Heroes of Legend: Chapter Five
Presenting the Final Chapter of the Heroes of Legend Storyline
Greetings, Legend of the Five Rings readers, and welcome to Week 8 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.
By Marie Brennan
12th Day of the Month of Togashi, 1123, within the Forbidden City
Mirumoto Hitomi would have preferred to be working only with Seppun Ishikawa. If he could get out of Otosan Uchi in the midst of a battle, then he was the ideal person to get back in under the same conditions. While the forces that had assembled to bring down the traitors made a very large distraction, a small party had a hope of slipping in unnoticed—which meant that any defenses around the palace might be less ready for them. And Ishikawa knew not just the streets and public gates, but the alleys and side portals. After all, anyone whose duty was to protect the Emperor ought to know every route by which someone could sneak in.
Not that he’d done a very good job with his duty. But Hitomi couldn’t really despise him for that, given that the Dragon Clan Champion had sent her here to protect the prince. Togashi Mitsu might have thought that referred to Daisetsu, but the coup had made it clear: her champion had meant for her to protect Sotorii. A task she had comprehensively failed. And it wasn’t fair to get angry at Ishikawa just so she wouldn’t have to be angry at herself—for that mistake, and so many others.
Ishikawa was fine. Getting to their target, though, required more than just a guardsman’s knowledge of the palace. It required someone who knew how to exploit every weakness in the defenses, every person who could be bribed, every routine that left a gap.
It required Bayushi Kachiko.
Hitomi couldn’t decide whether to admire the woman, spit on her, or both. Nothing of the elegant Imperial Advisor could be found in the woman currently leading her and Ishikawa through a concealed corridor of the Forbidden City. Her kimono was the simple cotton of the servants who usually frequented these routes, her hair bound up under the sort of kerchief a washer-woman might wear. Her skin was pocked with a few old scars, her face thinner, her eyes shadowed with exhaustion that was only partly false. Not a notably ugly woman, just…unremarkable. And the last thing anyone expected Kachiko to be was unremarkable.
To disguise oneself like that was despicable. To serve the Empire without concern for one’s self was laudable. The question of how to weigh those two things against one another was something Hitomi could wrestle with later. For now, she accepted, with gritted teeth, that doing what needed to be done meant working not only with Ishikawa but with Kachiko—and dressing in borrowed armor and sneaking through servants’ corridors like a damned shinobi while she was at it.
This was the only way to make up for one of her many mistakes.
I should have killed Shoju when I had the chance.
The ashigaru had just finished strapping Hitomi into her armor when Bayushi Yojiro entered.
“Make it quick,” she snapped, before remembering Yojiro was the Scorpion Clan Champion now. But there was little time for niceties when what remained of the Army of the Rising Wave was preparing for battle.
He didn’t comment on her rudeness. “Mirumoto-san. I apologize for the interruption, but there is someone you need to speak with before you go. Privately.”
She waved the ashigaru out and waited while Yojiro brought two hooded figures in. Hitomi assumed they were Scorpion spies, bearing some useful intelligence. And maybe the taller one was; she recognized him from Otosan Uchi. Bayushi no Sentaki Yūgiri, one of Kachiko’s creatures.
But the shorter one was Shoju’s son.
They’d lost him in the chaos, when Shoju’s forces drove the Dragon from their guest house. The last thing she’d expected was to see him again. Had Shoju sent Dairu to bargain? Did he think her heart would falter a second time at the sight of the boy?
Dairu sank to his knees in front of her. “Mirumoto Hitomi-sama. I have come to beg you to stop my father.”
The passage they were following was narrow and walled with solid wooden panels, not the beautifully painted screens of the public areas. Fighting in here would be difficult, if someone found their little group. Hitomi had braced for Shadowlands monstrosities. But so far, nothing.
Kachiko stopped at a point that looked no different from any other and pressed her ear to the wood. Then her hands did something Hitomi could not see, and the wall opened onto the room beyond. How many such hidden portals were there in the palace? How many secrets did the Scorpion hold? Too many—but these secrets were what had permitted them to slip through nearly unnoticed, while the battle raged in the city outside.
