Heroes of Legend: Chapter One

Presenting the First Chapter of the Heroes of Legend Storyline


Greetings, Legend of the Five Rings readers, and welcome back to Week 1 of the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow event!

The traitorous regent Bayushi Shoju has seized the capital city of Otosan Uchi in a bloody Scorpion Clan Coup. To make matters worse, he has declared his allegiance to the Shadowlands and appointed his second-in-command, Ikoma Ujiaki, to deploy the Imperial Legions in defense of the capital against any who would challenge his rule. Who will rise up to save the Emerald Empire in its hour of need?

As a reminder, the events of this story take place prior to the events of The Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow.

For those of you who are joining us for the first time, or if you missed a previous part of the story, you can learn more about the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow event and the Heroes of Legend storyline here.

Chapter One

By D.G. Laderoute

8th Day of the Month of Hida, 1123, Toshi Ranbo

Surely, they must be able to hear my heart beating.

“My lady,” Bayushi Yojiro said from where he knelt in the tea house, “your request for us to meet you here was framed in a most informal way. That certainly does not match your current demeanor.”

Bayushi Kachiko stopped, snowflakes on her cloak becoming glistening beads of water in the warmth of the tea house. She acknowledged that she’d heard Yojiro with brief eye contact, but her gaze locked on that of the other occupant, Doji Hotaru.

Hotaru can hear it, my heart. She knows that I’m afraid.

Hotaru had tensed, reflexively readying herself for battle, like the warrior she was. “Kachiko, what is it? What’s wrong?”

Kachiko had rehearsed what to say for her entire walk through the winter garden of the Toshi Ranbo Governor’s Palace. Yet, no matter how often she repeated them in her head, she could not fit the words properly into her mouth to say them aloud.

Shoju, what have you done?

Eschewing any courtly nuance or subtle subtext, she blurted, “It’s Shoju. He’s reclaimed the Regency, with the support of the Lion and the Imperial Legions.”

Yojiro exchanged a glance with Hotaru, then they both stood, their tea forgotten. “Reclaimed? How?”

“By seizing it with force. By spilling blood in the Forbidden City,” Kachiko said, her gaze still locked on that of Hotaru.

“And the Lion acceded to this?” Hotaru asked. “But Toturi was the one who denounced Shoju’s Regency as an attempt to seize the Emerald Throne. Why would the Lion then be party to this?”

“I do not know. And yet, they are. Or, at least, a faction of them is.” Kachiko looked into the snow-draped gardens, crossing her arms as she did, as though hugging herself.

Shoju, what have you done? We were already suspected of attempting a coup. What will happen to the Scorpion now? Can the clan even survive this?

“There’s more,” Hotaru said.

Kachiko nodded. It required effort.

“Upon reclaiming the Throne, he—”

Kachiko had to stop, swallow, collect herself. She finally turned back from the window.

“A moment, please. This is very…difficult.” Kachiko took a breath. “After he reclaimed the Throne, Shoju declared himself an ally of the Shadowlands.”

Hotaru snapped out a curse that would have made an Iron Warrior blush. Yojiro simply stared at his hands in his lap. Their knuckles had turned white.

“You’re wrong,” Yojiro finally said. “You must be. The Legions would never defend such depravity.”

Kachiko shook her head. “No one wishes for me to be wrong more than I do, believe me. But I would not have come to you with something this ruinous if I were not certain.”

She turned again to Hotaru, borrowing what she could of the Crane’s strength and conviction.

“How did you even hear of this?” Hotaru asked.

Yojiro nodded quickly. “Indeed, we’ve had no messages to this effect—”

“It is winter,” Kachiko said. “Couriers are likely on their way, but they may be days yet.” She sighed. “This news first came to me from a trusted source in Otosan Uchi, borne by the winds. I have since had the truth of the message corroborated by augury.”

Yojiro stood and looked, for a moment, in the gardens, as Kachiko had. “Do you really believe this to be true? You likely know the Master of Secrets better than anyone—to the extent anyone knows him at all.”

Kachiko glanced at him. Shoju, aligning himself with Jigoku? Of course not.

And yet, here they were.

“No, I do not,” Kachiko finally said. “I believe that Shoju has some other purpose in making such a claim.”

Hotaru shifted slightly, the floorboards creaking. “Several days ago, Shiba Katsuda’s shugenja, as well as those tending the memorial shrines here in Toshi Ranbo, claim to have experienced especially dark and unsettling dreams, all seemingly at the same time. Is it possible that Shoju actually has engaged with the darkness in some fashion? Perhaps even unwillingly?”

