L5R - Chasing the Winds - A Winter Court 5 Sequel Fic

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Thu Jun 15, 2017 6:47 am

This story picks up where School Days picks off, Harun takes off to Unicorn lands and has a number of adventures, including the battle of Shiro Moto!

Chasing the Wind

Spring, 1235 - Shiro san Kakita

Harun was relieved when the gates of Shiro sano Kakita came in sight. Just on dusk. He was just in time before they closed them for the night. He had been riding hard for three days, stopping only to rest his horse.
The guard, one familiar from Harun’s student days, waved him through when Harun showed his chop. Once inside he quickly secured his horse in the stable and then emerged in the familiar courtyard that separated the dojo from the rest of the castle. Ordered, every stone and flower in it’s perfect place.
It’s like coming home, thought Harun as he crossed it, nothing has changed.
But if nothing had changed here, Harun had certainly changed. He was taller, his skin darker from the time he had spent in the sun, his muscles hard from the riding and fighting in the Unicorn lands. His hair hung long and wild in loose curls around his shoulders, pooling in the hood of his deep purple fur-lined cloak that concealed his armour. He walked with an easy confidence, with purpose, as if he no longer cared who saw him.
But there was still the quietness in his eyes, akin to a deep well. A stillness he drew upon in the duelling ring, silence turned quickly to action.
In the courtyard outside the outside the dojo, the students gathered in small groups playing, practising or talking.
Recreation time, he remembered. He didn’t see Arahime, perhaps she was inside. He had lost track of the days on the road, what with the late snow holding him up.
“Harun!” A blue and white blur ran towards him, then at the last minute stopped and gave an awkward bow. “I’m sorry,” she said, stifling a giggle.
Harun laughed and came forward to embrace his little sister. “Sakimi-chan.” She had come to the academy the year before he had left. With her white hair and blue eyes she fit right in, and she had followed him around like a shadow whenever she could.
She ran her fingers through his long hair. “You look like a real Moto!” She laughed. “Did you see them? Did you see any Shiotome?”
“I saw lots of things, Sakimi-chan,” he said. “Where is Arahime? Is she still here?”
Sakimi hesitated. “She…she has left, Harun. A week ago,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Harun’s face fell. “But…the championship?”
Sakimi shook her head. “It ended, the day before she left.”
Harun closed his eyes. “I promised her,” he said. He opened them again. “Why didn’t she wait for me?”
“I don’t know,” Sakimi said. “Aunt Kyoumi and Uncle Kousuda had to leave quickly.”
Harun clenched his fists and made a low groan. He would have done more, but remembered in time not only was Sakimi right there they didn’t do things like that in Crane lands.
“I’m sorry,” Sakimi repeated.
One of the sensei walked around ringing a small handbell, summoning the children to the evening meal. Sakimi looked at him then back at Harun.
“Go on,” Harun said. “We can talk more later.”
When Sakimi left, Harun sat down on a bench at the edge of the courtyard, running his hands through his hair. How often he and Arahime had sat there together in their student days. And she had left, without waiting for him, without saying goodbye.
It was of her that he had thought of when he rode home, that had spurred him on. And he hadn’t told her how he felt about her. How much he loved her. How much he cared.
It’s not too late, Harun thought, The gates are closed now, but I can leave at first light and be in Otosan Uchi in a few hours. He brightened at the thought. Wherever she’s going, she can’t have left yet.
A light moving across the courtyard made him look up. It was his old sensei, Kakita Kenshin, the Master Sensei of Kakita Academy. He supported himself with a walking stick with one hand and held a lantern with the other.
“Sensei.” Harun immediately got to his feet and bowed low.
Kenshin looked his former student up and down. “Harun-san, you have come back.” There was the hint of a smile in his careworn face.
“I heard I have missed the tournament,” Harun said, taking the lantern from Kenshin and falling into step beside him. “I did want to see Arahime compete.”
“She did well,” said Kenshin. “She was in the final round against Mirumoto Fumaki who narrowly bested her.”
“Sensei,” Harun said, his words sticking in his throat, “I had hoped to see her before she left.”
Kenshin stopped walking, thinking. “Come to my chambers later, we can speak more.” He signalled to a younger student who was crossing the courtyard going into dinner late. “Sumiko-chan, see that Kakita Harun is installed in the guest quarters.”
The girl bowed to the master sensei and Harun followed him.

Harun changed out of his armour, had a wash and changed into the fresh Crane colours clothes that had been provided for him. Then, after running through a few katas to loosen the muscles that had stiffened from the days riding, he entered Kenshin’s quarters.
How many times had he been summoned here as a student to face discipline? The first time in his first year when he thought we was going to be expelled.
He sat down at the table opposite Kenshin. A young student made and served tea under Kenshin’s watchful eye. This, too, had once been him. Making and serving tea to the Master Sensei’s honoured guests. He remembered how small he had felt, and when the boy bowed before leaving Harun nodded in return and gave her a small smile.
Silently, they sipped the tea. The light, fragrant brew was very different from the heavy, pungent blend that he had had with the Unicorn. A memory flashed before his eyes. Moto Chinua, unceremoniously dumping teapot, cups and a bowl of meat jerky on the table between them. Holding his hands stiffly to hide how they shook.
Kenshin put his cup down. “When I saw you had returned, I knew that there things that I wanted to hear from you. But, I think you have questions first.”
Harun nodded.
Kenshin thought a moment. “Arahime-san and I spoke of you a number of times before he gempukku,” he said. “She told me that she was…concerned. Concerned that you would not return.”
“I promised her, sensei,” said Harun.
“Yes, but you were tempted to stay, were you not?” Kenshin asked. “And more than once, I would say.”
Harun sipped his tea, draining the cup and placing it on the table. “I would be lying if I said I was not, sensei.”
Kenshin nodded. “As I said, she did well in the tournament. Perhaps she could have done better, had her focus had been inward rather than on the perfection of her outward form.”
Harun nodded in return. “Sounds like her,” he said. “But why isn’t she here? Was she mad at me?”
“One has nothing to do with the other,” said Kenshin. “She probably would be here, had she leave to do so, but she did not.” He reached into his haori and gave Harun a folded piece of paper. “She left this for me to give to you. I told her you would return, and I was right.”
Harun smiled, but it fell quickly off his face as he read the letter.

Dear Harun-san,
I am sorry I was not able to stay until you finally arrived. You missed a lovely time at the Topaz Championship. Of course, Mirumoto Fumaki, claimed the prize, but everyone tells me that coming second is very respectable and brings great honour to the family.
Mother tells me that there were several inquiries about marriage prospects already, but it is early days yet. My only regret is that you were not there to cheer me on. It rained during the tsu-fish hunt, but the boys I was teamed up with and I persevered. Remember when we used to go look for them? The chase was exciting, certainly. I am sure that you had many exciting adventures during your days in Unicorn Lands. I wish I could have heard all about them.
Your father was also here, though he had to leave early. There was some trouble with the merchant ships in Otosan Uchi he needed to attend to.
Unfortunately, right after the closing ceremonies, I received my new assignment, directly from Doji Ayamu-sama. The most recent yojimbo for the Crane Ambassador in Second City recently committed seppuku regarding an incident with a Yoritomo courtier. The ambassador, Doji Mushari, needs a new one. Since Mushari-sama is currently without protection, I am required to leave immediately. Ayamu-sama believes that my family’s reputation and my father’s connections will serve me well in this new posting.
I will miss you and write to you as often as I am able. Know that I will always think on you and remember fondly our times spent dancing in the gardens pretending that the world was kind.
Sincerely, Kakita Arahime.

He put the letter down on the table, pouring more tea for Kenshin and himself. Wanting to do something with his hands so he wouldn’t need to look up and meet Kenshin’s eyes. He picked up his cup, took a long shallow sip, used the time to think, to turn over in his mind what the letter said.
It said everything, and nothing. In it he could hear Arahime’s voice, her resentment, and he dismissal of him. The last words of the letters were as final as a door closing in his face, even more hurtful than her talking about her “marriage prospects”.
“It’s…it’s a good offer,” Harun finally managed to say. “Honourable, will bring her renown and respect.”
Kenshin nodded in agreement. “She needs to find her own way, just as you are finding yours.” He sipped his tea, placing the cup down. “Would you tell me what you found, Harun-san? Was it what you were seeking?”
Harun took a deep breath, secretly relieved they were moving onto a safer subject. “Yes, and no,” he said. “I sought to know the clan of my mother, Utaku Yamada. The people of my blood. I had questions, and out there on the open plains I thought I would find answers.”
“And did you?” Kenshin asked.
“I did,” answered Harun. “But the ones I needed, not the ones I wanted.”
Kenshin nodded. “Tell me.”
Harun began his story.

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Thu Jun 15, 2017 6:49 am

He made good progress heading north from Tsuma, the winter had been mild so his progress was easy. The constant travelling was new to him, and while seeing new places was good not everything was pleasant. By the end of the second full day of riding he had to seek out a bath house in the village to deal with the saddle sores. Sleeping in inns and occasionally rough was new as well, fortunately the rain held off most of the time.
When he started heading west, through the lands of the Lion Clan, he was a little more cautious. Much of the land here was still under contention, moving back and forward between the forces of the Emerald and Onyx. In some places, Onyx forces still went around unchecked. He stopped in villages, sought out military patrols for the latest news on how to avoid the contested and tainted areas.
Two weeks out from Tsuma he began to see the mountains, rising majestically towards the clouds. As he headed further northwest, the nights became cooler and early mornings had a coating of frost before the sun could manage to melt them.
On arrival in Shiro Tonbo, Harun joined one of the guided parties that took travellers through the Great Climb into the mountains. After a week, a lot of which was spent leading his horse along the narrow mountain paths, they arrived at Shiro Kitsuki. Two days later the continued to the north east to Shiro Mirumoto.
From there, the climb got even worse. Most of the time Harun led his horse, while keeping a look out for bandits and wild animals.
Finally, a week later just in the late afternoon, the road widened and they entered the Two Heaven’s Village. From there, it was but a short climb to Shiro Mirumoto itself. Harun road up the path towards it, showing his chop to the guards and went through the castle gates.
Compared to the decorated Crane lands, Shiro Mirumoto was unadorned to the point of being austere. The garden, the tea house, the tenshukaku itself, no adornment from what they were and nothing more. Yet there was something calming in this, that nothing appeared to be more than it needed to be.
In the austere audience chamber, Harun was received by Mirumoto Tanaka’s karo, the Dragon Clan Champion himself being at the front lines with his troops.AC
The room he was showed to was plain and austere, on the second floor of the tenshukaku with a grand view of the castle grounds from the balcony. He sat out there, enjoying the silence and the mountain air.
What had he hoped to find by coming up here? Some remnant of a past that he wasn’t there for? He had grown up knowing Karasu as his father, Hitomi as his mother. But here his real mother and father, the ones who had given him life, was the only place where they had been together.
My future, my life, it was decided here, thought Harun, perhaps it could have gone another way…
The silence was broken by a servant informing him that the meal would soon be served. Harun washed, changed and went downstairs.
He knew he couldn’t stay in the mountains long, but what there was to know about the past, he hoped he would learn it here.

The mountain air was bracing in the morning, Harun headed out towards the training grounds where he saw some Mirumoto students practicing.
He sat down on one of the benches on the edges, watching them. They practiced katas first, moving together like leaves in the wind. Then, they cleared the courtyard and two of them students faced each other in the centre. They bowed and adopted duelling stances.
It then hit him where he was. This was the duelling ring. This is where it had happened. Here, his mother, Utaku Yamada, had served as the champion of his father, Yasuki Nakura, in a duel to the death against the Onyx Scorpion. And it was here his father had died, forswearing his right to a champion and letting the Scorpion’s sword cut him down.
Saving his mother’s life. Saving him.
Harun had gone over and over it in his mind since he had left Tsume. What Karasu had told him, what he said of why it happened. In his mind, he had thought by coming here he would know more. But there was nothing here.
Harun looked around, then he realised the Mirumoto were talking to him. When he looked their way, they bowed.
This is going to take some getting used to, Harun thought to himself. He stood and bowed in return, slightly lower as he was in the lands of their clan and it had not been that long since he had been a student.
“I am Kakita Harun, of the Kakita Duelling Academy,” he said.
The Mirumoto who had spoken stepped forward. “This one is Mirumoto Kojima,” he said. “It has been some time since one of your school has been so far into these mountains.”
“I found the journey long, but rewarding,” said Harun. “But please, I did not mean to disturb your practice.”
“On the contrary, Kakita-sama,” said Kojima. “We were wondering if you help us honour a tradition that has existed long between our schools.”
Harun gave a quiet smile. “You wish to test our terms and our training?”
“Just so,” said Kojima with a nod.
Of the things that would happen when Harun visited Dragon lands, this had not been one he predicted. Still, an offer to test oneself in combat without another bushi was always welcome.
“Then I accept,” said Harun.
Harun grabbed a bokken from the practice rack and joined Kojima in the centre of the practice yard. Kojima stood opposite him a bokken in one hand and a shorter one in the other. Harun tucked his bokken into his obi.
Did my mother practice here? Harun wondered. Father said she was no duellist, though he trained her as best he could. Perhaps that is why she left me with him.
The two young men bowed and then took up positions.
Harun examined Kojima. He was not that much younger than Harun, probably ready for his gempukku before long. There was a brashness to him that was uncharacteristic of the Dragon, which was perhaps why he had approached Harun.
That brashness could be used against him.
Once in the stance of void, Harun reached within himself to connect with the pure, raw power that dwelt within the silence inside him. Letting it fill him, willing it to be the energy that would move his hand to his weapon.
Then, he struck. His hands pulling his bokken from his obi to slice through the air and come down hard on his opponent. Except, it didn’t. It clashes against the two that Kojima was holding, locking them all together.
For a moment, all they could do was stare. A kharmic strike, they were rare enough to be remembered.
“Perhaps,” said one of the other Mirumoto, “the heavens have decided there will be no contest between ourselves.”
“I accept this,” said Harun, pulling his bokken out and bowing. “You have certainly given me a lesson and a memory.”
“As have you to me,” said Kojima, with a bow.
The Mirumoto returned to their dojo after that. Harun stood a while in the courtyard, deep in thought.
“Ho there!”
Harun’s head whipped around at the sound of the voice. Coming towards him was a man a little older than Harun, dressed in Unicorn colours. And Harun didn’t even have to check the mons on his clothing to know he was a Moto, it was in everything about him. His hair was long and hung in wild tangles around his face. His skin was darker than Harun’s, his beard neatly trimmed and curled. He walked not with confidence, but with a swagger that he flaunted in the eyes of all that saw him. His clothing was trimmed with fur and cut in a way that Harun had never seen, he wore leather boots not geta. And on his belt was a curved scimitar, it looked strange to Harun.
He is from my mother’s people, Harun thought, there is something alien but also honest about him.
“I watched you come in yesterday,” said the Moto, stepping uncomfortably close to Harun. “I thought to myself, with a face like that what were you doing wearing blue. Then I saw what happened with those kids, and I had to ask.”
Harun raised his eyebrows. “I have heard of the curiosity of the Unicorn.”
“And I have heard of the stuffiness of the Crane.” He laughed, and held out a hand. “Moto Majid, though I dare say you know part of that already.
Harun reached out his hand to shake Majid’s. “Kakita Harun.”
“Harun?” Majid looked him up and down. “Moto face, Moto name, Kakita colours. I’m seeing there is a story here if you don’t mind telling it.”
“I don’t,” said Harun, smiling. Majid was beginning to warm on him. And how better to know of the Unicorn from a real Moto?
They walked down to the village, swapping stories. Any questions, Majid told him, could wait until after the second drink.

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Thu Jun 15, 2017 6:50 am

Two Heaven’s Village was small, there were a few shops, a shrine, an inn and a tavern. It was to the tavern that Harun and Majid went. The Five Rings, built into the back of a pottery kiln so the inside was always warm. Harun and Majid took a table by the window and ordered sake.
Majid had travelled widely both in and outside of Rokugan. He shared a few stories with Harun. The pistol duels in Medinaat al-Salaam, the jungles of Zogeku. Harun listened and asked appropriate questions while he drank his sake.
When Harun drained his second cup, Majid smiled expectantly at him. “Well,” he said. “You’ve sat there and heard me run my mouth off and you’re still here. Now it’s your turn, as we bargained.”
Harun smiled quietly. Unicorn-blood or not, he had still be raised a Crane. He liked this Moto but wouldn’t tell this Moto everything, at least not yet.
“There’s an easy enough explanation,” said Harun light-heartedly. “But it’s not as half as interesting as one of your stories.”
Majid grinned and gestured for Harun to continue.
“I’m one of a number of fosterlings brought up with the Kakita name in the household of the Emerald Champion,” said Harun. “After my gempukku, which was less than a month ago, the man I knew as my father told me of my true heritage. My true father from the Crab clan, a Yasuki; my true mother, a Unicorn, an Utaku.” He looked around the room thoughtfully. “So, I’ve come here to learn what I can about them. It was here, at Shiro Mirumoto, where they met and they were married. And then,” he added thoughtfully, “my plan is to go on to the lands of the Unicorn, to see what I can of them.”
Majid regarded Harun with some amusement. “So, this is your wandering year, then? I didn’t think people still did that.”
Harun shrugged. “Traditions,” he said. “I know I’ll serve my clan in time, and be better for it.”
“Or with the Emerald Legions,” Majid suggested. “I suppose being the son of the Emerald Champion has its benefits.”
“You would think so,” said Harun. “But there’s that many of us that what we get is what we earn for ourselves.” He took a sip of sake. “I’ve been in one castle or another all my life, there’s a lot I don’t know.”
Majid laughed at this, taking a few moments to recover. “I’m sorry, I just don’t think I’ve seen a Crane speak like that before,” he said, wiping his eyes. “Perhaps there’s more of the Ki-Rin in you than just looks.” He took a sip of sake. “You said your mother was an Utaku? I am surprised she found someone outside the clan so compliant to give up his name. I suppose you have heard stories of the Shiotome?”
Harun nodded.
“Beautiful,” said Majid with a sigh. “And unstoppable. And not just in battle. Just don’t try getting too near one though. I did once and I had four of them holding me while the fifth beat me up.”
Harun laughed. “Would you say you deserved it?”
“I deserved something,” said Majid. “But not that.”