It felt too easy. And even as Hitomi thought that, Kachiko murmured, “I don’t trust this.”
“If you know about these,” Ishikawa said in a low voice, “then surely the usurper does as well.”
Kachiko nodded. “He could have guarded them. That he hasn’t done so…means he wants us to get in. It somehow suits his plan.”
They’d worried about all manner of complications: Shoju setting fire to the palace, Shoju summoning oni, Shoju slaughtering people by the hundreds in some dark ritual to keep his attackers out. The whole point of their stealthy trio was to slip in without him noticing and making such extreme moves.
Instead, they’d played into his hands.
“Perhaps he’s left the palace. Or even the city.” Ishikawa scowled. “Fleeing like a coward. Or going to join up with the Shadowlands forces.”
“Or,” Kachiko said, “he’s still here, and he’s lying in wait.”
Hitomi was tired of trying to follow the twists and turns of Scorpion logic. There was an old story about a Togashi monk who spent three years contemplating an intricately knotted rope, trying to figure out how to loose it. Then one day a Mirumoto bushi passed by and, hearing the monk’s tale, simply drew his wakizashi and cut the knot apart.
Trickery and plotting had gotten the Empire into this disaster. Maybe what it needed was a clean swing of the sword to get out.
“He can plan all he wants,” she said, touching the blades at her side. “We’ll see how that fares against steel.”
Kachiko’s gaze followed Hitomi’s hand and her jaw tightened, but she said nothing.
“Yūgiri-san helped me escape,” Dairu said. “And he helped me take this.” From beneath his cloak he produced a sheathed, straight-bladed sword.
It looked ancient, and sinister. The wood of its sheath was a red so dark it almost touched black; the cords that wrapped it were brighter, the red of fresh blood, interlaced with bronze. Hitomi stared at it, not understanding, until Yojiro spoke quietly. “This is Itsuwari. The ancestral sword of the Scorpion Clan. By tradition, it is supposed to strike down the Champion if he ever betrays the Empire.”
Dairu presented the sword in both hands, bowing until his face touched the ground. “Mirumoto-sama. I humbly request that you take this sword…and use it to kill my father.”
They found Shoju’s trap outside the throne room.
Ishikawa risked a swift glance around the imposing pillar that concealed their group. His curse went no farther than their ears, but was impressive for its foulness. “Shosuro Ibuki,” he breathed. “And two others I don’t recognize.”
When he described them, Kachiko looked like she wanted to echo Ishikawa’s curse. “Yogo Itoju and Soshi Angai. Wardmaster and illusionist,” she murmured. “And Ibuki is better with a sword than she lets on.”
“Then we will have to be quick,” Hitomi said grimly, reaching for her blades. Not mine, she reminded herself. The wakizashi, yes—but she was only a temporary bearer for Itsuwari. The hand of justice, striking down the traitor. Too late to help Sotorii . . . but late was better than giving up.
Kachiko’s eyes narrowed, and she put one hand out to stop Hitomi from drawing. Did she not have the stomach for blood? If she thought she could protect her clanmates from the fate they’d earned—
“I have an idea,” Kachiko said. Her gaze swept first over Ishikawa, then over Hitomi in her plain, borrowed armor. “But…it requires you to trust me.”
Hitomi almost laughed in her face. Trust Kachiko? She might not be the blasphemous traitor Shoju was, but she was a quintessential Scorpion. Hitomi wouldn’t put it past her to have lured them both here for—
For what? Their deaths? She could have accomplished that easily, half a dozen times before now.
Through gritted teeth, Ishikawa asked, “What do you need?”
“Itsuwari,” Kachiko said, holding Hitomi’s gaze. “And your willingness to bend your neck, Ishikawa.”
She got the latter before the former, but in the end, they went with Kachiko’s plan. A moment later, she strode around the pillar toward her three clanmates, brandishing Itsuwari high. “I am Bayushi Kachiko, and I have regained our stolen ancestral sword! Along with a prisoner my husband will want to see.”