Kachiko started to shake her head, but it collapsed into a desolate shrug. “I don’t know. And does it matter? Shoju has publicly made this claim. Whatever his true purpose might be, he has labeled himself the most egregious sort of traitor to the Empire. The path he’s begun to walk has only one destination—”

Kachiko stopped, the words in her throat suddenly too painful to form. Hotaru, Yojiro and the teahouse blurred into smears of color. A lifetime of courtly discipline wasn’t enough to stop it from happening.

She didn’t care. And neither, apparently, did Hotaru, who finally stepped forward and took her in her arms. Kachiko sank gratefully into the embrace. Shoju was gone. Her only son was with the Dragon, but had he survived the coup? She might have no one else in her life besides Hotaru. And she needed the Doji at her side, to help her remain strong, and to keep reminding her what true and honest service to the Empire looked like.

But for how long will she be there? Can we survive this, or will I lose her, too?

Yojiro cleared his throat awkwardly.

Kachiko lifted her head. “Oh, for Benten’s sake, Yojiro, allow me a moment to grieve, at least. Shoju is my husband, and—” She pulled back from Hotaru. “And one of the people I love most in this world.”

Yojiro shuffled his feet. “I understand, of course. But I must ask, what of our clan, my lady? Our champion has apparently fallen to corruption.” He glanced at Hotaru. “Perhaps, after we’ve had some time to fully consider the ramifications, we should—”

Again, Kachiko cut him off, pulling herself back from Hotaru’s embrace and straightening her kimono.

“We do not have the luxury of such time. With the aid of the Lion, Shoju has seized control of the capital. They likely intend Toshi Ranbo to soon follow.”

Yojiro nodded. “Very well. At the very least, it is clear that the championship of our clan must be assumed by someone else. Bayushi Dairu is not yet of age. Moreover, our last reports have him in the custody of the Dragon in Otosan Uchi. And Shoju’s brother, Aramoro, is…”

“Accused of attempting to murder the Emerald Champion,” Hotaru saved either of the Scorpions from saying.

Yojiro continued. “You are Dairu’s mother. It must be you to lead our clan, my lady.”

Kachiko turned back toward the garden, suddenly caught on the verge of manic laughter she wouldn’t be able to stop. Champion of the Scorpion Clan. Such a title, together with that of Imperial Advisor, would cement her place as a fulcrum around which all politics would turn. She could repudiate Shoju, and make the Scorpion the beating heart of Rokugan.

She had spent a lifetime working toward this. Every scheme, every manipulation, every debt and favor had brought her closer… No longer would her power come from being the wife of the Scorpion Clan Champion, or the Emperor’s chief advisor. She would wield power of her own. And with it, she and Hotaru, the Scorpion and the Crane, could shape Rokugan into the mighty and glorious Empire it was meant to be.

All she had to do was say yes, and her next step would take her onto the path she’d sought for so long, the one leading to the fulfillment of her ambition.

Kachiko closed her eyes. Ambition. It was a drug, wasn’t it? A drug as insidious and potent as opium from the City of Lies—and just as destructive. The very same ambition that had driven her to seek the things she’d thought she’d wanted, the power and status, had ultimately brought them all to this terrible place, hadn’t it?

It had cost the Emperor his justice, and it had cost the Empire its princes.

It had cost her Shoju, and may have cost him his very soul.

What might it come to cost Hotaru?

You will help me set this right.

Kachiko turned back. “I accept the mantle of clan champion. And as my first and only action in that office, I am stepping down and naming you my successor, Bayushi Yojiro-ue.”

She bowed deeply. Hotaru looked taken aback, but recovered quickly and bowed as well.

Yojiro just stared for a moment. “My lady, I cannot—”

“Yes, you can,” Kachiko said. “You must. The Scorpion needs you to be its leader.” She smiled sadly. “This is no gift I am giving you, Yojiro. This is a burden. You will be faced with leading our clan through a time of terrible ordeal.” She glanced at Hotaru. “The champion of a clan in such circumstances must possess a certain purity of spirit, a nobility and grace that—that I simply do not have. But you do. You can bear this millstone of responsibility about your neck, and still keep your gaze upon the Empire. I do not have that sort of strength.”

Yojiro’s gaze filled with doubts, even objections, but he finally just nodded. “Very well. I accept this duty you have given me.” He turned to Hotaru. “I must spend some time seeing to my clan’s affairs, Champion Doji. But I would ask for an audience with you at our earliest mutual convenience.”