Outside, the day had turned warm as the sun was reaching its highest. Harun and Majid walked down the main street to the village.
“Listen,” said Majid. “I’m not sure where exactly you will be heading, but wherever it is why not join me? I will be heading home in a few days, I can show you some things and a good time besides. Assuming you are interested in the pleasure of my company, that is.”
Harun considered this. He hadn’t exactly plans after he left the mountains, but then again he wasn’t sure what he was getting into either. He also knew the further west he went, the more dangerous it would get. Closer to Onyx forces and the tainted lands.
“I’ll be glad to,” said Harun. “If you don’t mind someone as green as myself along.” Harun held out his hand, Majid shook it cementing their agreement.
“Green, like a wild plant in an ordered garden,” said Majid with a laugh. “I think that’s what I’ll call you, Niwa no Moto, the Garden Moto.”
“Perhaps I will branch out,” Harun teased.
“You might,” Majid agreed.
They then said their farewells, promising to meet in the castle after the gates closed, and Harun was by himself again.
Harun’s head was spinning, still a bit dizzy from the Moto’s company. Or was it the sake? Still, there were some days to look forward to once he had left the mountains.
He came to the steps that lead up to the shrine and stopped. It was the only shrine in the village, so this must be where his parents had married.
Harun climbed the steps up and went inside. The large statue of Hotei stood quietly watching those who came in. There were a few people in attendance as well as some monks. Harun sat down in seiza, letting the silence and peace wash over him like a wave.
What had it been like on that day? Karasu had been scant on the details. They were in love, he had said to Harun, and had chosen each other. Yet the very next day, it all began to end.
They didn’t know it then, thought Harun, but even here they had such little time left together.
He sat there for a little while longer. Enjoying the silence. Not thinking, not feeling.

In the early twilight, Harun practiced in the training grounds. With his katana in his hands, he made quick cuts as he moved through his katas. The sword felt good in his hands, the movements familiar. In his mind, he was back at the Academy, Arahime close by as they practiced together.
He went faster, his sword light in his hands, and when he did this Arahime wouldn’t try to match him and go faster. And then he would go faster still. And it would go on like this until one of them admitted defeat or, as on one memorable occasion, Harun’s weapon had slipped from his hands and clattered across the courtyard.
But without Arahime there, the urge to compete wasn’t as strong and Harun stopped and sheathed his sword sooner than he would have done otherwise. Then he turned and saw he had an audience.
“I thought you weren’t capable of being quiet,” Harun said to Majid. The Moto had been sitting there, watching Harun, without making a sound.
“All the better to catch you in the act,” said Majid. “There is something I have been wondering though.” He stood, walking towards Harun. “You Kakita make like performers on this stage you have made for yourselves.” He spread his hands wide to gesture around them. “But war is made for warriors, not for players. How do you fare in a real battle? Stripped of all your rules and niceties?”
“Perhaps that is where you come in, Moto-san,” Harun suggested. “If I am an artist, as you say, is it not better than one such as yourself should fight for peace?”
Majid shook his head, grinning. “Don’t think you know me, garden boy,” he said. “You’ve barely stepped out of your cage.”
“Well, if you are in a mind to teach, I am in a mind to learn,” said Harun, making a bow.
They got practice swords from the rack the faced each other in the middle of the training yard. Harun stared Majid down, not sure what to expect.
“First touch?” Majid asked.
Harun nodded. He adopted the stance of water, ready for anything.
Gripping his bokken, he attacked, going for the legs. Majid easily deflected it, his bokken the coming up for Harun’s chest. But Harun was ready, knocking Majid’s bokken back and landing a blow on the wrists.
“Ouch.” Majid dropped his bokken. “Rapping me on the knuckles? I thought you were the one who had been to school?” He bent down and picked up the bokken.
“Perhaps that means I am better at it,” said Harun.
They took up positions again. Again, Harun was the first to attack. And again, Majid knocked it back. But this time, Majid’s weapon broke through Harun’s defence and hit his shoulder.
Harun grimaced but didn’t make a sound. He took up his position again opposite Majid for the final round. The two bowed. Then, without a word, they attacked, almost at the same time, but Harun got in first. Majid quickly side-stepped Harun’s attack, bringing his bokken from high down above Harun’s. But the Kakita was ready for him, blocking and then coming back attacking low. Majid jumped, attacking Harun across the shoulders but his blow went wide. This left Majid’s chest wide open for Harun to just tap him lightly with the point of his bokken.
“I believe the point is mine,” Harun said.
“Indeed it is,” Majid, bowing in concession of his defeat.
“Your style, it’s not one I have seen before,” said Harun. “Not that I have seen many. Or one of those.” He nodded to the scimitar on Majid’s obi.
Majid grinned. “You’re not going to tell me how uncivilised I am?”
“I am sure you know that already,” replied Harun.
The evening was closing in, they headed inside the tenshukaku where dinner was being served. A servant said that Lord Mirumoto’s karo prayed they would excuse him as he was meditating in his rooms.
The food was simple fare. Pickled vegetables, tofu and a little rice. There was also a dish of what Harun took to be what the Dragon called “mountain tuna”. It was cooked in a mysterious way, brown and so tender it almost fell off Harun’s chopsticks. But what was most unusual about was its flavour. It was particularly strong smelling, and had a slightly bitter taste that wasn’t altogether unpleasant.
Majid liked it, once he knew what it was it quickly disappeared.
“Tell me, Moto-san,” said Harun when the tea was brought around. “Are the stories that I have heard about the Unicorn true? That they drink the milk and blood of their horses?”
Majid smiled and mockingly waved a finger at Harun in a fake accusatory manner. “If I already didn’t know things about you…” He shook his head. “Milk, yes. Blood, no. You’ve probably also heard the one about how we tear the flesh of animals and eat them raw?”
Harun nodded. “I figured even that was too unbelievable,” said Harun.
“You’d be wrong then. It’s true.” Majid’s face was the picture of seriousness. Then he laughed at Harun’s incredulous reaction. “I think you’ll do fine out there, Niwa no Moto. As Unicorn, we may seem off-putting by our appearances, but we are perhaps the most welcoming. Especially with those with whom we share blood.”
Harun smiled, it was a good start.

Two days later they left the mountains and headed south west. Harun was a little sorry to leave them. Perhaps, if he could stay longer he could find out more about his parents. But, Majid was leaving and it was the best chance he had to go.
Perhaps it’s for the best, Harun thought as he led his horse through the narrow mountain pass, there is still a lot that lies ahead of me.
It took them the better part of two weeks to clear the mountains, leading their horses much to the frustration of Majid. Once clear, once the mountains were behind him and before them the wide plains, Majid smiled for the first time in days.
“This is it,” he said, breathing in the fresh air deeply, “what we were born for. Even you, Harun.”
“I’m not so sure, Majid,” said Harun.
“Nonsense, it’s in your blood!” Majid declared. “We have time to see to your riding before I have my business with the Khan.”
“What’s wrong with my riding?” asked Harun warily.
“Nothing,” said Majid, in a perfectly serious tone. “Nothing if you don’t mind having a stick in the middle of your saddle while you sit on it. You need to feel, you need to move! You need to be free!”
He spurred his horse to life, taking off in a canter across the plains. Harun went after him, taking more time to match Majid’s speed. When he came alongside the Moto, he noticed how easy he moved with his horse. He was a lot more sensitive to the subtitles than Harun was.
Majid took a quick glance at Harun’s riding, then turned his attention back to what was a head. Then he took it up a pace, put his horse into a full gallop.
Let’s see how he handles it now, Majid thought.
Harun responded, putting his horse in a gallop too. But he was a bit nervous about riding this fast. He hadn’t since Kousuda had taken Arahime and him riding during a visit about a year ago, and then he was sure his uncle was holding back.
Together, the rode over the plains, side by side, the wind in their faces. Harun found himself smiling. It felt good, he felt…free. Like he could go on forever, soaring up to the clouds like the Ki-Rin of old.
They gradually came to a slope, they didn’t slacken but raced to the top, then galloping along the ridge of the hill and gradually coming to a stop.
Harun took a deep breath, he felt exhilarated. Why didn’t everyone do this? He felt so alive. Majid grinned at him.
“There’s nothing like it, is there?”
Harun nodded as he dismounted. He grabbed his water flask, took a drink and splashed a little on his face. “My uncle, he was an Ide,” said Harun, catching his breath. “He would take us riding, but nothing like this.”
“An Ide, they’re soft, like you,” said Majid with a laugh.
Majid dismounted, letting his horse graze and went through the saddlebag.
Harun took a look around at where they were. Not far from the foot of the hill where they stood was a village. Not far from there was Kyuden Tonbo, and further from there was the river which bordered…Lion lands, was it?
But the land bore scars from the conflict. Where the armies has been, and the forces of the Onyx. And he knew that this was nothing compared to what they would encounter once they entered Unicorn lands.
Majid held something in his hand, a tube as long as his forearm and appeared to be made of leather. He put it up to his eyes and led it there, turning his head slowly.
What is he doing? Harun caught himself starting, then quickly look away. Not quick enough, because Majid noticed. He handed it to Harun, who put it up to his eye as Majid had done.
“I…can see,” said Harun in astonishment. “The river, I know it is far but it looks closer.” He lowered it and looked down at it. “Is this one of exotic things you have brought from distant lands?”
Majid nodded. “It’s a spyglass,” he told him. “Very good for seeing across the plains. Particularly if across the plain is a force of Onyx.” He pointed towards the west. Harun looked through the spyglass again. “There, just beyond those mountains you can see are the lands of the Unicorn. We will be there two days from now.”
Harun looked through the spyglass, amazed at how it brought far things close. He then gently handed it back to Majid who put it back in his saddlebag. They then mounted and rode the rest of the way down the hill towards the village.

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Thu Jun 15, 2017 6:51 am

Keen Eyes Village was rather large, its position between Kyuden Tonbo and Kyuden Kitsuki made it of strategic importance in peace and war time.
It was all very orderly, as was Dragon custom. The houses well kept. There were a few sake houses, a couple of inns and merchant’s shops. They left their horses at the inn and had a meal. Harun noticed there were a variety of samurai there, from different clans all over the empire.
After this, and when the evening had settled in, Majid insisted on going around the village. Harun went with him, curious about what else there was to see. But when he saw the object of their excursion, Harun stopped.
They were outside the Dragon’s Eye. The geisha house.
When Majid noticed that Harun wasn’t with him, he turned around.
“You object?” said Majid. “You do remember my promise to show you a good time, don’t you?”
“You did, but…” Harun struggled to keep his On intact.
Majid laughed as he walked up to him. “What is it then? Do you have a girl back home?”
Harun nodded, looking down. “We aren’t betrothed, not yet. But we have an understanding. And…”He hesitated. “I don’t want to do anything that I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling her.”
“Then don’t then,” said Majid, putting a hand on Harun’s shoulder and leading him inside. “I know just the lady you need to speak to. She understand everything.”

Her name was Taiyo. She was older than Harun, patient and made him feel at ease. She made him tea, her movements soft and elegant in the ceremony, which he drank gratefully. Then, when she noted that he was not inclined to make conversation, she asked him questions about himself, his family, and what he hoped to see in his travels. Harun answered her, letting himself relax a bit more. After all, as Majid said, if nothing happened there would be nothing for him to tell.
Taiyo then took up her shamisen, she strummed a few notes and then began to play a song. It was good, then Harun that he had heard that song. The Promise of Heiwa. He He had heard Arahime play it at the Cherry Blossom Festival last year. He could still see her sitting there, beneath the sakura tree, the pink blossoms dropping onto her flowing white hair.
Then there was a scream. A wail. A running of feet. Harun quickly got to his feet. Taiyo dropped the shamisen and started to stand but Harun silently motioned for her to stay and quietly opened the door. Outside, in the hall, were bloody footprints that ran its length.
Harun let out a low groan and followed the footprints to where they had come from, taking care not to disturb them. This might have been foolish as Harun was unarmed, he had surrendered his daisho at the door of the geisha house as was the custom. But Harun had to know what had happened.
The footprints led to an empty room, and inside lay the body of a samurai lying in a pool of his own blood. A broken wakizashi embedded in his chest.
But what was most curious of all was his face, it was obscured by a black handprint.
Harun felt a hand on his shoulder, he startled but then he saw it was Majid. The Moto sized up the scene quickly.
“He’s a Lion, an Ikoma,” said Majid, pointing to the mons on the samurai’s discarded haori. “But this is the work of the Hand.” He spoke quietly, more to himself than to Harun.
“The Hand?” Harun asked.
Majid looked at him. “We need to leave, now.” His grip on Harun’s shoulder was firm as he ushered him out of the geisha house. His tone was hard and cold, he had no time for his usual jokes.
“But don’t we need to talk to someone about what happened?” Harun asked. “A magistrate?”
“We should,” said Majid, he grabbed his daisho and gave Harun his. “But we need to be gone before they arrive. The Kitsuki ask too many questions.”
They managed to slip out in the confusion of people coming to see what the commotion was. They ducked behind a few buildings to avoid crows. When they were out of sight, Harun grabbed Majid’s armed and stopped him.
“Tell me what is going on?” Harun demanded. “Who is the Hand? Did you have anything to do with this?”
“Do you think I did?” Majid demanded, staring Harun down.
Harun stared right back at him, Majid seemed genuine. “Fine,” he said. “But explain everything later.”
“You have my word,” promised Majid.
It wasn’t long until they were on their horses and riding off into the night. Harun rode close behind Majid, Lord Moon was in his waning stage and provided only a little light. A few miles out of the village, they stopped. Majid dismounted and motioned Harun to do the same.
“We should let the horses rest a little, they were not in the stable long,” Majid said, pacing back and forward. “But I promised to tell you everything.” He took a deep breath. “The Hand is called the Order of the Black Hand. They are a cult that have agents everywhere that strike without warning. They target anyone they see as blasphemers, that go against the will of heaven.”
“Blasphemers?” Harun asked.
“Don’t let that make you think they are a force for good,” said Majid. “When they act, it’s without compromise and for effect. That wasn’t just a murder, it was a message.”
“A message for whom?”
“Us, everyone who was there and will see it,” said Majid. “I heard one of their recruiters speak once, it wasn’t pretty.”
“So,” Harun said, watching Majid pace, “why did we have to leave so quickly then?
“I have business with the Khan that I can’t have them knowing about,” said Majid, calming a little and coming to a stop in his pacing. “I am sorry, but I cannot tell you what this is, Harun, not without my lord’s leave.” He looked around. “We need to keep moving. But there is someone I need to see, tonight. But I must be sure of our way through the dark.”
He put a hand on his horse’s back, closing his eyes and taking deep breaths. Harun looked at him curiously, wondering what he was doing. But it was over before Harun could look closer, Majid opened his eyes and mounted his horse.
“Let’s go!”
Harun mounted and they rode off. This time, Majid had a definite sense of direction. They silently rode, Harun wondering what else about his friend he didn’t know.