Ishikawa stumbled in her wake with his hands behind his back, Hitomi shoving him along and trying to keep his greater height between her and the three Scorpion guards. The edge of her conical helmet partially obscured her face, but she couldn’t duck her chin too far without looking suspicious. Besides, staying behind him helped conceal the fact that she held Ishikawa’s katana, ready for him to seize it if the ploy failed.
The swordswoman—Shosuro Ibuki, Hitomi presumed—was questioning Kachiko and getting an imperious flood of lies in return, something about Kachiko infiltrating the enemy at Shoju’s orders so as to inform him on their movements. The wardmaster was eyeing Ishikawa with suspicion and craning his neck to see past the man to where Hitomi stood.
If the ploy fails? That was optimistic. And while attacking mid-conversation was contemptible…it was also better than letting the enemy strike first.
For the Empire.
Hitomi shoved Ishikawa’s blade into his hands and snatched out her wakizashi. “Kachiko!”
Kachiko’s empty hand suddenly held a knife, flashing across the illusionist’s throat as she lunged forward. Ishikawa jabbed the sheathed end of his katana into Ibuki’s eye, buying himself time to draw. Hitomi, armed with only her wakizashi, grimly set her feet to launch herself at the wardmaster—
Only to catch Itsuwari instead, as Kachiko threw it at her. “Go!” Kachiko shouted.
And Hitomi went. Through the doors of the throne room, kicking them shut behind her—leaving Kachiko and Ishikawa to fight for their lives, and maybe to die, but they’d all known that might be the price when they came into the city. Hitomi herself might be about to die this instant, because someone had just dropped the bar across the doors, sealing her into the throne room, and sealing her allies out.
From his arrogant seat on the throne, Bayushi Shoju said, “I’ll admit, I didn’t expect you.”
“I’m not even a Scorpion.”
Dairu was still kneeling, his arms trembling as he held the sword out. Yojiro said, “Clearly not. But you are a skilled enough swordswoman to defeat the usurper.”
Hitomi bit down on the urge to ask if he’d lost his wits. “Doesn’t the Scorpion Clan have any skilled bushi? Ones not loyal to that blasphemer?”
A choked sound came from Dairu. When he lifted his face, she saw the bright trail of a tear down one cheek. “For what he’s done, my father should be strung up in the Traitor’s Grove. But—” Dairu was fighting to hold his composure, and slowly, inevitably, he was losing. “Mirumoto-sama…I love my father. Despite everything he’s done, I love him. I don’t want his soul denied rebirth, tortured for eternity in a tree. Any Scorpion who could defeat him would try to drag him to the Grove. Please. He has to be stopped, and you are the only person who can kill him—the only person who will. Please!”
Dairu bowed once more, hiding his face, but Hitomi could see his shoulders trembling with suppressed sobs. When she looked at Yojiro, he nodded.
She knelt, bowed, and took the sword.
Hitomi’s gaze raked the throne room. All she saw was Shoju on the throne and one elderly courtier, the one who’d dropped the bar across the doors. Knowing the Scorpion, he was probably an assassin—but he backed away and knelt beside the wall. And Shoju laughed.
“No one will interfere,” the usurper said. “Do you think I need minions to defend me, when I command the might of Jigoku? I know my wife well. While an army keeps Ujiaki busy, of course she slips in with a small group for a targeted strike.” He sighed heavily. The worst thing about that sigh was, it sounded sincere. “If only she and I had been in better accord. Shared the same goals, communicated with one another more clearly. Who knows what the Empire might have become, then?”
“No amount of talking would have persuaded her to your blasphemy,” Hitomi growled, stalking forward. Her heart raced, but her hands were steady. She’d stayed her blades once, for Dairu’s sake… But even the son had turned against the father. “You don’t deserve the love and loyalty of those around you. The Emperor trusted you. You are no scorpion; you are a spider, tangling everyone in your web and poisoning them with your evil.”
Shoju rose to his feet. “Yes,” he said, his voice grating like stone against stone. “The Emperor trusted me—his greatest mistake. I serve another master now.”
He wore a sword at his side, and drew it with theatrical slowness. “I will take great enjoyment in defeating you. And once I have done so, your blood will feed—”
Hitomi didn’t let him finish. She charged, with Sotorii’s name as her war cry.
