. She glanced briefly at Shosei, a strange expression in her eyes. There was something wrong here. Shosei could feel the kami whispering to him, imperceptibly, warning him.

               “And what was the content of this conversation?”  The magistrate stepped closer, as if to hear her better.  His expression was almost eager, like a hunter going in for the kill.

               Tomoko’s eyes met Shosei’s.  She looked at him levelly as she spoke.  The strange expression… sympathy? She felt sorry for him.   “You have to understand, Shosei-sama had formed this conspiracy theory about his father’s death.  He accused Isei-sama of being a criminal mastermind, of plotting both his and his father’s death.  He was convinced he was right.  Both he and Isei-sama were speaking heatedly.

               The whispers of the kami grew louder. Shosei could feel a dull fire burning inside. Tomokos words hammered into him, each one further agitating the storm in his soul.  He could hear low, sibilant words being whispered in his mind.  He realized they were in his own voice.  Was the room getting hotter?

               “But did Mirumoto Isei admit to trying to have Tamori Shosei and Tamori Atasuke murdered, as the accuser maintains?” the magistrate pressed.  Shosei could feel the kami surrounding him, muffling the magistrate’s questioning.  “Did he threaten Tsuruchi Keiichi?”

               Tomoko’s face had been calm, serene as she answered.  Shoseis whispering continued, but he did not react, as if he were outside, detached.  No one around him had noticed as he spoke to the kami, his lips barely moving.  Tomoko’s eyes bored into him, a hint of emotion showing at last.  There was something… rage?  Hatred?  Shosei couldn’t tell.  His mind was caught up in the storm swirling around him.  But Tomoko’s final word came through clear as a bell.  “No.”

               Tomoko burned.

 

          How long they sat there, Shosei didn’t know.  His tears had long since dried up.  Amaya had been silent, letting two years of grief and pain flow out.

               “I ruined your kimono,” Shosei said dully.

               “It’s all right,” Amaya replied.  “I can get another one.”

               “Thank you,” he said.  I love you, he wanted to say.

               Amaya didnt reply.The silence lasted another eternity.  Finally, regretfully, Shosei spoke.

What happens now? he asked.

Tomorrow morning, a man named Tsuri will arrive.  He is the one we need, Amaya replied.

Can we trust him? he asked.

            Amaya sighed beside him.  Tsuri is a mercenary.  As long as were paying him, we can trust him.  And we need him.

            Why?  Shosei sat up and turned to her.

            Because he was the one who killed Keiichi, she said.  At Iseis behest.

            How do we know hes not still working for him? Shosei pressed.

            We dont, Amaya said bluntly.  But without him, we cant get close enough to Isei to trap him.

            Shosei was quiet a moment.  Why are you doing this? he asked finally.

            I told you before, Amaya said.  Isei played the Scorpion, taking one of our own and turning her into his own personal assassin.  For that, he needs to be punished.

            No.  Shosei shook his head.  I mean, why are *you* doing this?

            I…  Amaya was momentarily speechless.  When we were growing up, she said finally, I was alone, fostered to a strange family.  During that time, you were a friend, and more.  And for that, I am thankful.

            Is that it, then? Shosei asked sadly.  Just thanks for the past?

            Amaya smiled faintly, squeezing his hand.  Why, do you want there to be more?

            You know I do, Shosei said quietly.  He looked into her eyes for a long moment.  I never stopped thinking about you, you know.  Even when I was angry at you, even when I hated you for leaving me…  You were always the only one.

            Gently, Amaya stroked his cheek.  I know, she said.  Im sorry.  Suddenly, she withdrew her hand.  We cant do this, she whispered.  Its not possible.

            Why not? Shosei asked, pulling her hand towards him.  Whos to stop us?  Your husband is dead, my family has disowned me.  They cant object now.

            But mine can, she said.  I have duties to the Scorpion.  And you are an exile.  She turned away.

            The kami take your duties!  Shosei was inches from her neck.  He could see her hair move when he breathed.  You have given the Scorpion more than you owe them.  You deserve to be happy.  *We* can be happy.

            Amaya bowed her head.  You dont know what youre asking.  The Scorpion value their alliance with the Dragon too much.  Contact with you would mean my own exile, or worse.  Slowly, she turned towards him.  Shosei could see the golden flecks in her deep brown eyes as she looked up at him.  Please, Shosei-kun, she pleaded.

            Come with me, he whispered.  Let them exile you.  He wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her even closer.  Please.  Carefully, he moved his head down and kissed her.  She stiffened in his grasp.

            The rain beat a steady rhythm on the roof of the room as they kissed.

 

            Tsuruchi Masote slept lightly most nights.  This one was no exception.  Blearily, he blinked his eyes open.  What had awakened him?  Carefully, the old magistrate rose, reaching for his daisho.  Where was it?  His hands gripped air.

            A small flame appeared less than two feet in front of him, blinding him.  Masote started.  Who…?

            Greetings, Tsuruchi Masote.  The voice from behind the flame was low, even, menacing.  As Masotes eyes adjusted, he could make out a lithe figure holding the candle.  “Don’t bother shouting.  There’s no one in earshot.”

            Who are you? the old man asked.  What do you want?  He was barely able to keep the fear out of his voice.

            Another voice, from a dark corner of the room.  My name is Shosei, formerly of the Tamori.  You have already met my companion.  He stepped forward, so his face was illuminated in the circle of light.  It was young, but careworn.  A hard face.  I need your help.

            But, Masote protested vainly.

            That wasnt a request, Tsuri growled.