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Thu Jun 15, 2017 6:54 am

In the middle of the night in a small village about twenty miles away from Keen Eyes Strike, Majid rapped smartly on the door of a house. When there came no answer, he knocked again.
“Open up! We need to see the Jade Magistrate!” he shouted. “And I do know how late it is!”
The door was opened by a grumpy looking and dishevelled servant woman. She silently held out his hand for Majid’s chop.
“It’s fine, Amika,” said a voice from further within the house. Whoever it was carried a bright light, a tongue of fire that Harun had seen shugenja summon. It was a man, he didn’t seem angry, but there was something strange about him that Harun could see even in the dim light.
Majid made a quick bow. “Zetsunou, we need to speak. Now.”
The one called Zetsubou bowed to Majid. “Could this not have waited until the morning? And did you need to wake up the whole house?”
As if to prove his point, a girl appeared. She had the same strangeness about her that Zetsubou had. “What is it, father?” she asked. “Is there something wrong?”
“There’s nothing wrong, Koneko-chan,” said Zetsubou. “Go back to bed.” When she was gone, he turned to Majid. “Well?”
“The Hand is near,” said Majid. “We have just come from one of their victims. A Lion.”
Zetsubou looked concerned now. “I see, come in,” he said, looking at Harun and beckoning him forward as well.
He led them to a room at the back of the house and lit a few lamps. The light revealed a desk, a few storage chests, and a large table. It was also then that Harun got a good look at Zetsubou. And Zetsubou got a good look at Harun.
Harun had thought Zetsubou had an unusual appearance, but here in the light he had no idea how unsettling it would be. Zetsubou’s hair was red, red like fire, red like autumn leaves. It hung long and loose about his shoulders like a bright garment. There were also his eyes, gold like a lion’s. But kind, not fierce.
He’s a Kitsu, thought Harun. He had never seen one, but he had heard about them in stories.
Zetsubou regarded Harun with polite interest, until he saw the purple necklace Harun wore. And amethyst engraved with the mons of Unicorn and a Crab, joined together. His mind went back to years ago, in the mountains, in a yurt, when he had given it to a friend. Not for her, but for one that was yet to come.
Majid noticed none of this and began to make the introductions.
“Zetsubou, this is Kakita Harun,” he said. “We have travelled since Shiro Mirumoto, and since he has the blood of the Ki-Rin in him, I am showing him the ways of the Unicorn.” He turned to Harun. “This is Akodo Zetsubou, Jade Magistrate.”
Harun bowed low. “I am Honoured to meet you, Akodo-sama,” he said. But when he rose from his bow, he noticed something odd. Zetsubou was smiling at him, like a long lost friend returning. His eyes shone with kindness.
Majid was confused. “What’s this? Do you know him?”
Zetsubou shook his head. “No, but I know who he is.” He turned to Harun. “I knew your mother, Utaku Yamada, Harun-san. And I know who you are, because I gave her that myself.” He pointed to necklace. “I’ll explain everything in a moment. Sit down.”
Majid wand Harun sat at the table, both a little dazed from what they had heard. The servant brought tea, Zetsubou quickly wrote a note and sent her off with it. That done, he sat down with the others.
Majid drained his cup and put it down on the table. He looked between Zetsubou and Harun. He thought he was the one who had secrets, but then he was the one who was surprised.
“I was at Winter Court at Shiro Mirumoto during the last year of the peace,” said Zetsubou. “I met your mother then, and I was proud to call her my friend. As did my brother, Kibo.”
Harun frowned, remembering. “Akodo Kibo? I think I have met him.”
“Probably on your father Karasu’s command staff. He is retired now,” said Zetsubou. “What has Karasu told you about your mother?”
“He told me about the wedding, where she married my father Yasuki Nakura,” he said. “He said he trained her, and he told me about the duel.”
Zetsubou nodded, he looked sad. He looked at Majid. “You probably have heard about the duel.”
“The one that didn’t happen?” Majid asked. “Yes, it’s well-known.”
“What about what happened after?” Zetsubou asked. “Did he tell you why your mother gave you up?”
“He did,” Harun said, his voice quiet. “He said that she went to join the Obsidian Hand.”
Majid looked from to Zetsubou again. “What His mother is with the Leader of the Black Hand?”
Zetsubou nodded. “From what she told me at the time, she is there to make sure things are not worse.”
“Worse?” Majid spat. “You have seen what they have done! The brutal, cruel tortures and killings.” He jumped to his feet, towering over all of them. “My own sensei, Iuchi Abodan, was killed by the Obsidian Hand. That man raised me! He taught me everything I know. They cut off his hands, they cut out his tongue and pinned them on a board. Then they cut out his heart and replaced put his horse’s in its place. When I found him, the dogs and vultures were finishing him off.” He looked down at Harun, his eyes cold with fury. “Why didn’t you tell me this? I trusted you! I helped you! Why didn’t you tell me this if you know all along?”
Harun started to answer, but Zetsubou stopped him. “You’re being unfair, Majid,” he said. “How is Harun to blame for the actions of his mother? He hasn’t seen her since he was a baby. He was put away in safety so she could carry out this duty.”
“Duty? Duty?!” Majid clenched his hands into fists. “A duty that has her trailing blood and death from one end of Rokugan to the other?”
“Harun is just a boy, Majid,” said Zetsubou, his patience slowly giving out. “And you haven’t told him everything about yourself, have you?”
“Of course not, I…”
“Zetsubou?” A woman came into the room, she wore a faded green yukata. “I heard shouting, what’s going on?”
“Nikako-chan,” said Zetsubou, grateful for the distraction. He got to his feet. “You know Majid, but do you remember Yamada? This is Harun, her son. Harun, my wife Nikako,”
Harun bowed to her, Nikako gave him a small smile.
“Can you find a place to put Harun up for the night?” Zetsubou asked her. “Majid and I still have things to discuss.” She looked questioningly at her husband. “Later, I promise.”
Somewhat satisfied, Nikako led Harun away. Zetsubou slid closed the door behind them and they could hear the shouting resume. Harun felt a little bit like when he was a child and Akodo Ryouichi had ushered him out of his father’s war room.
Zetsubou might tell me more, Harun thought as he laid down on the futon in the room Nikako had brought him to. But he thought over what Majid had said about the Hand long into the night.

The next morning, Harun woke late and followed the sounds of the house to where people were gathered. The house looked different at night, many of the shutters were opened to let in the fresh air and the sounds of the outside. He came to the back of the house where children were playing in a large open room. Two boys and a girl, playing some sort of game on the tatami mats with wooden animals. It was so familiar, like home, he could have been back at Shiro Yogashi with his brothers and sisters.
The oldest was about twelve, another girl, she sat in seiza on the mat reading. She had red hair in braids and lion eyes like Zetsubou. She looked up when Harun came in and put the scroll down. She stood and bowed.
“I am Akodo Koneko, Kakita -sama,” she said, her golden eyes lowered. “Mother and father told me to let you know they will be in shortly and to please make yourself at home. Would you like anything to eat?”
“Don’t trouble yourself,” said Harun. “I can wait until they are here.”
Koneko looked up and smiled at him. There was something almost beautiful about her, how she stood out, the kindness in her eyes. They sat down together.
“Father was saying you are a duellist,” she said. “Are you like the Mirumoto? Mother took me to see them once, they made their blades spin around.”
“I’m a duellist, yes, but not like that,” Harun said to her. “The Kakita school is one blade, two strikes.”
“And can you do that?” Koneko asked.
He shook his head. “No, not yet. But I have seen the Masters of my school do it.” He looked at Koneko, the girl was possibly as sheltered as he had been at that age. “Tell me about yourself, Koneko, what training are you in?”
She smiled and blushed slightly. “Father is my sensei,” she said. “He is teaching me the ways of the Kitsu. He says I can soon accompany him in his duties as a Jade Magistrate.”
Harun nodded in approval. “That is a great honour,” he said. “No doubt you will see many things and many places.”
“What are your plans, Kakita-sama?” Koneko asked.
“I don’t really have any,” said Harun. “I am travelling with Majid, he is showing me the ways of the Unicorn. I plan to return home to Crane lands in the spring.”
Koneko looked sad. “So…you aren’t staying here long?”
Harun shook his head. “Majid wants to keep moving,” said Harun.
“You will come back here on your way home, will you?” She gave a small, hopeful, smile.
Harun looked down, unsure how to answer her. Her eyes looked into his, her breath soft, her cheeks slightly red from her blush.
The door opened and Koneko and Harun quickly moved apart. Koneko picked up her scroll and quickly left the room. Harun got to his feet. Zetsubou entered, looking more than a little frustrated. He brightened a little when he saw Harun.
“I must apologise for last night, Harun-san,” he said after they exchanged greetings.
“Akodo-sama, it is not your fault,” Harun said. “We cannot help being what we are.”
Zetsubou smiled. “You are like your mother, Harun, she said much the same to me once.” He indicated to Harun to sit at the table with him, from there they could watch the children. “Have you eaten?”
“I was waiting for you,” said Harun.
The servant woman provided rice and some pickled vegetables with some tea.
“Majid probably won’t be joining us for a while, I suspect,” said Zetsubou. “He’s gone riding, to cool off probably.”
“Has he...” Harun hesitated. “Changed his mind?”
“No, not yet,” said Zetsubou. “But he will. We have been working together for years, and there is no point in telling him he is wrong. He will see it, eventually. It’s just the Moto way. Ishiken think they know everything.”
“Ishiken?” Harun asked. “He’s a Void shugenja? But we sparred, at Shiro Mirumoto, I took him to be a bushi.”
“Majid is many things,” explained Zetsubou. “And none of them are what he appears to be. Now,” he said, pouring Harun another cup of tea. “Tell me about yourself, Harun. And it’s Zetsubou. Your mother was my friend, I hope I can be yours.”
Harun told him as they ate. About his family, his time at the Kakita Academy, Arahime, the Topaz Championship… They were finishing when one of the children came up to them. He looked about six, and had golden eyes like his father.
“Father, you said we could play samurai,” the boy said.
“I know, I did, Kibo-kun,” said Zetsubou. “I need to talk to Harun, perhaps he can when we are done.”
Harun smiled at the boy. “I think I can do that,” he said.

Later, Harun and Zetsubou walked in the garden. It reminded him, in a way of Shiro Mirumoto, but it was a little wilder, not as ordered.
“I know you are still wondering about last night,” said Zetsubou. “About your mother, the Obsidian Hand, the killings..”
“I was,” Harun said. “It’s all true, isn’t it?”
Zetsubou nodded. “It’s all true, and there’s more, a lot more, that I could tell you. But I think you want to know why, don’t you?”
Harun nodded.
“I’m not sure if I could tell you that. I struggle with it myself sometimes,” Zetsubou confessed. “But I can tell you about Yamada, from when I knew her. It might help. “He thought a long moment. “Yamada was a true shiotome, she had the compassion akin Shinjo and the honour of a true follower of Otaku. I never saw her in battle, but I had no reason to doubt her. But that wasn’t all she was.” He thought a moment, then continued. “She sought more, a deeper understanding in the roles we were assigned to play for the future. She sought hope, and wanted it for all of us. That we needed to be the change that saved Rokugan. Duty, above all.”
Harun considered this. Hadn’t he heard something similar from Karasu? And that was why his mother had given him up? “So, her duty is to be with the Obsidian Hand?”
“It is,” said Zetsubou. “Lord Moon is a jealous and harsh master, her being the instrument of mercy to balance his chosen vessel would be no easy task. And she serves, until Lady Sun chooses her agent and the Jade Hand appears.” He frowned. “Hopefully, it is soon, but Heaven moves in its own time.”
“My father said that she wanted to give me what was no longer hers to give,” said Harun. “Do you think that...” Harun hesitated. “Do you think that she cared anything for me?”
“Harun, of course she did!” Zetsubou said emphatically. “This duty, your father Nakura’s death, that changed her to give up all that she cared for. But don’t ever let that think she didn’t care at all. She had such compassion, such fire. And she loved your father very much.”
They could hear the sound of horse’s approaching, Majid was returning. Zetsubou was deep in thought.
“Harun, I want you to know that no matter what happens, I am very pleased to have met you,” said Zetsubou. “I wish you well in your travels, and may you find what it is that you need.”
Harun gave a low bow but said nothing further.

While Zetsubou talked with Majid, Harun kept his promise to play “samurai” with Zetsubou’s son Kibo. Harun figured the boy was about a year off being sent to the dojo.
He found the boy in the garden, and when Harun appeared Kibo ran off and then reappeared with two toy practice swords.
“Is it true what they say of the Kakita, Harun-sama?” Kibo asked eagerly. “That when you a Kakita draws, a lightning bolt strikes down their opponent?”
“Not quite,” said Harun with a laugh. “We can draw very fast, that’s why we call it lightning, like here.” He dropped to one knee and showed Kibo the silver stripe on the right side of the Kakita mon on his kamishino. “Thaty’s the lightning, from Kakita himself, the first duellist.”
Kibo tapped it with his toy sword. “I have the point!” he declared triumphantly.
“Oh, you do, do you?” teased Harun. He stood and raised his toy sword above his head. “Not if I catch you first?”
Kibo gave a squeal of laughter as Harun chased him around the garden. Harun laughed, this was like being back at the academy. He deliberately slowed his steps so Kibo could get away. Kibo then ran up to Harun, swinging his sword wildly. Harun deflected that with his, but let the second one through, going down with exaggerated death groans.
“So, you want to be a samurai, Kibo?” Harun asked.
“I want to be a mighty samurai, like my Uncle Kibo,” he said proudly. “He has killed many Onyx and won many battles fighting for the Emerald Champion. He says that when I am old enough, he will take me to the Akodo dojo in Lion lands where I can learn to fight like him.” He frowned. “Did he send you for me, Harun-sama? He hasn’t visited in a while.”
“if he had promised you, Kibo, then he will come,” said Harun. “A samurai’s word is his bond. Makoto, sincerity. It’s one of the tenets of bushido, the code a samurai lives by. That’s one of the things that you will learn at the Akodo dojo. How to act like a samurai, it’s not always fighting. My sensei said that a samurai must know when not to use his sword.”
“But wars are fought with swords,” Kibo objected.
“Yes, but peace is won with words,” said Harun.
He could see Zetsubou and Majid approach. Majid looked a little less confident than he usually did.
This should be interesting, Harun thought.
“Kibo-kun, go inside, find your mother,” said Zetsubou. When the boy had gone, Zetsubou turned to Majid.
Majid gave a bow, rather low but not too low. He cleared his throat. “Harun-san, I must apologise for how I spoke to you last night,” he said. “My words were ill-advised and ignorant, but that is no excuse. I hope you will bear no ill-will towards me.”
“I do not,” said Harun. “And given I was ignorant of much of it as well, I do not blame you for speaking so. I forgive you.”
The two shook hands.
“Now, he can talk like civilised men,” said Zetsubou. “You understand, Harun-san, that we cannot speak on what Majid’s business with the Unicorn is, but my guess is you may become involved.”
“What makes you say that?” Harun asked.
“Because, whom Majid calls the Khan, the Unicorn Clan Champion, knew your mother very well,” said Zetsubou. “Once Lord Moto Chinua gets wind of who you are, then he will no doubt want to see you. Then, perhaps, we can speak plainly.”
“Moto Chinua?” Harun asked. ‘I think I met him once, years ago. He acted as if he knew me, or knew who I was.”
“You didn’t say that,” Majid said.
“I didn’t remember until now,” Harun told him.
“So, I hope you will be our guests tonight before you go on your way,” said Zetsubou. He turned to Majid. “The children will no doubt pester you for stories.”
Majid laughed. “Then I must not disappoint them.”

The evening was easy and casual. All four of the children were there, along with Nikako. As promised, Majid told stories of his travels, some Harun had already heard but there were a few that he hadn’t. Koneko seemed to be watching Harun the whole time.
After the children went to bed, tea was served. Harun thought over what Zetsubou had told him about his mother. He was beginning to form some sort of picture of her. What she was like, why she gave him up.
But of his father he knew nothing. Nothing more than what Karasu had told him. He said this to Zetsubou, hoping for some answers.
Zetsubou sadly shook his head. “I’m afraid that I didn’t know him that well, Harun,” he said. “He wasn’t that active in court, and we moved in different circles.” He smiled. “But I think there is something I can tell you. I was at their wedding, and at the celebration afterwards.” He looked at Nikako, they smiled at each other, as if sharing a secret. “We both were. The memory is a little hazy, I still think the Unicorn throw the best parties.” Majid laughed at this and Zetsubou smiled at him. “But there is something I remember: seeing them together. They had chosen each other, they seemed to bring out the best qualities in each other. And all of this in such a time of war and shadow.”
Harun nodded. “Thank you,” he said.

They all left the next day, going separate ways. Zetsubou and Nikako took the children into the mountains, Harun and Majid going on to Unicorn lands.
And just as Majid had promised, two days later they crossed over the border into Unicorn lands. Before them were the vast plains that continued on and seemed to meet the sky.

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Thu Jun 15, 2017 6:55 am

Harun stared into his tea, it had happened months ago now and telling it brought it all back.
Did Zetsubou what was ahead for him? For all of them? Harun wondered. He probably did, and did it anyway, knowing the risks.
“harun,” said Kenshin, clearing his throat. “This…mission that Moto Majid was on, you’re not betraying an oath by telling me about it?”
“Now I am not,” said Harun. “Once it succeeded, the Unicorn wanted it widely known. And the costs.” He looked up at Kenshin. “It was…fortuitous in a way I met the people I did, to tell me the things I needed to know when I needed to know them.”
“Heaven arranges things in ways it sees fit,” said Kenshin. “Or at least that is what I tell myself on trying days.” He sipped his tea. “Your cousin Masarugi seems to have taken his sister’s mantle of trickster, with prince Iweko Kinseki as his accomplice.”
Harun laughed. “I hope they make up for it in practice.”
“Trust me, they do,” Kenshin said. “Masarugi shows promise, but don’t tell him I said that if you see him. He’ll just use it as an excuse to play more pranks.”
Harun smiled.
“So, you had arrived in Unicorn lands,” said Kenshin. “Was it what you expected?”
“Well yes, and no,” said Harun. “The plains were wide and wild, but the taint had taken its toll. Majid said they managed to cleanse it, but getting the land arable then was difficult, and expensive.” He took a sip of tea. “Anyway, it took us a few days to get to the Champion’s camp. The Unicorn were mustering in preparation for the campaign season. We arrived about a week after the Spider did, and that is where things began to get interesting…

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Thu Jun 15, 2017 6:56 am

The plains of the Unicorn lands were far and wide, but cleansing the lands of the taint had its price. Much of the land was grey and lifeless, only a few sparse patches of grass had managed to grow.
“It was much worse than this,” Majid told him when they camped for the night. “And as you go further in, towards the heartlands, it gets even worse.”
“How much has been taken from the Onyx?” Harun asked.
He showed Harun on a map. “Some of the Utaku provinces,” he said, pointing to the provinces bordering the Dragon lands. “We have also taken a some of the Moto provinces on the other side of the Firefly River. But not Shiro Moto, at least not yet. The Onyx still hold that and a lot of the north. Hopefully, for not much longer.”
They travelled further over the next few days, Harun was amazed that Majid knew where he was going when the map meant very little when there were no roads to guide them. At first, he thought it was some sort of Unicorn travel magic. When he said this to Majid, the Moto laughed and the next morning, he showed him.
After they had eaten and just before they left for the day, Majid stuck a stick in the ground and marked its shadow with a line in the dirt. They then waited for the shadow to move and Majid marked it. He then drew a third line connecting the two lines at their widest point.
“This is our way,” Majid said, pointing to the third line. “No magic, no tricks, just the path of Lady Sun.” He looked off into the distance. “The main contingent of the Khol, where the Khan is, are encamped in preparation for taking Shiro Moto near the river. So that is where we are going.”