Hotaru bowed her agreement. “Certainly, Champion Bayushi. However, I have affairs that I must attend to within my own clan first.”

“Your brother,” Yojiro said.

Kachiko blinked. She’d heard of Kuwanan’s arrival, but not what affairs it required Hotaru to address. Of course, she’d been profoundly distracted.

Hotaru nodded. “Yes. Kuwanan arrived yesterday. He has demanded to meet with me. I believe he intends to challenge me for the leadership of the Crane Clan.”

“He—what? Why?” Kachiko asked.

“I intend to find out when I meet with him shortly,” Hotaru replied. “If true, though, it means that the Championship of the Scorpion is not the only clan leadership issue today.”

Hotaru strode into the small courtyard known as Judgment’s Retreat, nestled between the

Governor’s Palace and the adjacent Chief Magistrate’s Estate. It was here that most formal matters of reputation and law were settled, whether that was a duel, a trial, or execution. A broad circle of clean, white sand dominated the courtyard, intended to reflect the light of Lady Sun onto whatever judgment was being rendered here. It was an impressive effect in the summer, but much less so amid the expansive white snows of winter.

Bayushi Yojiro walked at Hotaru’s side. Kachiko followed, no longer disguised as a guard but wearing a simple kimono and her signature mask. A small guard of Imperial Legionnaires trailed at a discreet distance.

Doji Kuwanan stood on the far side of the circle, one hand resting on the pommel of Omeka, his ancient Kakita blade forged almost four-hundred years ago. Behind him stood a pair of Daidoji Iron Warriors.

Hotaru frowned. Word had already come to her that Kakita Yoshi had apparently chosen to support Kuwanan’s claim for the Crane Championship. The presence of Daidoji warriors hinted that Uji might be leaning the same way. The thought made her heart sink, though not because of the apparent dissatisfaction with her leadership. Rather, it meant disunity fractured the clan much more deeply than she’d realized. Given the immense gravity of Shoju’s claim to have aligned himself with their most ancient and bitter enemy, now was not the time for disunity.

Hotaru stopped, and Kuwanan bowed. She returned it, then silence fell, filled only by the cold whisper of wind blowing out of the Lion lands to the west, and the Unicorn lands beyond them.

Kuwanan stepped forward, his thick jacket shifting in the inconstant breeze. “Sister, I have come to contest the leadership of the Crane Clan. I believe that you are unfit to continue in the office. It is my hope that you will step down willingly, but if you will not do so, then I will respond accordingly.” His hand tapped the pommel of Omeka, once.

Hotaru cocked her head. “Brother, I do not understand. You are impetuous, but not foolish. I must therefore believe that you have a rational reason for this—or that you think you do.”

Kuwanan sniffed. “The reason stands behind you. You have made your feelings regarding that…” He stopped, took a breath. “That woman clear.”

Hotaru glanced back at Kachiko. The Scorpion’s face remained impassive behind her mask, but Hotaru saw the concern darkening her gaze. She offered a smile meant to be reassuring, then turned back to Kuwanan. She wished she could have discussed what she was about to do with Kachiko. But as she herself had said, we do not have the luxury of such time.

Please, Lady Benten, help Kachiko to understand what I am about to do. But if she will no longer conceal herself, then neither will I.

“Yes,” Hotaru said. “I love Bayushi Kachiko. But neither of us would harm our clans in the pursuit of that love.”

Kuwanan barked a humorless laugh. “That is not what you told father, Hotaru. You made it abundantly clear to him where your loyalties lay.”

Hotaru just stared for a moment. Told father? Made it clear to him? How? She shook her head. “Kuwanan, I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“I am talking about the letter,” Kuwanan shot back. “The letter that you wrote to him, confessing your obsessive fascination with this woman. I found it, Hotaru, among father’s personal effects. It banished any doubt, and placed my feet on the path that has brought me here, to this moment. The Heavens themselves have endorsed this purpose.”

Kuwanan truly believed what he was saying.

Her heart began to race. In the next few moments, she faced losing either Kachiko, or her brother, or quite possibly both.

A dark thought. Had Kachiko done something? But a single glance back at her showed no subterfuge, no guilt in those dark, warm eyes. She was as mystified as Hotaru was.

“I wrote no letter to father about Kachiko, or anyone else,” Hotaru said.

