The Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow: Epilogue
Presenting the Final Part of the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow Storyline
Greetings, Legend of the Five Rings readers, and welcome to Week 10 of the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow event!
The Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow has ended, and Akuma no Oni has been defeated. Your voices have been heard, and the champions defending Rokugan from the threat of the Shadowlands hordes can rest and relax, if only briefly. Read on to see the conclusion to the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow storyline.
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 single elimination tournament associated with it here.
By Robert Denton III with Marie Brennan and Katrina Ostrander
14th Day of Togashi, Cherry Blossom Snow Lake
Hida Sukune forgot his rapidly cooling ginger tea as the impromptu festival unfolded around him.
The Otter Clan riverboat samurai had broken their casks, and sake flowed. Warriors of the Crane, Crab, Phoenix, Dragon, and Unicorn had all formed a ring around a dramatically gesturing Sparrow Clan storyteller. Now and again, someone interjected a proud boast or a wry remark, and everyone laughed.
From the center of the thick crowd, a patched-up Hida O-Ushi lifted a grinning Shiba Tsukune by the waist into the air. Her red and laughing face bobbed above their heads, and the crowd erupted into cheers and raised sake cups. From this vantage, Sukune could just make out his sister’s bragging: “Don’t be fooled by this one’s size, she’s ready to cut down another Oni Lord!”
Sukune drifted his gaze to a closer, more quiet gathering. Matsu Tsuko, only a touch less sober than before, cradled a small sorghum wine bottle with her slung arm. Nearby, Bayushi Yojiro recalled what had transpired at Otosan Uchi to the others. Sukune had already heard the story, but Matsu Tsuko seemed especially interested in the ending: how Mirumoto Hitomi had crossed swords with the traitor Shoju and cut him down with Itsuwari. A stony look washed over the Matsu’s face, and her raised eyes met with Sukune’s from the other side of the crowd.
She nodded at him. He lifted his cup.
His brother’s voice thundered above the din. “And somehow, you arrived here from there, in the blink of an eye?” Yakamo smirked, eyes glittering with drink. “And we’re supposed to believe that, Yojiro-san?”
Tsuko shrugged. “I do.”
Yojiro smiled softly at the Matsu daimyō. “Ah, that’s right. You did manage this yourself, didn’t you?”
“Help from someone I love,” Tsuko replied. She smiled up at the starry sky, raising her bottle with her good arm. “This is for you, Arasou.”
A few confused looks exchanged between those gathered, and then Yojiro raised his cup. “To Akodo Arasou, then.”
Tsuko looked momentarily surprised, then joined them in drink. Sukune smirked inwardly. Yojiro was an odd choice for Scorpion champion. Perhaps he would do better than Shoju had.
Sukune glanced up. The Son of Storms, grinning in spite of his braced leg, gestured toward him from his seat among the others. “Let’s see it, already!”
Very well. He stood and approached. O-Ushi noticed and pointed; soon she and Tsukune were gathered with the others. Among the expectant eyes that followed, the peasant Katsuo nervously bit his lip.
Sukune unfurled the sheet and laid it at their feet. He gestured to his brushwork.
Katsuo peered at the paper. “What does it say?”
Sukune pointed to the two characters, one at a time. “Victory. Man. Together, they read: ‘Katsuo.’”
A stunned expression washed over Katsuo’s face. “My name? That’s how it is written?”
“And the rest is an account of your deeds here.” Yakamo slapped him hard between the shoulder blades. “That’s a Twenty-Goblin Winter, if I’m ever asked. How about it, Katsuo? We could use another hero on the Carpenter Wall.”
Katsuo looked stunned.
“Bah,” Tsuko shook her head. “And waste his talents? Katsuo, I know a swordmaster who would be willing to teach an adult student. Swear yourself into my service, and I’ll elevate you among the Matsu.”
Yoritomo laughed before Katsuo could speak. “How gracious of the Great Clans to offer new shackles!” He gestured out, as if framing the horizon. “Why not see the entire world? The Mantis can show you things you never knew existed!”
Katsuo looked questioningly to Shiba Tsukune.
She smiled at him. “He is a samurai now. And rōnin forge their own paths.”
“And ‘samurai choose their own lords,’” said Tsuko, quoting Leadership. She nodded. “My offer will stand until you are ready, Katsuo-san. Take what time you need. A warrior pilgrimage, if that’s what it takes.”
Yoritomo raised his glass. “To the man whose name means ‘victory’!”
Katsuo lowered his head as they cheered his name. Tears welled in his eyes. But he was smiling.
And then a shout. A young Kaiu, mop-topped and grinning wide. “You live, Yakamo?”