Three days later, the Firefly River was in sight, and the day after that Harun saw the huge encampment that was the Khol, the main army of the Unicorn. At dusk, they rode in.
They rode past rows and rows of tents. The round yurts of the Unicorn as well as square ones made of canvas and leather. He could see campfires, where samurai, ashigaru and retainers sat around, sharing meals and stories. And horses, horses, everywhere. Some, ridden by women, were the biggest he had ever seen.
They must be the shiotome, the battlemaidens, Harun thought as he passed ones. They were quiet, didn’t give him even a glance, and didn’t join in the loud shouts and songs of the rest of the camp.
Their object, Harun realised, was the large yurt in the centre of the camp. A chomchog, Harun found out later. Guards were posted outside and it was here that Majid and then Harun dismounted. Majid went up to the cards, showing his chop but they refused him entry, mentioning something about the Khan’s visitor.
“Visitor?” Majid frowned. This was rather irregular, what was going on?
Even at the discreet distance that they waited, Harun could hear shouts within. Then the tent flapped open and the Khan’s visitor stepped out, angry.
He was a courtier, he wore fine black and white silks with the mon of the Spider clan on them.
Majid went in, letting Harun know they he would come for him, the tent flap closed. Harun waited, once again feeling shut out of things.
“Pardon?” said a voice behind him. Harun turned, it was the Spider. He bowed. “I am Susumu Hokori, would I be wrong in guessing you are a duellist from the Kakita family of the Crane Clan?”
“You are correct, Susumu-sama,” said Harun, bowing. “I am Kakita Harun.”
“Perfect,” said Hokori. “I knew that Moto had something his sleeve! This will settle things!”
And before Harun knew what was going in, Hokori ushered him into the tent. Majid, who had been speaking, froze mid-sentence. Seated on the other side of a table, staring at both of them, was Moto Chinua, Champion of the Unicorn Clan.
Harun put his age in the late sixties, but in surprisingly good shape for it. Mind still keen and ready for action. He wore a simple purple kimono under a sleeveless haori of leather and fur. His grey hair was tied back, his beard was a little wilder and had streaks of white amongst the black.
“My lord,” said Hokori, bowing low.
Harun bowed low, it was something to do.
“When you said that you would help the claim of the Spider Clan, I did not know that plans were in motion. A Kakita duellist, and from what it looks, one of your blood as well! I am pleased that the alliance between our clans is so honoured.”
Chinua looked at Harun, sizing him up. He did not speak.
Does he recognise me? Harun wondered. Hoping that he did, Harun gave a slight nod.
“Of course, Kakita Harun’s mother served me faithfully, and I trust her son will do as well,” said Chinua. “If you don’t mind excusing us, Hokori, Harun has just arrived and we have much to discuss.”
“Indeed, I will take my leave.” Hokori bowed again and left.
The tent was silent for a moment. Harun looked at Chinua, Majid looked at Harun, Chinua looked between them both, an amused smile forming on his face.
“Well, this is a colt of a different colour,” said Chinua. “Sit, and let us see if we can sort something out.”
Harun sat down. Chinua slid over a rough cup and poured tea. The chomchog was large and comfortable, warm from the central fireplace that vented to a hole in the rood. They sat on cushions, brightly coloured and patterned in a way Harun had never seen before.
There was also a bowl of hard brown strips in a bowl that Harun didn’t recognise. Majid took a piece, tearing bits off his with teeth.
Meat, probably, Harun thought with distaste.
“So, Harun, you have come to us at last,” said Chinua. “I had hoped that we had had you much sooner, raised you as one of us. Of course, your mother Yamada, stubborn as she was, would have things her way and none other. I understand,” he added with a glance of Majid, “that you have seen the handiwork of those she is with?”
“Yes, my lord,” said Harun.
“I think that Hokori may have the right idea,” Chinua said thoughtfully. “You may be able to help us. But we won’t go into that now. Tell me about yourself, I spoke true of how your mother served me but I want to know about you.”
So, Harun told him. Told him about growing up at Shiro Yogashi as one of the children of the Emerald Champion. He told him about his time at the Kakita Academy, of the respect he had won there amongst the other children, and of his triumph at the Topaz Championship.
Chinua smiled in approval. “Perhaps there was something in sending you there.”
“There is something I would like to ask you, my lord,” said Harun. “My mother named before she handed me over to the Crane. Do you know anything about that?”
“Yamada named you after her own father, Moto Harun,” said Chinua. “He was a Chui in the White Guard, we fought together in the War of Dark Fire.” He took a drink of tea. “That was how I knew it was you, when we met those years ago. There wouldn’t be many Kakita that look like a Moto with your name.”
Harun smiled.
“So, we have this business with the Spider,” Chinua said, he brought out a map and laid it on the table. “Directly south of our position is Kaeru Toshi. We took it last summer, and at the Emperor’s court last winter it was decided that the Spider Clan would re-establish the city. We agreed to it at the time, it meant we could commit more forces further north. But then the Onyx took it back. And now, at the end of spring, the Lion took it led by Akodo Motome…and here we are.”
“So, the Spider expect us to resolve this, my Khan?” Majid asked.
“His initial idea was that we commit troops,” Chinua said in disapproval. “Not only, we can’t, it would just create more problems with the Lion.”
“How is that I could help, my lord?” Harun asked.
“This could all be settled very easily,” Chinua explained. “With a duel.”
Harun frowned. “A duel? Would they honour the result?”
“They have to,” Chinua answered, “if they don’t Motone will be disgraced in the eyes of his troops.”
“Isn’t her occupation of the city illegal anyway?” Harun asked.
“It is,” Chinua said. “But possession is more than the law when you have the forces to support it. And I guess your father, the Emerald Champion, would be able to spare anyone soon.”
Harun shook his head. “I do appreciate your confidence in me, Lord Chinua, but I have no experience outside the dojo. I’m barely passed my gempukku.”
“Didn’t you just say you won the Topaz Championship?” Majid asked. “That’s not nothing, Harun. And I have seen you in action. And,” he added with a wry grin, “how are you supposed to get some sort of reputation as a duellist if you don’t start?”
Harun looked from one to the other. I’m not even here a day and I’ve already gotten into a duel.
He bowed. “You have my sword, my lord.”

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Thu Jun 15, 2017 6:56 am

Afterwards, he shared a meal with Chinua and Majid. Flat bread, various dipping sauces of different colours and grilled vegetables flavoured with spices. Harun tried some of each and found them surprisingly good. There was meat as well, but Harun didn’t feel that adventurous to try it yet.
Majid then showed him to one of the guest yurts. When he had gone, Harun had the servant prepare him a bath. After cleaning the grime of several days of travel off him, he climbed into the wooden tub, enjoying the hot water.
He leaned back, looking up at the wooden struts that supported the ceiling of the yurt. It wasn’t what he expected, despite his Uncle Kousuda’s stories, in fact it was far better.
It’s more like a house than a tent, Harun thought, I wonder what it would be like to live this way.
Inside the yurt was fairly simple. Just a desk, a futon with bedding, a chest to store his personal items and some large cushions that were strewn on the brightly coloured carpets covering the floor.
Afterwards, he lay on the futon in a light yukata, watching the smoke rising from the central stove drift towards the hole in the rood.
I wonder what Arahime would make of this, Harun thought, We need to come out her, together, when it’s safe.

Harun awoke early. He dressed in practice clothes and sought out a place to train. If he was going to be in his first real duel, he needed to be ready. And it had been days since he had done it properly, at least more than his katas.
He found a clear area where he saw some of the Unicorn training. There were a few practice weapons on racks, but no mats or anything to practice on but the bare ground.
A few heads turned when Harun started to practice, but Harun paid them no mind. He at first started with some basic katas, warming up, getting a feel for the ground. Then he drew his katana and moved through the katas again. His sword making cuts through the air, the familiar motions were comforting.
Harun the sheathed his katana. He wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but he was a bit nervous about his first duel. Not that he doubted his capabilities as a duellist, but this was the first time something would be riding on the result. The fate of a city.
He practiced draws now. Feeling around him and within him for the Void, the energy within himself, to strike.
He drew, he struck. Pleased with the speed of his reaction and the power of his strike, he did it again. And again, and again, over and over just like in the dojo when they practiced.
When he sheathed his sword for the last time, his arms were aching, Majid spoke up.
“Very pretty display,” he said, his tone jovial but a touch scornful.
Harun smiled mockingly at him. “I am the one who is helping you, remember?”
“You could be doing yourself one too,” Majid pointed out. “The fate of a city, that is significant. Better than showing up someone who insults your mother. That’s how you Crane do it, right?”
Harun laughed. “I wish I could say no.”
Majid clapped him on the back. “Come,” he said. “You’re needed, the Khan wants to set the terms for this…thing.”

When they arrived in Chinua’s chomchog, Susumu Hokori was already there. He got up when Harun arrived, bowing elegantly.
“I must again say I am grateful for your help, Kakita-san,” Hokori said gushingly.
Harun bowed in return. “I only wish to serve, Susumu-sama.”
“Do not we all?” Hokori said as he sat down. “Lord Chinua was telling me about your accomplishments. Educated at the illustrious Kakita Duelling Academy. Winning the Topaz Championship. You have been modest where you surely should give yourself credit.”
“You are too kind, Susumu-sama,” Harun said. “I merely wish for my actions to speak for me, not just my words.”
Hokori’s perfect smile flickered for a moment, only briefly but Harun noticed. Something Kyoumi had once said to him when he asked about the Spider came back to him.

So selfish, Spider!
Don’t you know that others pass
Through this dark passage?

Tea was served, with some rice balls and the ever present bowl of jerky that even Hokori seemed to partake from.
“My Lord Chinua, if you will allow me, I will relate to you the terms which my Champion, Lord Shibatsu will find acceptable,” said Hokori.
“Go on then,” said Chinua.
“We are not only dealing with the illegal occupation of a city,” said Hokori. “But of the actions of Akodo Motome herself, she acted outside the law. Because of this, her defeat must result in her seppuku.”
“No.” Harun and Chinua said together. They exchanged a look across the table, Chinua motioned for Harun to proceed.
“Susumu-sama, such terms would be akin to a duel to the death,” Harun explained. “And as you are no doubt aware, I cannot participate in this without the leave of my damiyo. The same is true for Akodo Motome.”
“And I will not sanction a death duel,” Chinua said stoutly. “More trouble than they are worth.”
Harun nodded in agreement, knowing what he meant.
“Surely you do not mean her actions will go unpunished,” said Hokori.
“Of course not,” said Chinua. “We will make sure she hands herself over to the judgement of the Lion Champion, Akodo Kinshu, he can sort it out.”
Hokori seemed satisfied this, but behind his smile Harun thought there might be something going on. “I will draw up the terms,” Hokori said, finishing his tea. “And in two days, we will deliver them. An escort will be needed.”
“That can be arranged,” said Chinua.
Hokori bowed then took his leave. As soon as he was gone, Chinua turned to Majid. “Well? What do you make of him?”
Majid frowned. “He does not lie, my Khan, but he tells not the truth either. I know the Spider are our friends, but I trust him not. Particularly when he smiles.”
Chinua nodded in agreement, he turned to Harun. “You want to prove yourself by your actions? Win this and we can talk more on other things.”
Harun nodded, these were the words he had been hoping to hear.

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Thu Jun 15, 2017 6:57 am

Two days later, they rode south to Kaeru Toshi, arriving the next day. The city, or what was left of it, was situated at the main junctyion of the Three Sides River. It had been devastated at beginning of the Onyx War when the forces of Daigotsu Kanpeki had overrun it, then sailing downriver to take Toshi Ranbo.
Now, little more than the original stones remained, among the tents of the Lion forces. There were also the hastily constructed dwellings that the Kaeru family had constructed from rubble.
Harun, wearing his Topaz Champion armour, rode in with Majid and Hokori with a light escort of Unicorn. Their approach had been noticed as a small contingent of Lion samurai emerged from the city and assembled in a line ahead of them.
Majid halted their progress and spoke to the head of their escort. “Signal them we wish to talk.”
The tessen bearer signalled the Lion with his fan. There was a tense moment when the Lion didn’t respond, then there was a signal in return.
They proceeded forward, stopping short of the Lion. Majid dismounted as did Hokori and Harun. Hokori stepped forward, holding a document in his hands. The Susumu bowed. “In the same of Susumu Shibatsu, Lord of the Spider Clan, the Lion Clan’s right to the city of Toshi sano Kanemochi Kaeru is challenged.” He offered the document.
The Lion bowed. He was young, he looked surprisingly reasonable. “I am Akodo Chusei, Chui to Shireken Akodo Motome. We will conduct you to her.”
They saddled up and proceeded in to the Lion camp. Lion samurai brought up the front and rear of their contingent. By now they had been noticed. Lion samurai and ashigaru gathered around and watched.
They came to a stop outside the biggest tent where a woman came out as they approached. She looked about thirty, her eyes hard, her face set. This was Akodo Motome.
“Hokori!” she shouted, her contempt for the Spider palpable. “This is hardly the army you promised to return with!”
Hokori made a deep bow, his voice was as smooth as silk. And as slippery. “Our claim to this city is as strong as yours is weak, Akodo-san.”
“This!” She brandished the piece of paper with the challenge on it. “I have no time for such games as this!”
“Do you accept the challenge, Akodo-san?” Hokori asked, his pleasant tone had an edge of steel to it.
There was a long silence as the words were considered. Motome looked down at the challenge, everyone watching her.
Harun waited silently beside Majid, he knew he had no place in this until he was called upon.
“I accept,” Motome said. “I will answer this challenge myself.”
“I nominate Kakita Harun as my champion,” said Hokori.
Harun stepped forward and bowed low, not speaking and his face a blank mask. Motome looked at Harun, trying to stare him down. Harun looked back at her unflinchingly.
“This is acceptable,” said Motome. “The duel will proceed as soon as the grounds can be prepared.”

A courtyard was found and cleared of rubble and greenery for the purpose of the duel. Majid and a Lion shugenja purified the duelling circle. Harun stood to one side with the Unicorn escort, resplendent in his gold and blue Topaz Champion armour. It had been quickly modified at the Unicorn camp so he could duel in it. Hokori stood next to him, talking far too much than was necessary. Harun tuned it out.
On the other side was the Lion, some gathered around Motome. No one looked their way.
When the rituals were done. Majid called them both forward. Harun took his place on Majid’s right, Motome on his right. Facing Majid was Akodo Chusei, in his hand he held a fan. Majid bowed to Chusei and stepped back to be with the other Unicorn.
“We are here to decide things according to the traditions of iaijutsu and bushido,” said Chusei. “Please state your name to those gathered here.”
Akodo Motome bowed. “I am Akodo Motome, student of Motome Ikari-sensei of the Akodo school.”
Harun bowed. “I am Kakita Harun, student of Kakita Kenshin of the Kakita Duelling Academy. I stand as representative of Susumu Hokori.”
“This is a duel to the first blood,” said Chisei. “May fate decide the victor.” He brought down the fan between the two combatants and then raised it. “Hajime!”
Harun examined Motome carefully. She was older than him, brash—that had been apparent from the beginning—and definitely more experienced. However, he had one distinct advantage over her: he had come prepared to duel, she had not. He looked for her weak spots.
I could take her, Harun thought, Just, but I could.
Satisfied, he sank into the stance of Void.
Now he was in more familiar territory. The silence was welcoming, familiar, he could feel the connections between the ground, the sky, and the world around him. Reaching within himself for that energy, that lightning flash that would go into his strike.
Harun struck, his katana slashing with such a speed that scratched Motome’s cheek, drawing blood. She glared at Harun, her sword had not even left her saya, and to be beaten by one she considered a mere boy. She bowed, still furious, but accepting the decision.
Harun bowed as well. He had won his first duel, he wasn’t sure how he meant to feel. Good? Bad? He felt a little dazed.
“The duel is decided in favour of Susumu Hokori,” said Chusei. He didn’t sound happy either, but like Motome he had to accept the result.
The only one who seemed at all pleased about this was Hokori himself. “In accordance with the terms, Akodo Motome will be handed over for judgment,” he said. “The troops will remain here until something else can be arranged. I will remain, also.”
He turned and left, without any thanks or even looking at Harun. The Unicorn troops took Motome into custody, leading her off somewhere and people began to disperse.
Is this what it is to be a duellist? Harun wondered as he watched them go. We all talked about the glory and fame we would win at the Academy. Not this, this is just hollow.
Majid came up to Harun and clapped him on the back. “So, you’ve won your first duel Niwa no Moto,” he said, grinning broadly. “I’d buy you a drink, but I don’t think they would like us to stay.”
Harun nodded, they walked back to where they had left their horses.
“If we ride hard, we should make it back to camp by nightfall,” said Majid, they mounted and started their way back.
“Majid,” said Harun after a few hours, he was deep in thought. “How much does it help, what just happened?”
“Well, that will depend on who you ask,” said Majid. “To the Unicorn, not a whole lot. The Khan wanted the affair settle and he wasn’t happy having the Lion this side of the river, but that’s about it. To the Spider and Lion, it matters, you decided a matter that needed to be mediated. But to the Empire…” Majid smiled. “It matters that the city is held, and now your name will be there deciding it.”
Harun was satisfied with that, they continued on the journey north.