Now it was Kuwanan’s turn to look confused. “It was written in your hand, sister, and secreted away in a false compartment among father’s effects, in the Crane Guesthouse in the Forbidden City.”

“Kuwanan, just a moment ago was the first time I have professed my love for Kachiko publicly. And I do so now without reservation,” Hotaru looked again at Kachiko. Her face had now gone as hard as stone, though.

Hotaru’s chest tightened. Had she gone too far after all, by announcing her love for Kachiko without consulting her first?

When Kachiko spoke, it had nothing to do with Hotaru, Kuwanan, or any letter to Doji Satsume.

“Hametsu,” she hissed, through clenched teeth. “His smell clings to it. He is the Shosuro daimyō, and has ready access to the best forgers, and to agents that could certainly plant a forged letter in your clan’s guesthouse.”

Hotaru turned back to Kuwanan. “I did not write this letter, Kuwanan.”

Hotaru could see her brother turning hers and Kachiko’s words in his mind, trying and failing to get them to mesh with what he’d obviously come to believe. Finally, he spoke.

“I must concede that you and this Scorpion woman are convincing. But being convincing is not the same as offering proof. In the aftermath of the Battle of Three Trees Village, you told me I should accept that the Emerald Magistrates had found no proof of foul play in father’s death. This time, I have found what appears to be proof, so it follows that your convincing words may be just that—words.” He shook his head. “I have learned to accept the judgment of the Heavens in matters such as this one. I will therefore do so again, now, in this place of judgment.”

He stepped toward the middle of the circle and lifted his hand, palm up, over Omeka’s hilt. “I challenge you, sister, to a duel to determine the truth of your claims about the letter I discovered. If you are lying, then you will die, and I will assume the championship. And if you are telling the truth, then I will die, and you will carry on leading the clan.”


“It can be no other way. As long as the matter of that letter remains unresolved, it will be a yawning chasm between us.”

“And so Hametsu gets what he desires,” Kachiko said bitterly. “Hotaru dead—or you dead, and Hotaru heartbroken because of it. Damn him.”

Hotaru locked eyes on her brother. She had no desire to cross steel with him, much less harm him—or kill him. Kill her own brother. She would make one, final attempt to dissuade him.

“Kuwanan, before you do this, you need to know what has just transpired in the capital,” Hotaru said, then went on to describe the news Kachiko had brought just that morning. Perhaps the dire circumstances would be enough to convince Kuwanan to withdraw his challenge, to see that now was a time for unity, not confrontation.

Kuwanan’s face darkened, but he shook his head. “All the more reason to address this once and for all, sister. If you have been compromised by these Scorpion, and they are in league with—”

“Brother, no,” Hotaru snapped. “Do not presume to implicate an entire clan in the malfeasance of one of its members, even if it is the champion. After all, you believe that I have committed wrongdoing. Do you believe all Crane are culpable in it?”

“No, of course not,” Kuwanan said, then turned to Yojiro. “My apologies for implying such a thing, Bayushi-sama.”

Yojiro offered a slight bow, enough to acknowledge the intent of Kuwanan’s words, albeit just barely.

“Kuwanan,” Hotaru said, “is there no way I can convince you to put this aside? To focus on the greater good of the Empire?”

“That is what I’m doing, sister.”

She stifled the instinct to argue, as they had done so many times. What words of hers could reach him when he doubted her very integrity?

A sudden sorrow filled her, similar to when she’d killed Akodo Arasou only a short distance from where she now stood. She had caused the death of a good man then, the brother of one of her best friends, Toturi. And now faced the prospect of the same thing.

Except, this time, it was her own brother.

Hotaru turned to Yojiro. “Champion Bayushi—as magistrate, you are the lawful authority here. Do we have your leave to proceed with this matter?”

“You do,” Yojiro replied, his voice grave.


Bayushi Kachiko stepped forward and faced Kuwanan. “This whole matter is predicated on your belief that your sister’s relationship with me is detrimental to your clan and, therefore, to the Empire. If that is so, then allow me to…” She stopped and swallowed. “Allow me to end that relationship, here and now—”

“No!” Hotaru snapped. “No, I will not accept that!” She gestured Kachiko back and assumed her stance. “Just as our two clans are stronger together, particularly in times such as these, so are we. I will not allow expediency to end either of those relationships. Your brother may have set this in motion with his vile scheming, but it is our burden to resolve it.”

Kuwanan’s gaze shifted from Kachiko to Hotaru. Again, a glimmer of uncertainty clouded his eyes, but as Hotaru readied herself to face him, it once more hardened into resolve.