Yakamo leapt to his feet. “Fusao! You’ve been here all this time?”
The two embraced. Then Yakamo lifted up the shorter man, kissing him before the stunned assembly. “It figures you would show your face only after I’ve been worried sick!”
O-Ushi shot Sukune a glance from the other side of the crowd, incredulously smiling, as if to say: Did you know about this?
Sukune chuckled and raised his cup. “To unexpected reunions.”
The others cheered, drank, and debated what they would drink to next.
Sukune said nothing as his cup was refilled. There was still much to do. Dispatching heralds. Mourning the dead. Rebuilding.
And driving out whatever invading forces lingered here. The full breadth of the Oni Lord’s march still remained to be seen. Then there was the matter of the fallen Yogo Castle. Liberating it from another Shadowlands army would be a great challenge, especially with the Crab so diminished. They would need to rely on the other clans for aid. At least now, Sukune knew they could.
Word of this victory would reach his father at Kyūden Hida. The Great Bear would then decide whether or not to step down. Sukune had tried not to think about it. The notion filled him with dread. But as Hida Kisada had deferred entrusting the ancestral sword Chikara to any of his children, they would soon be faced with a difficult conversation.
But not tonight. Those worries were for tomorrow. Not for now.
Several Moto drummed a beat on traveling drums while a Mirumoto plucked a lute in accompaniment, and a Kaito shine-keeper danced with bells to the joy of those clapping along. For a brief flash, Sukune spotted a laughing Tsuruchi leading an eager Fox Clan shugenja by the hand; they vanished into the crowd. Samurai swapped stories beneath the jovial throng, and Sukune could not help but notice the varying heraldry on their backs. Above them wove the banners of the clans, both great and minor, mingled together.
They were so different. Some of those differences, their conflicting values and ways, were irreconcilable, chasms that not even time could close. It had sometimes felt as though they were destined to fracture, to shatter. Tomorrow, they would be enemies.
But tonight, they were family.
For the first time in his life, Sukune finally understood how Rokugan became an Empire. History made it seem like an accident, or destiny. But it was neither of those things. It was because the Great Families, when united, could not be defeated. When they fought each other, they could tear the Empire apart. But when they worked together, recognizing each other’s right to exist, their strengths combined and all else set aside?
They were unstoppable. The greatest force in the entire world.
He took it all in, etching it deep into his own heart. If darker days still lay ahead, then he wanted to be able to recall this moment, when the clans set all else aside and drank together.
Away from the party, Shiba Tsukune looked again to the south. She winced at the pain of breathing in too deeply, gingerly feeling the bandages over her cracked ribs. It should have been worse than this, by all rights. But something had protected her. Someone.
“Can’t talk you out of it?”
She shook her head at Hida O-Ushi. “I know they’re still out there. I just do.”
She expected her friend to protest, but it seemed O-Ushi understood. “I’ll put a scouting party together. They’ll be ready by tomorrow.” She held up a preemptive hand. “Don’t bother protesting, either. You might be an oni-slayer now, but I can still toss you into the lake whenever I want, so stay on my good side.”
I like her, Tsukune thought. “Thank you, O-Ushi.”
The tall warrior nodded. “When you come back, we’re going to that sumai event in Jukami. Don’t even try to get out of it!”
Asako Maezawa frowned as O-Ushi returned to the party. He drew long on his pipe speaking only when they were alone.
“Tadaka is gone.” No emotion.
Tsukune felt her smile fade. “Perhaps.”
“Then you admit, this is a fool’s errand. You would risk Ofushikai, and perhaps more, for—”
She met his gaze. He paused in the flash of purple glowing in her spirit-touched eye.
He meant well. This was his expertise. How many had he personally lost to the Shadowlands’ call? But what he asked of her, she could not accept.
“Shiba could not abandon Isawa,” she whispered. “And I cannot either.”
Maezawa rubbed his bald forehead. “I will grant you this much: there is a chance we may discover the fate of the Master of Water’s niece. Perhaps you owe Tsuki that much, having sent her to her doom.”
Those words were a guilty dagger in her gut. Maezawa always knew how to make her feel only inches tall. And it was true. If there was a chance her friend Asako Tsuki still lived…
The old man grunted. Hard lines dug into his weathered face. “But that is not why you are doing this, is it? Make no mistake, if the Master of Earth stirs, then he is not Tadaka. Not anymore. You and I, we did what we could. His own master tried to reason with him. He has played his part. Whatever befell him…”
His voice wavered, then softened. His tone was that of someone who knew quite well what he was talking about, and someone who wished so sorely that he did not.