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Thu Jun 15, 2017 6:58 am

Chinua was in war council when they returned, Harun went into his yurt to eat and change. After that Harun did something he had wanted to do for a while but hadn’t the chance to. He sat at the desk and wrote a desk and wrote a letter to Arahime.
It felt a little strange, thinking of her so far away at the Academy. Such a different world from where he was. How much would she understand? Some things would be better explained to her in person.

Dear Arahime-san,
I hope this letter finds you well.
It feels very strange to think of you at the Academy, but it’s also comforting. It’s a world away from where I am and where I have been. I’m with the Unicorn, at the camp of the Khol their main army. And yes, I am sitting writing to you in one of the yurts that your father talks about. And They are better than we thought, more like a house than a tent.
I owe being here to Moto Majid. We met at Shiro Mirumoto and rode together here. He is about as Moto as they come. He finds my “refined” Crane ways quite amusing and calls me Niwa no Moto. He is a true friend though and accepted me instantly.
It is sort of strange, but I am seen as different out here but in a different way than at the Academy. There I was the gaijin, the foreigner, here I am the Crane with all their “unnecessary” pretentions and traditions.
They have found need for me already. I wasn’t in the camp a day when I was in my first duel, which happened a few days later. The situation is a little complicated to explain, but it was about who has control of Kaeru Toshi. You can tell Kenshin-sensei that I won and did not embarrass him or the Academy too much.
The Unicorn plan to take Shiro Moto soon, it should be decided one way or another by the time this letter gets to you. But with the land as barren as it is, and much of it still tainted, it almost seems hollow winning it back. Do you remember what the Crane lands used to look like when we were younger? Before we came to the Academy? It is a little like that, but it goes on and on forever and without all the damage from explosions
Majid says this will hopefully change soon and I hope to see it, see the land recovering, the home that all the Unicorn talk about. There is so much to see here that I haven’t yet, so much that I wish you could see.
And it was a little strange travelling so much at first, but I think I am growing to like it. There's something about seeing new places, not knowing where I will be the next day or what I will see. The feeling of freedom riding across the plains with nothing but the wind and sky. It sort of speaks to a part of me that I didn't know was there.
I know it will be hard to get a letter to me, I hardly know where I will be in the future so it would be hard to get any letters to me. It is enough to know that my words will get to you.
With affection,
Kakita Harun

Harun folded the pages carefully and sealed them with wax, making his chop on the outside with red ink. He then went to find the courier that Majid has said was going to Otosan Uchi. Kyuden Kakita was on the way, the letter would find her.
On his way back, Majid found him.
“It’s time?” Harun asked.
Majid nodded.
They entered Chinua’s tent, the remains of the war council were being cleared away. Chinua congratulated Harun on the duel and asked them to sit. Harun noticed there was a seriousness about his demeanour. The normal tea and jerky were offered, Harun sipped his tea, waiting for Chinua to speak.
Chinua cleared his throat. “I trust you know something of Majid’s errand?”
“He has been discreet,” said Harun. “I only know of it urgency and importance.”
Chinua nodded absently, he was deep in thought. “It is difficult to know where to begin with this, but perhaps I should with your mother Yamada.” He took a long draught of tea. “The night before the duel, we spoke of many things, but there was something she spoke of that I dismissed. “He paused, staring into the distance. “She saw a bigger picture than what was before us, conflict that would not just be won by military victories.” He looked at Harun, giving a sad smile. “If she were here now, I would tell her that she was right. Since she is not, I must make amends other ways. With you Harun-san.”
Harun gave a small nod at the acknowledgment but did not speak.
“What Majid-san is doing, and others with him, is a way to end the taint in Unicorn lands,” Chinua explained. “This will weaken the Onyx, and end the war.”
Harun looked from Chinua to Majid. “This is ambitious,” he said.
Chinua nodded in agreement. “This has been years in the making. Revealed, I believe, by the Divine Iweko, mother of the Emperor.”
Harun looked at Chinua in astonishment. “She…lives?”
Majid nodded. “I was fortunate enough to be in her presence. As were others, including Zetsubou-san.”
“I do not pretend to understand the details of this ritual,” continued Chinua. “But I can tell you of another who is involved that Yamada spoke of that night. Haihime, the daughter of Daigotsu Kanpeki.”
Harun frowned, remembering. “I think I have heard of her, she is friends with my Aunt Kyoumi.”
“She was friends with Yamada as well, your mother taught her to ride,” Chinua said. “I guess she will be wanting to meet you, Harun-san, when she arrives.” He then looked to Majid to continue.
“The participants will be gathering in autumn, then we will be traveling north to the site that has been prepared,” Majid said. “When the snow falls, we will strive to send the taint from the land. And when the snow melts, when the spring returns, we will hopefully have Heaven’s blessing and the land will be restored.”
“I cannot order you to do this, Harun-san,” said Chinua. “But I imagine you would not refuse if asked.”
“You are correct, my lord,” said Harun with a nod.
“Good,” said Chinua. He took a strip of jerky and put it in his mouth, chewing vigorously and swallowing. “There is something else I wanted to talk to you about. I take you have never seen a battle, let alone been in one?”
Harun nodded in assent.
“Well, if it is agreeable to you, you can ride with Majid,” Chinua said. “Majid, I trust you will show him what to do so he doesn’t make a fool of himself?”
“It shall be done, my Khan,” said Majid with a nod.
“I thank you for such acknowledgement, my lord,” Harun said, inclining his head. “I will try to be worthy of your trust.”
“You have proven yourself, Harun,” said Chinua. “Just keep doing that.”

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Thu Jun 15, 2017 6:59 am

“The first thing we need to do,” Majid said the next morning, “is to get you properly outfitted.” He led him towards one of the equipment tents.
“I have armour,” Harun protested, “and weapons, and a horse.”
“You do,” Majid agreed. “But your duelling armour is hardly adequate for the battlefield. And your horse, though a fine and noble beast, would simply turn and flee from a battle.”
Harun nodded.
“As for your weapons,” Majid continued, flashing a grin at Harun, “we’ll have to find a way to use your refined Crane ways.”
Majid handed him a set of armour, packed inside a furoskiki bundle. They went back to Harun’s yurt to put it on. Harun changed behind a shoji screen into the garments that went underneath the armour. Purple, it seemed strange to be wearing it, but Harun liked its deep brilliance.
When he emerged, Majid had laid the armour out. Purple again, made of silk, steel and…leather. Harun winced a little at this. Wearing leather, made from the flesh of a dead animal.
“Something wrong?” Majid asked, he was holding the first piece to be put on, the sunate, the leg armour.
Harun shook his head. “Just some of my “refined Crane ways”,” he said.
Majid raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment further. He helped Harun put the armour on. Gloves, arm braces, then the kote. Then the chest plate, the do, lighter than usual. Then the obi, purple, he tied it closely.
Then came the sode, the arm pieces, bigger than usually to protect against arrows.
Thus equipped, Harun took up his daisho. The enamel of the sayas looked purple in the low light of the yurt. Carefully, he equipped it to the obi.
He tied the hachimaki on his head, white with a purple unicorn mon in the centre.
Finally, Majid passed Harun the kabuto. Again, leather and steel, with a long purple plume—horsehair perhaps?—that would hand down his back when he wore it.
And play in the wind when I ride, Harun thought with a smile. He put it on, adjusting it and tying the straps securely under his chin.
Majid gave Harun a strange look. He blinked, then took a step back, looking Harun up and down, still with the same expression on his face.
“What’s wrong?” Harun asked. He already felt a little awkward, having Majid staring at him only made things worse.
“Nothing,’ Majid said unconvincingly.
Harun unsheathed his katana, angling the blade until he could see his reflection. He blinked, staring at it. The armour transformed him. The colour, his face, the beard…he could have passed for a Unicorn for anyone who didn’t know him. And perhaps a few who did.
There was something else too. Harun noticed it when they left the yurt. No one noticed him. He normally got a few stares when he walked around the camp in his Crane blues. But in the purple armour of the Unicorn, he barely passed a glance. He fit in, he looked like he belonged.
This was a new feeling for Harun, and it wasn’t altogether bad.

Out on the steppes, Majid put Harun through his paces. Improving riding, improving his seat so he was both firmer and more movable in the saddle. As this happened, Majid kept a constant look out, checking the horizon constantly.
Harun enjoyed it, even in the bleak landscape he enjoyed the freedom of movement the steppes seemed to encourage. How it seemed to extend forever, from one horizon to the next. If it hadn’t been for the dangers Majid kept talking about, he might have enjoyed it more.
When Majid was satisfied that Harun mastered the basics, Majid added more elements. Showing him how to ride to avoid arrows, how to stop fast, make quick evasive turns. And how to do all this with just the lightest touch of the reins so as not to ruin his horse’s mouth.
“What about using my sword?” Harun asked when they took a break.
“I’ll get to that,” Majid promised. “Right now, I’m trying to keep you out of trouble.”
They kept at it, day after day, in the hot sun and in the rain. Soon it felt normal to be wearing the armour, and he liked more and more how he wasn’t attracting attention. And he did enjoy riding in the open plains everyday, loving the feeling of freedom he had galloping under the open sky.
Sometimes Majid would spot enemy patrols and insisted on going back, sounding his horn to alert other riders.
“You don’t trust me enough in combat yet?” Harun asked after a few weeks.
By now Majid had shown him how to use his sword on horseback. Harun had trained both out on the steps with it and by slashing sacks on poles and ropes in the training yard. Majid had pronounced his efforts “adequate”, but they had done nothing further.
Majid sighed. “You’ll see combat soon enough, Niwa no Moto,” he said. “I assume at the Kakita Academy you’re not allowed to duel your first opponent until you first knew how to hold sword?”
Harun frowned. “You know me better than that, Majid.”
“I do,” Majid said, clapping Harun on the back. “But you do not know me as well or what you will encounter.”
“Then tell me,” Harun said.

That evening in Harun’s yurt, over tea, Majid explained it to him. It wasn’t just about the taint or with Jigoku, it had to do with the Moto family itself. Their origins in the deserts beyond Rokugan and their dark history.
“The Moto has a dark legacy that we all strive to redeem,” Majid said. “There are those who share my name, who share my blood that were betrayed by the gods they worshiped, were tainted, were used by Jigoku. They are the Dark Moto. But in a way, they remained samurai, their bodies were lost to the taint but their minds were not lost to madness. They train like samurai, they have discipline, they use tactics like us. And were more than a match for us in combat.”
“You talk about them as if it’s in the past,” Harun pointed out. “Are they gone?”
“They were,” said Majid. “Until Kanpeki’s hordes came. Then they returned. And Daigoro, their leader, is ruthless.” He paused, looking down into his tea. “We beat them back, but they know us and we know them.” He looked up at Harun. “I tell you this, as you need to know it. Not just because you will face them in battle, but because I know you have Moto blood. This shame is something we all share, to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
Harun nodded, considering this. “These Dark Moto…they hold Shiro Moto?”
Majid nodded. “They are why we have failed to take it so far. You haven’t seen it yet, as it is a bit better now, but every step we have made towards it has been hard fought. We draw them out, we winnow their numbers, until…”He clasped his hands together, resting his chin on them. “Until the day we strike.”
“When is it?” Harun asked.
“Soon,” said Majid. “Not too soon, the Khan knows when. He swore that that the Unicorn would hold court this winter in Shiro Moto.”
“And so we will,” said Harun, smiling at him.
Majid smiled back. “And so we will.”

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Thu Jun 15, 2017 6:59 am

A few days later, Harun was walking around the camp. Majid had to cut their training short that morning, saying he had duties to perform. So, Harun explored the Khol camp, still wearing his riding armour. He enjoyed the anonymity it gave him, it was like being invisible.
He was walking past a training yard where he could see some Utaku shiotome wee training. He had seen them riding around the camp, but they weren’t willing to talk to him or even look his way. But this only intrigued him further.
They rode through a series of obstacles. Attacking weighted sacks swinging from ropes, stuffed sacks tied to stakes. Not unlike what Majid put him through, but the pace and stakes were far more intense. He noticed the speed and tenacity they showed against the obstacles, their strength, discipline and the control they had over the massive horses.
The Utaku battle maidens were reputed to be the best cavalry force in Rokugan. From what Harun could see here, this was no mere boast but the simple truth.
And my mother was one of them, Harun thought.
Just as another horse went by, one of the stakes fell victim to a particularly powerful blow and snapped with a loud crack. A few of the horses startled, they were quickly calmed. But the one nearest to Harun did more than that. It reared up, turning and thrashing on its hind legs, its deadly hooves coming straight towards him.
Harun reacted instantly, his duellist reflexes kicking in. He lunged out of the way, rolling onto the ground as the hooves came down barely a finger span away from his face.
As he lay there, him and the rider locked eyes for a moment. And in that moment he really saw her. Beautiful, her eyes wide with concern, the long braids of her black hair tossing around as she brought the horse under control.
And she saw him. Saw the fear in his eyes as the horse’s hooves struck the ground, saw the hand that instinctively went to his katana at the first sign of danger.
Harun kept rolling, dislodging clouds of dust and dirt, trying to get clear of the horse as the shiotome calmed it. The hooves came down just where he had been lying a moment before. Finally, the horse was calmed and everyone could breathe again.
The disturbance attracted quite a bit of attention. A few people crowded around, someone helped Harun to his feet and asked him if he was hurt.
“What’s all this?” Harun heard Majid’s voice through the crowd, the Moto made his way through and clapped Harun on the back. “I leave you for one afternoon, and you almost get yourself killed. Niwa no Moto!” He burst out in hilarious laughter, a few joining in even though they didn’t know the joke.
“It’s nothing,” Harun, trying to brush it off along with the dust.
Majid led him through the crowd, still talking fast. Harun looked back at the Utaku woman. She was being spoken to by what looked to be a superior, looking down and an expression of shame on her face. Harun wanted to interfere, go over and say that it was all just an accident, but he didn’t think that would be right.
He nodded to Majid as they walked off. He was barely listening, still thinking about the girl.

That evening, Harun was sitting reading a Unicorn history scroll that Majid had loaned him when the servant said that a young Utaku woman wished to see him. Harun had a vague idea who it could be. He told the servant to let her in and to make tea.
Harun rode and went to the tent door to greet her. The young woman entered. It was the shiotome Harun had seen earlier that day.
She wore a plain purple kimono with a white obi. Her hair was in many braids all over her head, the braids themselves braided further to pull her hair off her face. She had a calm face, a quiet face, her brown eyes showing no more emotion than they needed to.
The Utaku looked up at him, opened her mouth the speak then stared in astonishment at the blue garments of the Crane he was wearing.
“Oh dear!” she said, bowing very low. “I must express my most humble apologies that I put you in danger, Crane-sama.” She looked down, her eyes on Harun’s feet. “That you are also a guest of Lord Chinua makes my error even more of a dishonour.”
“Please, Utaku-san,” said Harun reassuringly. “Your actions saved my life. It is due to your skill as a horsewoman that you were able to bring your steed under control.”
She shook her head, still not moving. “Crane-sama, it is a shame on myself as an Utaku and as a daughter of Shinjo that my failure to control my horse even put you in danger. Please, accept my apologies and this humble gift so that I might atone for this fault.”
She straightened and presented him with a small box in both hands.
“I accept your apology,” Harun said, bowing gratefully. “But I cannot accept such a gift, even if is freely given. I am not worthy of such esteem.”
He gave a small smile, hoping that she recognised the game he was playing.
She smiled, understanding the game. “I disagree, Crane-sama,” she said. “Such a gift is far from worthy of one esteemed as yourself.”
“You flatter me, Utaku-san,” said Harun. “I know the Unicorn trade with many lands, what you give is no doubt rare and beautiful and should not be given away lightly to one such as myself.”
“Perhaps something rare and beautiful to go with the rare beauties of the Crane?” she asked.
Is she teasing me? Harun wondered. It was hard to tell, so he took it at face value.
“Then I accept,” said Harun, taking the box and bowing. “I am Kakita Harun, son of Kakita Karasu. I bid you welcome, Utaku-san.”
The Utaku returned his bow. “This one is Utaku Kogome, Kakita-sama, daughter of Utaku Kouma.”
“I am honoured to meet you, Utaku-san,” said Harun. “I have heard much of the shiotome and I am pleased to finally meet one.”
“You flatter me, Kakita-sama,” said Asuna.
“Not at all,” said Harun. “It is but the simple truth.” He gestured to the table where the servant was setting the tea. “Will you join me, Utaku-san?”
Asuna shook her head. “I don’t want to disturb you any further, Kakita-sama.”
“Please, stay,” Harun said earnestly. “I don’t know that many people in camp yet. And I do want to thank you properly for your gift.”
She sat down. Asuna seemed a bit stiff and formal, as if social setting such as this were unfamiliar to her.
Harun served tea, forgoing many of the usual elegant flourishes he was taught at the Academy. He thought they might intimidate her further.
He then lifted the box. It was small, about the size of the palm of his hand, decorated with intricate. Inside was a square of purple silk, wrapped around a small object. The silk had the scent of spices and exotic perfumes, giving a hint of lands far away. Harun unwrapped the silk, revealed the small figure of a horse at gallop. Its lines were cut finely in white wood, smooth and delicate like ivory.
“This is exquisite,” Harun said, “I thank you.” He held the small horse in his hands then set it on the table in front of him. He looked up at Asuna, she was examining him curiously. “You can speak freely, Utaku-san.”
She looked down, as if embarrassed. “You must forgive me, Kakita-sama,” she said. “I had heard there was a Crane in the camp, but I pictured someone more…”
“Traditional?” Harun suggested.
Asuna nodded. “I am a little curious about you, Kakita-sama,” she confessed.
“Please, call me Harun,” he said. “As for my ‘non-traditional’ appearance, that can be explained. My mother was a Unicorn, an Utaku. I also understand that her father, my grandfather, was a Moto and she named me for him.” He took a sip of tea. “And my Crane ways, well, I was one of the many fosterlings of my father.”
“Your father, Kakita Karasu, the Emerald Champion?”
Harun nodded.
“What was it like growing up with that?” Asuna asked.
“We had the full run of the castle, Shiro Yogasha, there were that many of us that my parents found from all around the Empire.” He smiled at a memory. “I used to go into my father’s war room, rearrange the figures on his maps, sometimes during his meetings.”
Asuna smiled at this.
“Apparently, I once accidentally discovered a brilliant strategy,” Harun said, with dead pan seriousness.
Asuna stared at him incredulously, was he being serious? Harun let out a snort, his face collapsing in laughter. Asuna put up a hand to stifle her own laughter.
“I saw that!” Harun said, pointing triumphantly. “I saw that, Utaku-san! You’re not as aloof as you appear to be.”
“I thought Crane were like that,” Asuna teased.
“You noticed, I’m not a typical Crane, Utaku-san,” Harun countered.
“Call me Asuna, Harun,” she said, smiling at him.
She was very beautiful when she smiled, her eyes dark and filled with openness and honesty. She reminded him a little of Arahime, but there was something there that Arahime didn’t have. A calmness, a quietness, not unlike what in himself. It gave her poise, a quiet confidence, and the more she warmed to him the more he saw of her true nature.
They talked some more, Harun telling her about growing up in the Kakita Academy; Asuna telling him about riding with the Khol. Harun found she was easy to talk to, easier even than Majid. She was close in age to him, and despite their differences they managed to find common ground. The hope the land would be restored, the hope for peace, that the war that had started before they were born would be over in their lifetimes.
When Asuna had drained her second cup of tea, she said she could stay no longer.
“But I did enjoy your company,” she said. “And I would like to extend to you the same hospitality.”
Harun raised a sceptical eyebrow at this. “Would I be welcome in your camp? I have heard how the Utaku regard men.”
Asuna laughed again. “You are not an Utaku man,” she explained. “So, it will not be as bad.” She got to her feet, made a bow. “We are in tighter quarters, but you said you wanted to learn of our ways.”
“I do, and I will,” Harun promised, bowing in return. “And thank you for the gift, and the pleasure of your company.”
He thought about her for a long time after she had left, holding the small horse in his hands. He had wanted to meet with the Utaku, but he hadn’t expected this. Not at all.