Hotaru gripped her naginata and readied herself. She had divested herself of Shukujo, the Crane ancestral sword. She did not want this duel, but if it must happen, she would not risk drawing her own brother’s blood with the sacred blade.

Hotaru let her mind collapse into a single point of concentration, one that acknowledged the existence of Kuwanan and Omeka and nothing else. Her brother’s blade was preternaturally sharp, able to slice through armor with relative ease. She must adapt her tactics accordingly.

And yet, I must somehow not kill my own brother…

Time passed, their eyes locked. Hotaru had already planned her move, could trace in her mind the path her naginata would follow. She only awaited—

Kuwanan suddenly and minutely shifted his weight. Hotaru only knew it because it changed his position relative to Lady Sun’s light, altering the apparent color of his pupils slightly. Hotaru moved, tracing her naginata through the path she had already chosen for it, adjusting it a fraction to account for small variance in her brother’s strike. A soft tap, as the shaft of her naginata connected with the flat of Omeka and knocked it aside.

Kuwanan stumbled slightly, already compensating for a resistance to his strike that never occurred. That, and the momentum behind Omeka’s swing, gave Hotaru the perfect opportunity. She could flow as Water, reversing the course of her own blade, then strike as Fire, a ferocious killing blow delivered into the left side of Kuwanan’s back. Instead, she became Earth, using her own momentum to back up, opening a gap between her and her brother, one that would take advantage of her weapon’s longer reach.

Kuwanan nimbly spun about, Omeka raised. His gaze once more met Hotaru’s, and a truth passed between them.

Hotaru would not fight to win. She would fight, instead, to not lose. The inconclusive nature of the contest was, itself, a message to Kuwanan. She didn’t want to win, because she didn’t want to fight at all.

Kuwanan flung himself forward, kicking out with his left foot, Omeka’s strike right behind it. Hotaru again deflected his blade, dodged his foot, then spun and slammed the shaft of her naginata against his shoulder, bludgeoning him sideways. Again, it opened an opportunity for her. Again, she became Earth, and simply backed away in a defensive crouch.

So it went, one strike after another. Omeka would swing, and Hotaru would answer by avoiding and disengaging. They finally both broke apart, catching their breath.

“Kuwanan, please, I don’t want to kill you!”

“I don’t want your indulgence, sister,” he snapped back. “I only want you to treat me as a serious opponent—!”

Kuwanan flung himself forward in mid-word. Many times, Satsume and Toshimoko had both admonished Hotaru to not become lulled by an opponent’s voice. But even they had never likely envisioned her dueling her own brother. He gained a flicker of initiative, just a fraction of a heartbeat, but it was enough to prevent Hotaru from fully deflecting Omeka’s strike this time. Kuwanan kept enough control over his blade that he was able to reverse it, and slash it into her right side.

Omeka bit deep.

Hotaru heard Kachiko cry out, but fought to keep her focus on the battle. Pain, deceptively distant and dull, crept away from the wound and burrowed into her torso. She gritted her teeth in the face of a stark instant of truth.

With the next strike, one of them would die.

No. I will not lose my brother, but neither will I lose Kachiko.

Hotaru dropped her naginata with a soft thud.

Kuwanan had tensed to deliver another blow, but froze, his eyes widening. “You are conceding?”

Clutching her side, Hotaru shook her head. “No. But neither will I defend myself. If you truly believe in your righteousness, then you must strike me down.”

“I won’t slay an unarmed—”

“If it’s the only way to bridge this abyss you’ve placed between us, then you must.”

“You are subverting the judgment of the Heavens!”

Hotaru grimaced, swaying. Kachiko and Yojiro both stepped forward, Kachiko reaching for her, but Hotaru warned them back with a raised hand. “I am accepting that your decision is Tengoku’s judgment. So choose, brother, and end this. The darkness is gathering. There is no more time.”

Kuwanan gripped Omeka, staring at Hotaru past the blade.

She limped closer to her brother. “Kuwanan, father taught me that the Heavens may offer us guidance, but, in the end, our choices are our own. He believed that declaring oneself merely to be an instrument of the Heavens was a weakness, not a strength.”

Kuwanan’s eyes widened. “I don’t believe father would say such a thing!”

“Why not? Because he was noble and pure of spirit, a paragon of virtue?” Hotaru forced a thin smile. “Father could be those things, yes. But he could also be harsh—and demanding to the point of cruelty. He expected perfection—he expected the impossible.”