Shoju met her charge as if he’d expected it. She knew his reputation: a withered arm, made strong by magic, and he’d mastered the sword as if in defiance of that weakness. But how often had he sparred against Sumiko, or anyone else trained in the niten style? Would he be prepared for the whirlwind that was two blades attacking at once?
The answer, damnably, seemed to be yes. Hitomi’s wakizashi slapped his thrust down and to the side while Itsuwari cut at his neck, but he dodged with astonishing speed. She pressed him hard, driving him off the dais and across the floor, yet his single blade had an answer for every move of her two. Was this Jigoku’s hand at work, granting him speed and strength?
She shouldn’t have let thoughts like that distract her. And she shouldn’t have assumed that just because he held only one blade, he couldn’t present two threats.
Powder flew into her eyes, blinding her. A jarring thud knocked her wakizashi from her left hand; then Shoju seized her right in a crushing grip. “This is Itsuwari,” he snarled, so close she felt the spittle that escaped his mask. “No Dragon deserves to bear it.”
Hitomi’s vision cleared just in time for her to block Shoju’s descending arm before his katana could strike. She hooked her foot behind his, trying to trip him and failing; when he broke free of her grip, she clawed at his mask, thrusting her nails at his eyes. Shoju released her, but her fingers caught the mask’s edge and tore it from his face.
She hurled it at him, gaining an opening to leap back and reclaim her fallen wakizashi. “And you don’t deserve that mask,” she spat. “The Scorpion may be dishonorable, but always for the Empire. You have betrayed every principle they hold dear.”
Robbed of its concealment, Shoju’s face gave everything away. Beneath that snarling, diabolical mask…he was just a man. One who had thrown away everything of value: his duty, his integrity, his clan and his kin. All the inner fire that gave strength to the true warrior’s spirit and flesh.
Without that, he was nothing.
Hitomi had her honor, and her wakizashi. She had her fury, and Itsuwari. Two blades, working as one, weaving a net of steel that Shoju could not escape. He retreated again and again, backing toward the dais and the throne he had profaned—
Until Hitomi lunged forward and caught his blade between her two. But not as she had done before, with steel against steel; no, this time she trapped him where the blade met its round guard.
A twist of her wrists wrenched his katana from his hand. It clattered to the floor, and with a scream, she brought Itsuwari down to cleave him in two.
It came to a gentle stop against his collarbone.
“No,” Shoju breathed.
Hearing her thought echoed from his mouth broke Hitomi from her shock at the blade’s betrayal. She looked at Shoju—but she didn’t see triumph in his face.
She saw abject horror.
He made no move to disarm her again, to throw more powder or regain his blade. He just stood, staring at the ancestral sword of the Scorpion, which was supposed to kill any Scorpion Clan Champion who betrayed the Empire.
Like the thunderbolt flash of enlightenment, everything became clear.
How many individuals had set their differences aside to answer the threat Shoju posed? How many clans had buried their conflicts—maybe not forever, because no peace could last for all time—but for long enough to stop the Empire from tearing itself apart?
Hitomi whispered, “You—”
Shoju met her gaze, eyes wide with desperation. And an unspoken plea. “I am the Empire’s villain.”
Two swords fall from Heaven. Where one refused, the other would succeed.
With a single strike of her wakizashi, Hitomi cut Shoju down.
The old courtier had slumped against the wall. The lined of discolored spittle from his lips spoke of poison. Someone was pounding on the doors, shouting; Hitomi couldn’t identify the voice through the pounding of her own heart, thudding like a war drum in her ears. Whoever was outside might be an ally, and she would live; or they might be an enemy, and she would die.
No. She couldn’t resign herself to that, not yet. Protect the prince, her Clan Champion had said—and although she had lost Sotorii, he was still out there somewhere.
She hoped. Until she knew, she could not accept death. But before she took up that duty again, there was one last thing to do.
Hitomi sheathed Itsuwari, then crossed the floor to where Shoju’s mask had fallen. She picked it up, returned to his body, and settled the mask once more over his face.
Then she went to the doors and let her fate in.