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Thu Jun 15, 2017 7:00 am

Asuna was in his thoughts when he rode with Majid the next day. He did his best not to seem distracted, and if Majid noticed he said nothing. When the sun was high in the sky, Majid suggest a change in course further north.
“You said you wanted to see combat,” Majid said.
“You think I’m ready?” Harun asked.
“I’d want more time, but we don’t have it,” Majid said. “But the Khan plans to move in days. To take back Shiro Moto.” He glanced at Harun. “It’s time you were blooded, Niwa no Moto.”
Further north they met up with a shiotome patrol. Their Chui, Utaku Takara, seemed to know Majid and agreed to his suggestion they accompany them.
They fell into the middle of the kaisha and continued. Harun felt a little thrill, to be riding with the Utaku battle maidens was a privilege.
They continued north, keeping up a brisk pace, constantly on the lookout. Then they saw them, the Dark Moto, not much more than shapes in the distance in the plains. They picked up the pace, horns were sounded. Not just to alert the rest of the kaisha, but to let the enemy know they were coming.
Harun felt his heart beat fast. This wasn’t really a battle, not yet, but it was far from the orderly duels of the Kakita. This was war.
“Stay with me, Harun,” Majid urged, his tone devoid of its usual levity.
The kaisha split into two long columns, Harun went behind Majid on the left column. Harun was grateful for all the riding training he had done with Majid as he managed to keep abreast with the Utaku battle maiden on his right. They rode along the ridge of a hill, on their left the ground sloped down.
Harun took a good look off to the left, he could see the enemy below them. They were getting closer, he could start to see them in more detail. Horrible twisted, tainted riders on skeletal horses. They rode fast and eager to intercept them.
Harun turned back, looking up the column of Utaku. I wonder what they have planned? he thought.
A moment later he had his answer. At a signal from the Chui, the columns split; the right column proceeding down the hill with the left column continuing along the ridge, hiding the split from the enemy.
Harun continued the pace as the column on his right fell away. And when the last one was below the ridge, the column started to turn left and proceed down the hill. The column became a charging wall of cavalry, galloping down the hill.
And completely silent, Harun noticed.
They drew their swords, readied their lances. The Dark Moto were fast approaching, firing arrows at them. Harun ducked down hind his horse’s head, hearing a few whizzing past his ears. He heard a few shouts and screams when shiotome got hit.
Majid was right beside him, the line of Dark Moto were getting closer. Their hideous skeletal forms, closer and closer. Harun steeled himself for the clash, his katana ready. A calmness came over him, not unlike the moment before the strike in an iaijutsu duel.
Another hail of arrows, and then the two sides met. There was a loud clash of steel, a piercing shriek of injured horses. Harun swung his sword, slashing at the enemy and using the sode on his arms to fend off blows. There was no precision, no finesse, just cutting though the enemy and urging his horse forward, through their lines. He cut off the arm of one, then the head, always moving, pushing ahead until he could make it through… Until he could make it through…
He kept fighting, urging his horse forward with his knees and his feet. He felt something scratch past his cheek, but he ignored it. Majid was next to him, attacking fiercely with his scimitar.
Harun slashed his katana forward, knocking back a Dark Moto and finally breaking through the lines. He kept riding, spurring his horse to regroup with the others as they prepared for another charge.
It was then that the other column of shiotome attacked. Right from the flank of the Dark Moto, Harun didn’t know this at the time but they had come around the hill to approach the enemy from another direction.
The Dark Moto were caught between two fronts, but they were not about to give up without another fight. Waves of arrows were fired as the Utaku charged. One arrow found a gap in Harun’s armour, sinking into his side. He groaned, leaning if his horse from the pain of it. But he fought through the pain, gripping his katana tightly.
The Moto then raised lances and charge, shouting a horrible battle cry as they made their final stand. One hand on their reins, Harun quickly moved his horse to dodge their blows, but they seemed to be everywhere. The arrow in his side was like a brand of fire, he could feel himself bleed under the armour, soaking his clothing.
Two shiotome pushed ahead of him, engaging the Dark Moto and forcing Harun back. Harun smiled weakly, letting them go, glad it was almost glad it was almost at the end and the fight was getting further away from him.
Harun could see Majid with them, one Moto man amongst all the Utaku women. He laughed, his head felt a bit fuzzy. Sort of like when the Emperor’s son Kiseki had knocked him in the head with a training sword back at the Academy.
A shiotome approached him. Was it Asuna? She was beautiful, whoever she was. Her eyes wide with concern as she stood over him. Over him? Wasn’t he on his horse? Why was she such a long way up. He was lying on something hard and his head hurt a lot. Majid was there next to him, holding his hand and telling him not to worry.
Why is there anything to worry about? Harun thought, his head was swimming. They all looked blurry, surely everything was fine…

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Thu Jun 15, 2017 7:01 am

My head hurts, was Harun’s first thought. He opened his eyes, he was in a tent of some sort but didn’t know where.
Where am I? Harun thought. He tried to sit up, but a spell of dizziness forced him to lie down again. He looked around, there was a shoji screen one side of him and the tent wall on the other. There was a blanket around his knees and he could see other people lying down not far from him. So, it was an infirmary of some sort, that made sense.
He looked down and saw the bandage that wrapped around his torso to under his shoulders. There was an ache in his side whenever he moved. Then he remembered. He had been shot by one of the Dark Moto’s arrows. After that it was a bit foggy. He had fallen, perhaps? Fallen from his horse? He cringed with embarrassment, anticipating how Majid was going to chide him.
He turned his head, carefully, there was a carafe of water and a cup on a small table just next to him. He couldn’t reach it without pain.
“Need help, Kakita-sama?” A bald monk in a dusty coloured robe was speaking to him.
“Yes, thank you,” said Harun, nodding to the water.
The monk set the tray he was carrying down and helped Harun into a sitting position. Then poured some water into the cup and passed it to him. Harun took a few sips of water, his head began to clear. The monk seemed surprisingly strong, perhaps he had been a bushi in his former life. He looked about fifty. Harun noticed the mon on his robe, showing the order he served.
“Hikahime,” Harun said, the name was familiar to him but he couldn’t place it.
“Yes, Kakita-sama, that is the Minor Fortune this one serves,” said the monk. “She is the patron of ashigaru, as well as anyone who is in need.”
The monk gently helped him lie down. “Can you tell me your name?”
“This one is Gimu, Kakita-sama,” he said, bowing low. “Is there any service this one can do for you?”
“No, thank you, Gimu-san,” Harun said.
The monk bowed again and disappeared out of sight. Harun laid awake, staring at the tent ceiling. It was the first conflict with the Unicorn, and he had embarrassed himself. So much for fitting in, he may look like one of them but that didn’t make him one of them.
So why am I doing this? He thought. Why did I think it would be so easy?
“Ah, you’re awake!” Majid sat down next to him, offering a smile. “You had us worried for a moment there, Niwa no Moto.”
Harun looked up at him but didn’t answer.
Majid looked concerned. “What’s wrong? That tap on the head do something more?”
“No, Majid, it’s just…” Harun sighed. “I fell from my horse, didn’t? I embarrassed myself in front of everyone.”
“That’s all?” Majid asked. “You fell because you were wounded, Harun. Up until then you were doing fine.”
“You’re just saying that to help me feel better,” Harun said.
“Why would I? It’s the truth,” Majid said. “You fell from your horse, so what? I’ve done that. Just get back on and keep going.”
“So…they don’t think less of me?” Harun asked.
“Well, they do,” said Majid, with a grin, “but only because you’re a man, and we can’t do anything about that.”
They laughed, Harun’s sides ached from the effort.
“Majid,” Harun said when the laughter had subsided. “Were you helping me back there at all? I felt a…calmness around me, like when I assume the stance of Void before a duel.”
“And how could I do that when I was fighting right beside you?” Majid asked suspiciously.
“You’re an ishi, aren’t you?” Harun asked. “I’ve never seen one before, but then you aren’t as shugenja often are.”
Majid smiled. “You’re correct. What gave me away?”
“Nothing, Zetsubou told me,” Harun said. “But that was you back there, wasn’t it? You helped me.”
Majid nodded. “You’re not the only one I helped, but yes.”
“I guess I owe my life to you then,” Harun said.
“Majid dismissed this. “Let’s not go into that now. Besides, even with what I can do I can’t make you into a better rider. I can’t make you something you are not.” He stood up. “You still need rest, you hit your head pretty hard when you fell. I’ll be around tomorrow to get you.”
Harun watched him go, but there were still things he wanted to ask. Particularly about the story he had heard in Zetsubou’s house, about Majid’s sensei.

The next morning Harun was given the all clear, Majid wasn’t about yet so Harun went back to his yurt. No doubt the Moto would find him later. Waiting for him at the yurt was Utaku Asuna. She smiled at him, Harun smiled back if a little reluctantly. By now, she would know about what had happened. But wasn’t she there? Harun’s memory about it still wasn’t clear.
“You have probably heard how embarrassed myself yesterday,” said Harun.
“I did,” she said. “I also heard that up until then, you didn’t do too badly.”
Harun looked at her sceptically. “Not you too, you’re just being nice.”
Asuna stared back at him. “You’re alive, aren’t you? That’s something.”
“I was hoping to do more than that,” Harun said.
Asuna laughed, as if she was humouring a child. “Don’t we all? Focus on staying alive, Harun, people like you are needed.”
“People like me?”
Asuna didn’t get a chance to answer as several riders came into the camp. They wore the colours of different clans, the Crane, the Lion, the Dragon…Harun wondered who this could be until a standard bearer rode up with a battle flag that bore a simple motto: “For the Empire.”
Harun knew who it would be, and sure enough riding her mighty white steed, the Shogun of the Empire Utaku Chikara arrived. Harun had heard of her, court gossip sometimes found its way to the Kakita Academy and of course his father Karasu had mentioned her a few times. She had been appointed by the Emperor after the sudden death in battle to the previous Shogun, Akodo Kano. Harun recalled that his father had always had suspicions about Kano, but Harun couldn’t recall from where he had heard this.
Chikara was more than capable though, in the three years since she had assumed office, the Onyx in central Rokugan had been pushed back, in some places to the borders of what used to be Scorpion lands. She was not just known for her victories, but how she the forces of the different clans for maximum effectiveness. The most well-known of these was the Legion known as Chikara’s Sword, consisting of Matsu bushi infantry with Utaku battle maiden cavalry.
She dismounted her horse and removed her helmet. She looked to be in her mid-thirties and was rather short once she was off her horse. She had a scar upon her left cheek, below her eye and wore her hair in a single long black braid down her back. She looked almost like a girl.
Harun was content to stay and watch her from where he was, but Asuna nudged him forward.
She’s going to introduce me? Harun thought as he went with her. He watched as Shogun Chikara and Asuna greeted each other, first formally with the appropriate bows, then embracing each other as kin.
“Oba-san, let me introduce Kakita-Harun,” Asuna said. “Son of Kakita Karasu, recent Topaz Champion, and currently a guest of Lord Chinua while he learns the way of his kin, the Utaku.”
Harun made a low and sweeping bow in the fashion of the Crane. “I am honoured to meet you, Utaku-no-kimi,” he said. “I have heard much about your victories against the Onyx.”
Chikara took in this greeting with a satisfied nod. “I believe I know your father, Kakita-san.”
Harun nodded in acknowledgment. “I have heard him speak of you, always in terms of praise.”
Chikara smiled. “We should find time to speak later, Kakita-san. Perhaps you and Asuna-chan can see me after we take the Shiro.”
“I look forward to that, my lady,” he said, making another bow as the Shogun and her retinue left and went into Chinua’s tent.
“What was that about?” Asuna asked.
“What do you mean?”
“That…that formality,” Asuna said. “It was like you were a different person. It was like you were…”
“Being a Crane?” Harun suggested. “It’s like having a script, it comes in at the right moments.” They walked back to Harun’s yurt together and stood by the fire outside. “Your aunt is the Shogun?”
Asuna nodded. “My mother’s sister. Though she has been like a mother to me since I was young.”
“I thought you would be with her,” Harun said.
“I wanted to,” said Asuna. “But she told me that she would rather see me with the clan, she would not accept me breaking my wakizashi.” She looked at the group of horses they had rode in upon. “She is one of the reasons we will take Shiro Moto back.”
“Indeed,” agreed the voice of Majid.
Harun looked around to see the Moto had appeared just behind him and Asuna.
“When they told me you had already left, I didn’t expect you to be with such company,” said Majid, smiling at Asuna. “Harun, aren’t you going to introduce me to the lady?”
Harun did so, stiffer than he would have liked. Asuna then made her excuses and left them, but not before giving a smile Harun’s way.
Majid saw that smile, he gave Harun a look. A sly grin, a cocked eyebrow. Harun knew what it meant.
“No, no, no,” Harun said, shaking his head firmly.
“I didn’t say anything!” Majid protested.
“You didn’t need to!” Harun walked into the tent, Majid followed him.
“Harun, I don’t blame you,” said Majid. “She’s pretty, she’s well-connected, I’m sure the two of you would make a fine..”
“Just stop!” Harun shouted, his voice raucous with anger, his eyes livid with rage. “I gave my word, I would never do anything like this! I would never betray my family!”
Majid looked solemn. “You may say that, Harun, but we both know the blood of the Ki-Rin runs through you. That’s a fact.”
Majid left him then. Harun paced the floor of the yurt, thinking on it for hours. Majid couldn’t be right, he couldn’t be.

In the coming days, Harun learned more about his role in the coming battle. He was still riding with Majid of course, in a supporting role defending shugenja and keeping them from harm from the Onyx hordes.
He rode out a few times, at first the gunso Shinjo Takahiro was sceptical of Harun’s inclusion in the Hojo Platoon. But when he saw how Harun acquitted himself with the platoon, how he followed orders without question, Takahiro accepted the help.
Then it came to the eve of the battle itself. Armour was repaired, swords sharped, horses were reshod. Harun went to the Hojo Platoon briefing with Shinjo Takahiro. Before his dismissed them, he reminded them to rest and not celebrate too much.
As Harun made his way through the camp with Majid, he saw what that “celebration” meant. He heard music, the trill of flutes and biwas, the high-pitched drones of horns.
The Unicorn gathered around campfires, laughing, talking, passing around cups of white liquid. Kumis, made from fermented mare’s milk, Harun had heard about it but hadn’t seen it around the camp until now.
Majid nodded to one of the fires. “Care to join in?”
“Later,” Harun promised. “There is something I need to do first.”
Majid looked at Harun with concern. They still hadn’t spoken about their argument the other day, but it still stood unspoken between them. “Are you worried about tomorrow?”
“Yes…no…perhaps,” Harun said, he was a little worried, but he was also thinking about Asuna. If there was any truth in what Majid had said.
Majid put a reassuring hand on Harun’s shoulder. “You’ll do better than I thought you would, Niwa no Moto,” he said. “But make sure you find me when you are done.”
“I will,” Harun promised.
He went back to his yurt, sitting on one of the cushions, going over in his mind what would happen tomorrow. He wasn’t afraid, but the waiting wasn’t a pleasant feeling.
Is this how father feels before battles? Harun asked. As a bushi, as a samurai he knew he was supposed to be ready to die, but the definite possibility of it front of him was new.
I need to stop thinking, Harun told himself. Like before a duel, I need to be focused.
He calmed down after that, but he didn’t get up to leave. He needed to do something first. He sat down at the desk and wrote a letter to Arahime. If they lost the battle tomorrow, if he died, then he didn’t know how it would get to her. But he needed to write it.