Hotaru realized she was trembling, although whether it was from anger, sadness, or pain, she was not sure.

“Brother, you saw him as the hero he was, but he was also a man. He recognized his flaws and failures, the greatest of which was his failure to protect our mother from herself.”

Father… I know now that you thought you were trying to strengthen and prepare us: her for the scrutiny of the Imperial capital, and me for the scrutiny of clan leadership.

You were trying to ready me for such a day as this.

She drew another breath and limped forward, gritting her teeth.

You wanted me to be perfect because you knew you were not.

Omeka’s tip now hovered a hand-span from her face. Pain flowed from her wound like liquid fire. “His successes and failures were not Tengoku’s, Kuwanan. They were his own, a result of the choices he made in his life. He must answer for them when Emma-Ō takes stock of his life. So, too, will you. So make this choice, brother, and be prepared to account for it to the Heavens, not to attribute it to them.”

Omeka’s tip trembled slightly.

“Hotaru,” Kuwanan finally said, “do you truly love this woman? Did you truly not write that letter?”

“Yes, I do. And no, I did not.”

Kuwanan lowered Omeka. “Doji Hotaru-ue, I concede this contest to you.”

“Good.” As she spoke, Hotaru's legs wobbled under her. “And as your next act of fealty, you can catch your champion before she falls over,” she gasped. Kuwanan sheathed Omeka and caught her as she began to topple. Kachiko moved in to assist, while Yojiro told his guards to call the healers.

“That is twice, now, that I have lost a duel to a wounded and unarmed opponent,” Kuwanan said ruefully, helping Hotaru out of Judgment’s Retreat. Hotaru managed to push a questioning glance through the fog of pain. “When you have recovered, sister, I will tell you about Matsu Kaitokura.”

They hobbled a few paces, then Kuwanan gave Kachiko a sidelong glance. “You claim that your brother was responsible for this forgery?”

“Without a doubt,” Kachiko replied.

“Then he is the one that must face judgment for this.”

“I agree. However, I ask only one thing,” Kachiko said.

Kuwanan lifted an eyebrow.

Kachiko smiled dangerously. “That you wait until I am there to watch.”

Despite the pain now flaring in her side like a lit torch, Hotaru laughed.

11th Day of the Month of Hida, 1123, Toshi Ranbo

Hotaru limped through the open gate. She winced against the icy wind that blew in from the rice fields sprawling around Toshi Ranbo. Yojiro clicked his tongue at her side.

“I assure you, this is not necessary. I am quite capable of doing this on my own.”

“I would never suggest otherwise, my lord. But I am the Champion of the Crane, this is Toshi Ranbo, and that—” She stopped and let her gaze wander across the massed ranks of troops smartly arrayed just beyond bowshot from the city walls. “That is a Lion army. They have put a great deal of effort in marching here amid the winter snows. It would be rude of me not to greet them.”

Hotaru kept her words light, but in truth, apprehensive uncertainty gnawed deep inside her, like her partly healed wound. The first hints of the approaching army had reached Toshi Ranbo only a few hours after her duel with Kuwanan. Now, three days later, it had finally arrived. To have marshaled so many troops and marched them through the harsh depravation of winter could only mean one thing—the intent of its commander was even more dire than the Lion Clan's deadly reputation.

The same clan that had apparently supported Shoju’s Tainted coup in Otosan Uchi. Hotaru saw nothing among the tawny ranks to suggest that similar corruption was present here, but the darkness did not always announce its presence with horror. Sometimes, it cloaked itself in noble intent.

Hotaru, Yojiro, and their escort of a dozen Imperial Legionnaires stopped a short distance from the small group that had detached itself from the Lion host. Kuwanan and Kachiko, both watching from the security of Toshi Ranbo’s wall, had vigorously counseled against parley, fearing treachery. Yojiro, though, had flatly dismissed their concerns.

“If Jigoku has already sewn so much distrust among us that we would put aside our ancient customs because of suspicion, then it has already won a victory.”

Hotaru ducked from another cold gust of wind. Yojiro advanced a few paces.

“I am Bayushi Yojiro,” he called out, “appointed by the Emperor as custodian of Toshi Ranbo on behalf of the Emerald Throne. What is your purpose here?”

A single, cloaked figure rode forward, stopping just short of Yojiro. But when the hood was cast back, the rider’s dark eyes were leveled firmly on Hotaru.

“I believe, Doji-sama, that you are standing very close to the place from which you slew my betrothed,” said Matsu Tsuko.

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