“Trust me, child. You do not want to know. You do not want to see whatever has become of him. You must let him go.” He grimaced. “Or he will pull you into the dark with him.”
She closed her eyes as he walked away.
It was disgraceful for a yōjimbō to stand aside while their charge was in danger. But she was not his yōjimbō anymore. And a gulf had formed between them, hadn’t it?
So why did she feel like she was torn in two?
No. She couldn’t abandon either of them. Not while there was still a chance for them. There was no other course of action for her to take. If she did anything else, she wouldn’t be Shiba Tsukune. And that was the only person she knew how to be.
Thunder echoed across the plains. From the south. She knew in her heart that the storm was coming for her, whether she waited or rose to meet it.
Later that Month, Somewhere in Dragon Lands
Between one step and the next, Mitsu’s world vanished into an inferno of pain.
Agony past anything he’d ever known ripped through his soul. The power that sparked in his tattoos roared into a blaze, like staring into the sun. Too much power for any human to bear. But he couldn’t close his eyes, couldn’t push it back—couldn’t even feel his body. There was only overwhelming fire…
…and buried within it, images.
Seven new trees, sprung from the roots of the past. The stars swinging full circle. An unhealed wound. A shadow behind a shadow.
Then, as suddenly as it had come, it vanished. Mitsu collapsed to the ground.
Distantly, as if a thunderclap had crushed his hearing, he heard people shouting. Red dotted the snow beneath him: blood from his eyes, from his ears. His entire body throbbed like it had been crushed in a vise. Through blurred eyes, he saw feet running toward him; he tried to rise, but his body, trained through lifetimes to answer his every command, would not obey.
The images remained, though, burned into his mind.
As did the fear.
Atop a far-off mountain, in the High House of Light, the man called Togashi Gaijutsu sighed and passed one hand over his blind eyes. The visions taxed even his divine endurance; for his mortal champions, it was the purest distillation of suffering. And Mitsu lacked the nemuranai armor that should have protected him from the worst of it.
“I am sorry you had to bear that,” he murmured to his distant disciple. “But with the collapse of the wave, Yokuni’s time has ended. And the Empire must be ready for what comes next.”
He rose and slid the door aside, letting in the icy winter air. The cold was nothing next to the weariness in his bones, the weight of a burden carried far too long.
His sightless gaze turned, unerringly, to the south. “Brother. A thousand years ago, our duel began. Perhaps the time has come for it to end at last.”
12th Day of Ryoshun, Otosan Uchi
An unseasonably warm breeze wafted into the Crane guest house and rustled the papers on her writing desk. Doji Shizue scratched behind a furry ear as Fumio snored softly in her lap, oblivious to the chorus of birdsong and the pounding of carpenters’ hammers.
Though she had been writing letters all morning, she couldn’t bring herself to get up from her seat and disturb the slumbering cat just yet. So long as he slept, there was nothing to menace her calligraphy brush, and she wouldn’t have to worry whether her recipient would take offense to a flourish of small inky pawprints across the page.
She had a little longer before needing to prepare for court. Time enough for one more letter. She dipped her brush in the ink and began to write.
Spring is nearly here, and I hope that this letter brings warm days in addition to my warm tidings. I pray that your journey from the Castle of the Fox has been uneventful and swift.
Much has transpired at the capital since I last wrote, and the spirit of its citizens has shifted with word of Akuma no Oni’s defeat. The toll of death and destruction that weighed on the city even after the traitor’s defeat has lifted, giving way to a sense of relief and—dare I say it—hope. Everyone in the capital, from his excellency the Regent Kakita Yoshi to the lowliest tanner, seems to be counting down the days until the dawning of the New Year. The scent of newly arrived tatami mats also brings to mind fresh starts, and our entire household is intent on sweeping clean the evil spirits that have plagued us since Satsume’s unfortunate passing. The promise of a peace brokered between the Lion and Unicorn blossoms alongside the gardens.
Lauded as a hero among her clan, Ikoma Tsanuri has recently departed for Sacred Watch Palace, where she is to be reunited with her parents Ikoma Anakazu and Akari after Matsu Tsuko reversed the couple’s divorce. It is said that in addition to personally meeting with her generals to root out any trace of the corruption begotten by Ikoma Ujiaki’s schemes, Matsu Tsuko is working closely with the Kitsu daimyō to find paths to peace that honor the memory and sacrifice of the Lion Clan’s ancestors.