I write this to you tonight as more than anything I wish you were here. To see your face, to hear your voice, to have you tell me that I am just being silly about all this and there is nothing to worry about.
Tomorrow the Unicorn plan to take Shiro Moto, and I ride with them. Everyone is confident of success, but the fact that it is uncertain puts in question any plans I have beyond that. About my future, and the future I want to have with you.

And then words failed him. He knew if he was going to be honest with Arahime, it was now or never. But any words he formed in his mind seemed wooden, lifeless and not even approaching what he wanted to say.
And how could he be honest with Arahime if he was constantly thinking of Asuna. It didn’t feel right.
He got up, left the letter, left the tent. He found Majid, joined in the festivities. He even tried the kumis and found he rather liked it.
The next morning, when he went out to the battle, the letter was still unfinished. He would get to it later, he told himself, but now there was only the moment.

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Thu Jun 15, 2017 7:01 am

The sun was strong, the summer day was warm and bright. Harun rode with the Hojo Platoon, unremarkable in his Unicorn armour amongst the other hohei.
Majid rode beside him in his shugenja regalia, which Harun hadn’t seen him in before. Then Moto wore a white kimono and haori, adorned with the mon of the Moto in black as well as symbols of the element of Void. His face was painted too, stark white with black around his eyes, on his lips and in streaks on his cheeks.
“We ride to war,” Majid said when Harun saw him. “We prepare our bodies for death.”
Somewhere, Harun knew, amongst all the house and banners, was Lord Chinua. It was from his will and battle acumen that would determine the outcome, filtered down the ranks to all the soldiers to see who would win the day. Their will, and the Shoguns, but Harun didn’t know who she was.
There was a great shout that went up through the ranks. Harun shouted with them, glad to be a part of it.
I’ll try and remember this day the best I can, Harun thought, so I can tell Arahime about this day.
Far in the distance, Harun could see the walls of Shiro Moto, the outlines of its bulging onion-like towers. He also saw the hordes of Onyx that surrounded it. There was another shout, an inhuman shout, and the clash of steel.
The battle was joined.
Harun was excited, it was hard to not get carried away with the energy of it all. He could see it affected the others, at how they grinned at each other, eager for their part to begin.
They then got the signal from the tessen bearers and they were on the move. They were riding alongside a company of medium cavalry. They drew swords, a line of armed bushi protecting the shugenja on both sides. Harun thought for a moment they must be going faster, but had not time to think more on it. The enemy was on them. A pack of bakemono were on them, brandishing their weapons and shrieking.
They cut through them easily, the bakemono disappearing under their blades and their hooves, and kept on moving. Harun quickly wiped his sword of blood as they went, then they charged a column of Dark Moto cavalry. But he was ready for the impact this time. He cut his way through, sword slashing and blocking at once, arrows whizzing past his head.
But unlike last time, this time there was something different. Bursts of fire from the shugenja spells, and the horses didn’t spook as most did when there was fire.
Majid was next to him, cutting through the Dark Moto with his scimitar. Shouting the curses that he only reserved for them. Harun just had to keep his head, staying in his position in the column and following orders.
Were things ever like you thought they would be? Harun had grown up in the shadow of the Onyx War his whole life, but not even knowing what it really was.
They used to play ‘war’ too, not just at the academy but before. At home at Shiro Yogasha, and at the villa where by the sea where the used to go some summers with Kyoumi and Kousuda. They had built forts in the sand, decorated them with shells and defended the walls with driftwood swords. Leaping out of the ford with Arahime at his side to fight an invisible Oni Lord.
But there was none of that here. No heroism here. Just war. And to Harun it was far from heroic, only necessary.
And it was confusing, horsemen and soldiers everywhere, Onyx infantry and cavalry attacking. All he could do was keep calm and trust that those giving the orders knew what they were doing.
Not far away from where he was, he could see the Moto White Guard charge a massive Oni Lord with their lances, running through hum before charging past and turning to charge again.
Somewhere else on the battlefield Harun heard loud cracks like thunder, he turned to see plumes of smoke rising, Onyx being cut to pieces in an explosion of fire and blood.
Daidoji, Harun realised. He had heard of their gaijin pepper weapons, but this was the first time he had seen them. They were probably with the Shogun.
Harun kept his position by Majid, attacking anything that came near the Moto when he was casting. But then, as we cut down yet another bakemono, the swirl of battle separated them. Harun tried to fend it off but the bakemono’s spear cut through the barding of his horse, skewering it.
Down went Harun’s horse and down went Harun, the horse shrieking and kicking as it collapsed. Harun quickly rolled to get clear of it, scraping his face against the ground and losing his helmet as he did.
He came up upon one knee, his sword out, just as the bakemono came on him, screaming in his face. Harun sunk his katana in its chest right up to the tsuba. Blood flowed down the tsuba and down his arm. When it was dead, Harun kicked the body away with his foot and drew his sword out. He quickly retrieved his helmet and looked around, katana ready. On the ground he was vulnerable, he couldn’t go back to the Hojo so he had to find somewhere else to be. He had to survive, until the Unicorn banner flew above Shiro Moto once more. Survive, until could get back to Arahime.
Him being by himself made him a target. Several straggling Onyx went right by him, Harun backed away, attacking as he went. He had to move, keep moving, find a unit to be with. He attacked an enemy behind him and then in front of him, their weapon cutting through his armour on his arm before Harun finally killed him.
Enemies were closing in on him, he backed away and they kept coming. And just as they started to charge at him, Majid rode up on his white horse and charged them down, shouting gleefully. He then came back for Harun who climbed up behind Majid on the horse.
“Majid, you saved my life,” Harun panted.
“Don’t thank me yet, Niwa no Moto,” Majid said. “We still have a battle to win.”
Majid urged his horse faster, galloping past enemies at a blur. It was all Harun could do to hang on.
The walls of Shiro Moto were closer, he could see fighting beneath them and…up on the walls as well? Had the gates been breached? Something was thrown from the walls. A body? Harun hoped it was an Onyx.
Harun looked ahead, just in time to see that Majid was about to charge a line of Dark Moto cavalry. Harun quickly put his head down and held on tighter. They collided with a splintering crash, but they came through the other side.
The rest of the battle was a blur to Harun, all he could do was hold on and keep his seat on the horse behind Majid. Then Majid nudged him, telling him to look up.
High up on the ramparts of Shiro Moto, he could see the purple banner of the Unicorn flying free in the wind.
Majid grinned at him. “Victory.”

“Your first battle wasn’t all you expected then, Harun-san?” Kenshin asked.
Harun shook his head. “I suppose you will tell me then, sensei, that nothing ever is.”
“I could,” said Kenshin, “but I don’t think I need to.”
Harun smiled as he poured himself another cup of tea.
“I imagine that there would be some people who wanted to speak to you about the taking of Shiro Moto,” Kenshin said.
“Yes,” said Harun, “and some people have asked me, they’re usually disappointed when I tell them the truth.”
“And what is that?” Kenshin asked.
“That it wasn’t heroic at all,” Harun answered. “And that it was so confusing that I didn’t know what going on, even when we won.”
Kenshin smiled at him. “And you think that the best stories don’t have a little embellishment.” He poured himself some more tea. “I guess from here is when you were at Shiro Moto for the winter.”
“It is,” Harun said, taking a sip of tea and resuming his story. “Much of the Khol went north, to pacify the area, some stayed at the Shiro. To get it ready for the winter, to celebrate what had been won and mourn what had been lost…”

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Thu Jun 15, 2017 7:02 am

The restoration of Shiro Moto took time. A lot of the summer and even moving on into autumn. Once it was properly cleansed of the taint, the rebuilding could commence. Word was sent around the Empire to other Unicorn and many began their make their way back to Unicorn lands. The encampment of yurts around Shiro Moto grew in size. They brought what they could on horseback and in carts, all of them helping in their own ways to restore the Shiro.
But the Shiro itself surprised Harun. Even when the rebuilding was almost over the fortress was basically a shell, nothing more than walls and nothing really special about it. At least, not compared to what he had seen in Crane lands. Surely the main fortress of the leading Clan of the Unicorn would be built much grander than this? When he told this to Majid, the Moto only laughed.
“It’s not supposed to be more than that,” Majid explained. “What Shiro Moto is to the Unicorn is a symbol we show to outsiders, but it’s not our home.” He nodded to the bare plains that surrounded the Shiro. “This is our home, this is what must be restored.”
It seemed as if everyone was helping with the building even menial tasks such as carrying loads or digging hole for new foundations. Harun even saw Moto Chinua pushing a wheelbarrow, doing what he could.
Doji Ayumu would never do anything like that, thought Harun, and if he did, what a scandal it would be!
But the Unicorn were only spurred to do better when they saw their Khan pitching in like they were.
One afternoon in late autumn, Harun came across the monk that had spoken to him when Harun had been in the infirmary. The monk was sitting outside two rebuilt shrines that stood side by side. He was crouching before one of two flat stones, cutting words into it with a hammer and chisel. He showed surprising control and precision.
Harun watched him work and waited until he was done to speak. “You have many talents- Gimu-san,” Harun said.
Gimu bowed. “I have the talents necessary to carry out my duties, Kakita-sama.”
Harun reflected on the monk’s words, “gimu” itself meant duty. He looked down at the stone the monk had carved. Hikahime, it said, the Minor Fortune that Gimu served.
“Gimu-san,” said Harun, “after we spoke I was thinking about what you said. Hikahime, the one you serve, I’m sure I have heard her name somewhere. Can you tell me more?”
“Of course, Kakita-sama,” said Gimu, he sat down and motioned for Harun to sit beside him. “Hikahime was a peasant, early in the Onyx war she joined what was known as the Last Legion.” He looked at Harun. “I suppose you have heard of them?”
“The peasant legion?” Harun asked, Gimu nodded. “Didn’t they become the First Imperial Legion?”
“They did,” said Gimu. “The First Legion still bears her name, carries her banners, chants her name before battle.” He looked ahead, smiling wistfully. “She rose in the ranks quickly to a position of command in the Legion, earning the respect of everyone, including samurai.”
He talks as if he knew her, Harun thought, he wanted to ask questions, but to ask a monk about his former life wasn’t done.
“I think I remember now,” said Harun, thinking back to his father’s stories. “Didn’t she die in battle? My father said she was a hero, she had honour and courage to match any samurai.”
Gimu smiled in response to this, but said nothing.
Harun stood up. “I’m, keeping you from your duties, Gimu-san,” he said with a bow. “Thank you for your wisdom.”
The monk looked at him curiously. “I only answered your questions, Kakita-san. No koans or riddles like you would expect.”
“Perhaps that is what I needed,” said Harun, and with another bow he left.
Gimu sat for a while, memories came back to him. From another life, when he had another name. The rush of battle, the thrill of speed in a cavalry charge…
He stood up, with his hammer and chisel he carved a name on the second stone. When he was done he dusted it off. Chagatai, the Fortune of Courage. He set the stones in their places in the shrine, and knelt before the second stone. He reached out and touched the characters with his hand.
He spoke, in a soft voice that no one else could hear.

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Tue Jun 20, 2017 5:51 am

The days began to get cool as the autumn went on. Harun got calluses on his hands helping with the rebuilding that he knew Arahime would tease him about.
Some afternoons he would go riding. Most of the time with Majid, sometimes with Asuna. He liked spending time with her, but that conversation he had had with Majid put a dampener on it. But try as he might, he couldn’t get the Utaku out of his mind.
He had promised Arahime he would return for her Topaz Championship, but would it really be that bad if he stayed? The thought stayed in his mind day after day. And the more he thought about it the better it sounded.
There was really no one he could confide in about this. Not Majid, not Asuna and he didn’t want to worry Arahime by writing to her about it. How would she see it? A betrayal of trust? It was likely.
The first snow was falling when the final preparations were for court were being made at Shiro Moto. Shugenja were going around with fire kami drying the newly plastered walls. Tapestries, carpets and other exotic things were brought by the Ide traders to decorate the tenshukaku.
It definitely makes the place warmer, less forboding, Harun thought, examining the decorations one morning. One of the tapestries showed a great cavalcade of Unicorn lords, made in an unfamiliar style to Harun but brilliant with coloured and gilded threads.
Below each rider was a name: Moto Chinua, Moto Naleesh, Moto Chen, Moto Chagatai, Moto Gaheris, Shinjo Yokatsu…a lineage going all the way back to Shinjo-no-kami.
And there was room too, to continue the line, as it must.
He turned and saw Majid approaching him, the Moto carried a bundle in his arms.
“Do the aesthetics please your discerning Crane tastes, Niwa no Moto?” Majid asked.
Harun gazed around with an exaggerated expression of disdain. “It’ll do, it’ll do,” he said, nodding grudgingly.
Majid laughed, he offered the bundle to Harun. “I’ve got something for you, the winters here can be harsh once Tamon’s north winds sweep across the steppes.” He unfolded it to present to Harun. It was a cloak, of a deep purple wool trimmed with white fur. It was beautiful, Harun wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. “Majid, I—“
Majid cut him off quietly. “Let’s not go into that Crane gift dance, eh Niwa no Moto? I’m here to take you somewhere and I haven’t got all day.”
This sort of move wasn’t unusual for Majid, so Harun just thanked him and put it on. It was warm, far too warm for this heated hall. The fur felt soft against his skin and helped a little with forgetting that it had come from a dead animal.
Outside, the horses were saddled and ready.
“So where are we going?” Harun asked as they made their way through the now rows of yurts that now encircled Shiro Moto.
“The first of the Khan’s guest are arriving,” Majid said. “We are heading east to Kaeru Toshi to escort them back to Shiro Moto for the winter.”
This seemed straightforward for Majid, there had to be something else there. Some trick. “That’s it?”
Majid looked at him, his face a picture of innocence. “Would I like to you, Niwa no Moto?”
“It’s not lies I’m accusing you of Majid, but tricks,” Harun said, flashing a grin at him. “I think I know you to well by now.”
Majid laughed. “Then I don’t think you know me at all then.”

The arrived in Kaeru Toshi the next day, light snow was falling and Harun pulled up the hood of his new cloak, grateful for its warmth. Kaeru Toshi hadn’t changed hadn’t changed that much since he had been there in the summer. A few made buildings had been raised then, but it was still far from the city it had once been.
The most surprising change Harun noticed was the Lion troops were no longer there. Instead he saw the emerald green of the Imperial Legions, the soldier no doubt station there for the winter.
They left their horses through the ruined city, a Kaeru pointing them to a newly built inn where the Unicorn’s guests were houses. They tied their horses and approached.
And standing outside, checking on the horses, was Kakita Kousuda. The Unicorn turned Crane went to greet them, giving them his best smile and bow.
“Ah yes,” he said, “You must be our escorts. I am Kakita Kousuda, I can introduce you to the to the others and we can be on our way.”
Harun looked at Kousuda’s face from beneath his hoods. He doesn’t recognise me, Harun thought, that was Majid’s game.
Silently vowing to get the Moto back at a late stage, Harun pulled back his hood. “Oji-san.”
Kousuda froze, turned in surprise. “Harun!” He gave a genuine smile and shook Harun’s hand like one Unicorn greeting another. “Harun, I knew you were here, but didn’t expect to see you so soon, or like this!” He nodded at the cloak and they both laughed.
“Uncle Kousuda, allow me introduce Moto Majid,” said Harun, gesturing to the Moto in his best Crane fashion. “He’s been my guide to the ways of the Unicorn since we met at Shiro Mirumoto.”
Majid made a flourishing bow. “I am pleased to finally make the acquaintance of one of Harun’s family.”
Another Crane came out, this one younger and carried a daisho. He stopped, stared at them. “Harun?”
Now it was Harun’s turn to be surprised. “Kunta?”
The two young men greeted each other with surprise and amusement.
“I haven’t seen you since the Topaz Champion,” said Harun. “What have you been doing since then?”
Kunta nodded to Kousuda. “His old yojimbo retired, I have been in Kakita-sama’s service since. And what’s this?” Kunta nodded at the cloak.
Majid gave a loud cough.
“Forgive me,” said Harun. “Moto Majid, meet Doji Kunta. We were together at the Kakita Academy, we made our gempukku together.”
“Well, if you’re as much trouble as Harun, then you’ll fit right in, Doji-san,” said Majid with a laugh.
The others started to emerge from the inn, Kousuda made the introductions. From the Mantis Clan there was Yoritomo Takara and Kitsune Ariko. And from the Spider Clan was Daigotsu Yukari and, to Harun’s dismay, Susumu Hokori.
Eager to be on their way, it didn’t take long for everyone to get ready and soon enough they were all riding west to Shiro Moto.
Harun rode next to Kunta, the Doji rode stiffly and a little nervously. Harun rode as if he was born to it and Kunta said so. Harun laughed.
“if you had seen me in the summer you wouldn’t be saying that,” Harun said. “Majid took me out with the Utaku battle maidens against some Dark Moto. I fell off my horse and they had to carry me back.” He looked at Kunta. “You’ve probably done a fair bit of travelling with Kousuda-sama, right?”
“Not as much as you would think, Harun,” Kunta said. “We were at Shiro Giji with the Daidoji for most of the summer. I spent a lot of time walking the ground when my presence wasn’t needed.” He smiled at Harun. “Hardly any of the exciting things I’ve heard you’ve been getting up to.”
“Riding every day, fighting in battle, your first duel, I wouldn’t be surprised you had Arahime riding up here in the spring begging to join you. I saw her before we left.”
“You did?” Harun’s heart leapt at the sound of her name. “Did you speak to her? How is she?”
“She is well,” Kunta said. “We sparred a few times, she beat me all but once. “He looked at Harun. “She misses you, she didn’t tell me but she does.”
And I miss her, thought Harun, staring out onto the horizon.