 

            Lady Moon cast deep shadows in the small glen that Tsuri had chosen for the meeting.  Shosei, Tsuri, and three other mercenaries had arrayed themselves around the edge of the clearing, and a fourth mercenary guarded Masote, to make sure he witnessed the events to come and did not interfere.

            It was nearing midnight when Mirumoto Isei finally appeared.  The man had grown older in these two years, Shosei realized.  His once-jet black hair was now speckled with grey, and his face was more tired, worn.  Slowly, he edged into the clearing, his eyes studying the shadows suspiciously.

            Tsuri? he called out into the darkness.

            The ronin stepped out into the clearing.  Isei.  You came alone?

            Isei nodded.  As always.  You said you have news of Atasukes whelp?  A vicious grin played at the edges of his mouth.  Good news, I trust?

            You could say that, said Shosei as he stepped out of the trees behind Isei.

            Isei spun nimbly, showing an agility that belied his grey hair.  So, the cub speaks for itself, eh?  He grinned and drew his two blades.  All the better.

            A pair of arrows shot out of the forest on either side of Shosei, embedding themselves in Iseis right thigh and shoulder.  He dropped to one knee with a cry of pain, losing his grip on his katana.

            Now, now, none of that, Shosei said mildly.  We need to have a nice, calm talk.

            Isei glared at the one armed shugenja, naked hatred burning in his eyes.  Hanae should have killed you when she had the chance, he spat.  Grasping his wakizashi firmly in his unwounded arm, he lunged.

            Shosei dodged the weak attack easily, kicking the man in his wounded shoulder.  Her death is just one more mark on your soul, he said, drawing his wakizashi.  You blackmailed her into attacking me.

            So?  Iseis lips curled into a smirk.  She was scum to begin with.

            And Tsuruchi Keiichi? Shosei asked, circling him.  He heard a loud gasp from the darkness as Masote heard his words.  Good.  Was he scum as well, for loving her?

            Isei staggered to his feet, his right arm falling limp at his side.  Tsuri killed him, not me.  I just told him to make the boy disappear for a bit.  Gritting his teeth, he lunged again with his wakizashi.

            Dancing aside, Shosei parried the blow with his own blade.  The blame still rests on you, Isei.  He crossed you.  He got in the way of your revenge.

            Iseis hair was sticking to his forehead as he glowered at Shosei silently.

            I just have one question, Shosei asked quietly as he circled his prey.  How did you turn Tomoko?  Why did she betray me?

            Isei laughed raggedly.  You never really knew her, did you, boy?  You never knew the depth of her hatred for her clan, for you in particular.

            You lie, Shosei growled.  She was samurai.  She served the Mirumoto.

            She blamed the Dragon for her fathers death, for executing a supposedly innocent man.  Isei smirked weakly.  She never thought to consider that he was actually guilty of the charges.  She was only too happy to betray you when I informed her that your father was the one who arrested her father.

            You are a liar, Shosei said.  But I already knew that.

            Shosei set his feet, his eyes meeting Iseis.  And thus, we come to your most important crime, Mirumoto Isei.  His voice was slow, measured, as he walked towards the other.  You.  He stepped closer.  Killed.  Another step.  My.  Isei was almost within sword range now.  Father.

            He took what was mine! Isei shouted.  He closed the remaining distance between the two of them, stumbling slightly on his wounded leg.  Deftly, Shosei stepped inside his attack, burying his wakizashi deep in the other mans gut.

            Die, Shosei whispered as he twisted the blade.  He felt Isei spasm once, twice, before he grew still, slipping off the cold steel onto the ground.

            Shosei turned as Tsuri led Masote out from the thicket where he had been held.  You heard everything, old man?

            Masote nodded slowly.  He attacked you, and he admitted to the deaths of both your father and my nephew.  I will swear to as much in court.  He spat on the corpse lying on the ground.  May he rot in Jikogu.

 

The one armed ronin stood at the edge of the cliff, watching the storm envelop the valley below.  The light of Lady Moon shone brilliantly, lending an otherworldly cast to the silvery cloudscape beneath him.  The paths this high were faint and dangerous, but sparsely traveled, an advantage for an exile.  Shosei had no wish for a confrontation with his former clansmates.

What will you do now?  The voice was light, feminine.  Tamori Euiko eyed her adoptive brother carefully.

Shosei shrugged.  I will wander the Empire, I guess.  With Masotes testimony, hopefully I wont be pariah everywhere, even if Im still unwelcome in these lands.  He paused.  “If I’m lucky, there will be people who won’t blame me for my actions, given the circumstances.  I’ll survive.  I know how to avoid the magistrates when I have to.”

Will Amaya be joining you? Euiko asked quietly.

I have my duties to the Scorpion, Amaya said, stepping out of the shadows of the woods, gingerly making her way to Shoseis side on the moonlit cliff.  She slipped her arm in Shoseis.  But Shosei-kun is always welcome in my house.

Euiko pursed her lips.  Then theres nothing else to say but goodbye, she said, her eyes gleaming wetly.  Ill miss you, she whispered.

Shosei gave a quixotic half-grin.  Im sure Ill show up when you least expect it.  But for now, I have many sins to work off.  His eyes got a far-away look.

It wasnt your fault that she died, Amaya said quietly.  Her course was set long before you entered her life.

Shosei shook his head.  I could have done more to save her.  She blamed me for her personal misfortunes, and Isei exploited that.  But I was the one who failed her, and I must live with that.

The two women exchanged a glance.  With a quiet nod of acknowledgement, Euiko withdrew to make her way back down the mountain, leaving the lovers alone.

Together, Shosei and Amaya looked out over the valley, watching the flashes of lightning illuminate the dull grey mist.

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