With the Unicorn heir returned from the Burning Sands and the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow Lake, Shinjo Altansarnai and Iuchi Daiyu have begun preparing to travel home to oversee spring planting and the foaling season. Their three children, Haruko, Yasamura, and Shono will remain here with Ide Tadaji in the capital to work out a new treaty with the Lion, if a lasting agreement of peace can indeed be found. Poor Iuchi Shahai, who was last seen with Prince Daisetsu, is still missing, much to the consternation of the Imperial household.
As you have hopefully heard proclaimed by the Miya Heralds, the Regent is offering a substantial reward to any who can provide the Hantei heirs with safe conduct to the capital. Mirumoto Hitomi has been appointed to lead a contingent of Imperial Legionnaires in this effort. Kitsuki Yaruma and Mirumoto Raitsugu remain in the capital as liaisons for daimyō Mirumoto Masashige until the lost heir to the Dragon Clan, Togashi Mitsu, makes his location known.
Yet it seems Mitsu is not the only errant clan champion. For now, Asako Maezawa serves as the delegate representing the Phoenix Elemental Council members in court while Champion Shiba Tsukune completes some important but secret endeavor. Here in the capital, many hope that endeavor involves Lady Kaede’s imminent return to the capital, as she has not been seen since her husband's renunciation of his family and clan. The absence of the Emerald Throne’s spiritual advisor has been felt often in the recent months and, for my own part, I would like to know that she remains safe.
Finally, Hida Kisada seems to have pulled through and is improving after sustaining grievous injuries, although the Crab Clan itself has not yet recovered from the devastation wrought by Akuma no Oni’s Shadowlands horde. Daimyō Yasuki Taka is sailing with another contingent of the Imperial Legions to begin emergency repairs to the Carpenter Wall, lest another threat rise from the south while a gap exists in the clan’s defenses.
As always, do not hesitate to offer the assistance of the Crane Clan should you find yourself in a position to lend aid to these noble heroes and their vassals.
When next you visit our champion at the Esteemed Palaces of the Crane, do not be surprised to find the former Imperial Advisor also in residence along with her son. (Perhaps this means our champion will get her first taste of parenthood, what with a young samurai joining her household.) Despite her role in liberating the city, many in the capital cast a wary eye over the Lady Kachiko and young Dairu owing to their association with the traitor. The Scorpion Clan Champion knows that this is a delicate time for his clan and that keeping her at a distance will allow him the time and space needed to repair the clan’s reputation. Given the demands of the championship on his time, he has relinquished his position as chief magistrate of Toshi Ranbo, which remains an Imperial holding.
Of course, there is one member of our champion’s household whose absence you will no doubt feel keenly. I know that Doji Kuwanan meant a great deal to you, and we all mourn his loss. His sacrifice to protect the Champion of the Lion Clan may yet be remembered as a balm that allows the wounds felt between the Left and Right hands of the Emperor to begin healing.
Even the Empress Hochiahime has had a breakthrough with her health. After Her Imperial Majesty was evacuated from the city during the traitor’s coup, the healers of the Centipede Clan have been tending to the Empress personally. It seems that Lady Sun indeed smiles upon the priestesses of the Moshi family, and we shall pray that her blessings extend to the rest of her children and her light dispels the shadows hiding the lost Hantei heirs.
Although the Seppun astrologers are not yet prepared to pronounce the omens of the coming year, one thing is certain: Rokugan is changed. On this point—and perhaps on this point only—the Great Clans are agreed. It falls to all of us loyal servants of the Empire to determine whether that change is for the better.
Your loyal and loving cousin,
She summoned her handservant Naoko and pressed the folded paper into her hands. “Please see that this reaches Kakita Asami.”
Naoko bowed and departed silently, closing the screen door behind her.
Fumio’s ear twitched, and one eye opened to peer up at Shizue.
She smiled. “Did you enjoy your nap? You've awoken just in time.”
Senzai stood from the pond. It was a bird that broke her from her reverie. A bird’s call.
It reminded her of a dream she once had. One from long ago. Another lifetime.
Realization washing over Togashi’s face beneath the plum tree.
Shinjo’s laughter over some silly joke they both could no longer remember.
Fog rising from her lips, sitting in the snow with Doji.
Long conversations before the fire with Hantei. Shiba’s joy, his inspiration, shining through his eyes as he recorded their words.
Lord Akodo spitting in her face.
She loved those memories. She loved them all. How nice it was to recall them again.
Senzai laughed. Although it took so many lives, she finally remembered why she’d stayed. The world was so beautiful. How had she ever forgotten?
What role would she play this time?
Whatever it would be, she would see it through without fear. Her destiny, and that of this shining Empire, awaited.
“Let us get started,” she said, as a crow dove from the sky and landed on her shoulder.