They camped that night on the steppes, taking warmth from the fire, sharing a simple meal. Afterwards, Harun took a walk behind the tents, saying he wanted to stretch his legs but he wanted to avoid Hokori. He was the approached by the Spider yojimbo.
“Good evening, Daigotsu Yukari-sama,” said Harun, giving her a formal bow.
She seemed to smile ay him, as if amused by his formality. “I’ve heard a bit about you, Harun-san, if I may call you that,” Daigotsu Yukari said. “With a name like that, a face like that, I’ve been wondering what you’re doing in those Crane clothes.”
Harun grinned, he was starting to like Yukari already.
“And then Kousuda told me something that explained everything,” she continued, giving Harun a long look. “You’re Yamada’s son.”
Harun nodded. “That is true.”
Yukari shook her head. “I thought your mother would have had more sense than to have you wear powder blue.”
Harun laughed. “I don’t think I’ve done too badly for myself.”
“That’s a matter of opinion,” Yukari said. “I guess you are out here learning the Unicorn ways. But if I were you and I had the chance to stay here, I’d take it.” She looked around at the steppes, the snow lit up by the light of the moon. “Why you’d want to leave for the tedium of courts is beyond me.” She looked back at Harun. “You’re Doji friend is a little green, I wonder if he knows what he is in for. The Unicorn throw the best parties. After your parent’s wedding, many of us were staggering out of the camp at dawn. If this is anything like that…”
Harun grinned, they were in for a good time. “You knew my parents?”
Yukari nodded. “Your father not so much, but your mother Yamada, she taught me to ride.” She looked at Harun carefully. “I think the last time I saw her would have been before you were born. Things were different by then, she was so strong but your father’s death hit her hard.”
“I’ve heard many things about her,” said Harun. “Not all of them good.”
“You mean with the Obsidian Hand?” Yukari asked.
Harun nodded.
Yukari sighed. “It’s hard, but let me know if you want to talk about it,” she said. “You’re not the only samurai who has a dark legacy to deal with.”
Harun nodded his thanks and they returned to the fire.

Harun was about to turn in for the night when Kousuda came up to him.
“I know we haven’t spoken much yet, Harun, but there will be time,” his uncle said. “I just wanted to give you this.”
He handed Harun a bundle of papers tied with a pale blue ribbon. The op one had his name, in Arahime’s handwriting.
Harun looked up at Kousuda. He didn’t say anything, he didn’t need to.
Kousuda smiled. “I’ll see you in the morning then.”
By the light of the fire, Harun went through the letters, saving Arahime’s until last. There was one from his father Karasu, he had been in the lands of the Sparrow Clan that summer but the situation hadn’t improved much. There was one from Aunt Kyoumi, congratulating him on his duel at Kaeru Toshi as well as some news from Otosan Uchi. There were even a few from his siblings at Kakita Academy, one from his little sister Sakimi begging to know about Shiotome.
And then, finally, he read Arahime’s letter.

Dear Harun,
I hope this letter finds you well. Sometimes, I see the lightning playing across the sky to the west and hear the thunder in the distance, and I wonder if you are huddled under a bush somewhere, getting soaking wet. I know Musha Shuga can be hard sometimes, living almost like a ronin on the road. I hope that you have been getting enough to eat.
Kenshin-sensei has decided that I must develop my defensive stances more. That I must alter my technique because I have not yet managed to develop the strength needed to disarm a stronger opponent. Of course, he is correct, but I would hope that I do not permit any opponent to stay standing that long. At this rate, Kenshin-sensei will have me fighting like my mother. And that would be truly embarrassing.
I hope you are able to stay a second year on Musha Shuga, so that we can go together to the Temple of the Kirin or to Kitsune Mori now that it is free. There is still darkness in the Shinomen, we can stand with the Daidoji against it maybe. I will need to know true battle before I am allowed to face a Kenshinzen in a duel, the way things are now.
But until then, I will just have to keep practicing. I wish there was more exciting news to tell you, but the school is much the same as it ever was. There haven’t even been any good new kabuki troupes come to visit. Instead, I will simply have to hope that you are well and look forward to hearing all about your adventures when you return. In the meantime, I will light incense at the shrines of Koshin, Fortune of Roads, and Megumi, Fortune of Heroic Guidance, that they might help you find your way safely home.
Kakita Arahime

He read it twice. Her letter was like a bright star that lit up the night sky, a soft song that was carried by a warm breeze. Her words brought back the formal discipline of the Kakita Academy, the gentle beauty of Shiro Sano Kakita.
He ran his hands over the letter where her brush had formed the words, inhaling the delicate lavender scent. She felt so close to him, as if he could reach out and touch her. And as Kunta said, she missed him.
Soon, soon as the spring comes, Harun promised himself, folding her letter carefully and placing it inside his kimono, close to his heart.
He dreamed of her that night, he was chasing her across the Unicorn plains. Arahime ran ahead of him, laughing, just out of reach. But Harun kept running.

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Wed Jun 21, 2017 6:24 pm

Update later, but I thought I'd show you Moto Majid.


Posts: 176
Joined: Thu Mar 30, 2017 6:01 pm
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Thu Jun 22, 2017 9:18 am

They arrived at Shiro Moto the next afternoon and found it a flurry of activity. More people had arrived, most of them Unicorn but Harun saw the colours of a few different clans as well. Fortunately, an Ide courtier found the part and showed the guests to their accommodations. Doji Kunta was a little surprised when they were shown the yurt set aside for them.
“What did you expect?” Harun asked, a little amused.
“Well, I thought we would be staying at the Shiro,” Kunta protested.
Harun laughed. “It’s a bit small such a crowd like this.”
He was mollified somewhat when they went inside and saw how warm and comfortable it was. It was similar to the yurt that Harun had, but it was set for two people rather than one. Kunta looked at the patterned carpets on the floor and the brightly coloured cushions strewn around the table.
“This isn’t what I was expecting at all,” Kunta said. “When I heard the Unicorn lived in tents, I thought…” He looked at Harun. “So, you’ve been living like this since you arrived.”
Harun nodded. “I was surprised too, it’s like taking a small house with you.”
They emerged from the yurt and looked around, it was one in a small circle around a central fireplace. Each had the banner of the clan that was to occupy it. Next to the Crane were the Mantis, then the Dragon, the Spider and then finally the Lion who were next to the Crane.
Out of the Lion yurt stepped a red-haired shugenja in golden robes. Kunta could not help but stare, Harun smiled and approached him.
“Zetsubou-sama,” he said. Harun made a formal bow as fitting station as a Jade Magistrate. “When did you arrive?”
“Yesterday,” said Zetsubou. “I asked where you were, Harun, but you’d left with Majid by then. I can see that you’ve decided to take on a few of your mother’s way.”
Harun laughed. “Oh, this.” He tugged at the cloak. “It’s cold, in case you haven’t noticed.” Kunta approached them and Harun made the necessary introductions. Kunta seemed intrigued by Zetsubou being a full-blooded Kitsu. “How have you been? How are your family.”
“We travelled with the Dragon delegation, my wife Nikako has taken to children to stay with the family for the winter.” There was something in his voice that sounded as if he wanted to say more, but not right then. “Have you seen Majid?”
“We rode in together, but I haven’t seen him since,” said Harun. “No doubt he will find us later.” Harun noted Kunta wasn’t saying anything. “You’ll have to excuse my friend, I think this is his first time he has left the Crane lands.”
“That’s not true,” Kunta argued. “I’ve been to Otosan Uchi a few times. But court is court, no matter where you are. How different can it be?”
Harun almost told him, but decided not to. Kunta would find out for himself soon enough.

Harun dined with Kunta and Kousuda that night. His uncle had brought some tea and sake from Crane land, which Harun didn’t realise how much he missed.
“Not into the kumis and jerky yet, ne?” Kousuda asked.
“I have tried kumis, once, before the battle,” said Harun. “But not red meat, not yet.”
“But I thought you were born to it,” Kunta teased.
“I thought so too,” said Harun, “and then I fell off my horse.
They all laughed. Harun took a sip of sake. The light, delicate flavours were a welcome change from the heady, strong Unicorn brews. “Oji-san, what is it like being back?”
“Back in the Unicorn lands?” Kousuda thought on this a moment, his eyes glazing over. “I was very young when the Unicorn lands fell to the Onyx. There’s not a lot I remember about before…but getting back home was what drew the rest of us together, the ones that were left.” He smiled sadly. “But for the past seven years I’ve been a Crane, I’ve adapted well or so I’ve been told, and still…” He sighed, looking at Harun. “When we crossed that river from Lion lands, it really felt like coming home.”
Harun nodded in agreement. “I know what you mean, it’s something inside you. I didn’t know I had it until I came home, but now…”
Kousuda nodded. “It’s in the blood. The Unicorn travel, explore, see many lands and places. But as strong as that is, we all want to return home.”

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Sun Jun 25, 2017 7:34 am

Harun woke early the next morning and dressed in practice clothes. While he had diligently kept up his practice every morning, this was the first time he had been to the dojo. Called the Dojo of the Centre, it had been rebuilt from the ruins along with the rest of Shiro Moto. An imposing building, or would be when it was finished, it was the main dojo for the Khol.
Once inside, Harun could smell the sweet, grassy smell of fresh tatami. It brought him right back to the Kakita Academy. He wasn’t the only one there that morning, several of the Khol had come to spar and practice. Harun found a free space and took a practice sword from one of the racks.
He began to practice katas. The familiar movements and the feeling of the tatami under his feet helped him focus. In his mind he was back in the dojo at the Kakita Academy, beside him was Arahime and they practiced their movements in unison, a perfect matched pair.
He came to a stop, his bokken in front of his face, sweat building up at the back of his note.
He turned saw Utaku Asuna standing there. She gave a respectful bow.
“Very beautiful,” she said, “But what use is it outside of a place like this?”
“I may as well ask what use you are off your horse,” Harun countered.
Asuna smiled. “Care to settle that then?”
Harun made a bow. “With pleasure.”
Asuna took a practice sword from the rack and joined him on the tatami mat. They stood across from each other, still, quiet, then they attacked. The bokken’s coming together at once, coming together with a clatter. Harun pushed his bokken against hers, trying to outmatch her strength, but somehow that wasn’t enough as Asuna threw him back.
But if Asuna was strong, Harun was fast. Before Asuna could get one attack in, Harun got in two. She blocked the first attack, deflecting the blow that came at her shoulder, but could not block the second. It hit her hip and she went down. Harun closed in, resting her bokken on her chest, pointing at her heart.
“Fine then,” Asuna said crossly, but the corners of her mouth curved into a smile. “You do have some uses, beyond decorative ones.”
Harun stepped back and made another bow. “Your compliment does me honour, Asuna.”
Asuna scowled back at him. “I thought I told you that your pretty Crane words don’t work on me.”
“Is that why you keep seeking my company then?” Harun teased.
Asuna smiled, but didn’t answer. They walked back to the camp together.

Even though Harun wasn’t part of the Crane delegation, he still dressed for the first day of court. He wore his best kimono, hakama and juban, pale blue with the mons of his family and school displayed proudly.
He smoothed his hair back, flattening out the kinks, pulling it back into a topknot. Then with his fan in his obi and his daisho peace-bound, he made his way towards the Shiro. He wasn’t the only one going, and he could see a few more colours amongst the purple. Somehow, at the main doors to the tenshukaku where the guards were checking sword, was Moto Majid.
“Look at you!” Harun said, gesturing to the Moto’s fine attire.
Majid grinned. He wore a style of clothing that Harun hadn’t seen before. It was like a kimono, but the sleeves were narrow and it was fastened on his right shoulder at a strange angle. Harun later found out it was called a deel. It was purple, patterned with horses and riders decorated with gold piping. Majid also wore several gold rings with stones of different hues on his fingers, around his neck was a leather thing strung with coloured glass beads. And to top it all off, the Moto’s hair was neat and his beard had been trimmed.
“I don’t think I have ever seen you look this civilised,” Harun teased.
Majid shook his head, deflecting Harun’s compliments. “There’s still plenty of wild Moto if you miss it.”
They climbed the steps to the first level of the tenshukaku where the Great Hall was. At the end was the dais where Lord Chinua and a chosen few lords would sit on chairs. The hall itself was a sea of purple, Unicorns greeting each other, exchanging stories. Majid led Harun through this crowd and up the stairs to the next level.
From the gallery above, Harun leaned over the balcony railing and looked down at what was going on below. Now he could see the different colours of other clans dispersed through the purple. The blue of the Crane and the Crab, green of the Mantis and the Dragon, orange of the Phoenix...
There was one group that stood together that wore the black and white of the Spider Clan, two men and a woman, but Yukari and Hokori weren’t among them. Who could they be?
“Majid, do you know who they are?” Harun asked. “The ones over there in black and white.”
“Who?” Majid looked. “That’s Lady Haihime, the Princess of Ashes.”
“Kanpeki’s daughter?”
Majid nodded.
Harun had a closer look. Haihime looked about thirty, her black and white robes were of the finest silk, her white hair tied back and secured with elaborate black ornaments. She stood tall, rigid, unmoving and proud.
“The man next to her must be her husband, Doji Sorei,” Majid said, nodding to the elegant white-haired man in black next to her.
Doji Sorei…Harun remembered the name now, he was a cousin of the Crane Champion, Doji Ayumu. He had been in Otosan Uchi that winter when they had married. Karasu and Kousuda had been at the wedding and had told him and an enraptured Arahime all about it.
That was the winter before we went to the Academy, Harun remembered. He had another look at the couple, if there was any affection between them, they chose not to show it in public.
“That’s my mother and father,” said a small voice.
Harun and Majid turned to see a small girl. She had white hair tied into braids and serious brown eyes. She looked about eight or nine. Her clothing was a smaller version pf her mother’s, a white kimono with patterns of spider webs in silver and grey.
Majid smiled warmly at the girl. “Then you, young lady, must be Isanko.”
The girl nodded. “Are you a Moto? My mother said the Moto had long beards and wore strange clothes.”
“Your mother is right,” said Majid. “But that’s not all the Moto are. We also paint our faces white, can ride our horses backwards, and dance howling like wolves under a full moon.”
Isanko frowned at him. “You’re making that up.”
Majid shook his head. “I would never lie to such a clever girl.”
She laughed. “I like you, Moto.”
“Isanko-chan?” A woman in non-descript brown roads of a shugenja ascended the stairs. Her face was pale as if she never saw the sun, but was kind. She looked at Harun and Majid. “Are you going to introduce me to your friends?”
Isanko blushed and looked down. “Joshu, I’m afraid I don’t know their names.” She was clearly ashamed at the mistake in etiquette she had made.
Harun decided to step in. He made a bow. “I am Kakita Harun, son of Kakita Karasu. And this is Moto Majid.”
Majid made a flourishing bow to the girl.
Isanko also made a bow, it was quite touching. “Allow me to introduce Moshi Janisha, she is my joshu, my teacher and companion.
Janisha…a name he had heard before.
“Forgive me, Moshi-sama,” said Harun. “But were you not once Champion of the Mantis Clan?”
Janisha gave a small smile and a nod. “I was, but that was years ago and much has changed since then.”
She gave Harun a curious look, not sizing him up but as if she was seeing if she recognised him. Harun was sure they had not met before, perhaps there was some connection to his parents, either adopted or natural.
How does one go from a Clan Champion to a governess? Harun wondered. No doubt there is a story there.
“Please excuse me, but I was sent up here on a task,” said Janisha, she turned to Isanko. “Your mother wishes you downstairs.” She looked again at Harun. “I do hope we can speak later, perhaps this afternoon?”
“You said you would take me riding this afternoon, joshu,” Isanko said.
“I did, Isanko-chan,” said Janisha.
“Perhaps we could accompany you?” Majid suggested. “Riding on the plains of the Unicorn is better with a Moto at your side.”
Isanko smiled. “Can we joshu?”
Janisha looked at Majid for a moment and then nodded.
“Good, we will meet at the stables,” said Majid.
Isanko and Janisha took their leave. A curious sound began to emerge from downstairs, like someone singing but a low, constant drone, like a man singing at the bottom of a very deep valley. Harun looked down over the balcony, several Moto priests parted the crowd, their song bringing all conversation to a stop.
“It’s the khoomei,” Majid explained. “Throat singing, the harmony of the steppes.”
Behind them was Moto Chinua, taking his place on the dais along with several other Moto kuge. Among them was his heir, Moto Tengri. A quiet young man, Harun would have overlooked him had Harun not pointed him out.
One by one, the family damiyos of the Unicorn presented their gifts to the Khan. Ide Tobuko, Utaku Machiko and Iuchi Haruko. They were followed by the rest of the Great Clans, as well as a contingent from Zogeku. The Zogeki stood out, very warmly dressed but in various different colours.
The presentation of gifts took a number of hours, and the speeches the courtiers gave was rather long. He had thought his Uncle Kousuda’s speech was long, but the Scorpion ambassador’s speech left it far behind.
Majid nodded to Chinua, Harun could see the Champion’s attention was flagging.
“I doubt we will see him here after today,” said Majid in a low voice. “Tengri will take over, and the change will happen soon.”
“What do you mean?” Harun asked. For his age, Chinua looked quite healthy. But Majid did not explain more.

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