Heroes of Legend: Chapter Three

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Heroes of Legend: Chapter Three
Story hline.png
Author Tyler Parrott
Release Date 2021-03-26
Previous The Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow: Chapter Two
Next The Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow: Chapter Three
Source Heroes of Legend: Chapter Three
Cycle/Set Temptations Cycle

Chapter Three

By Tyler Parrott

17th Day of the Month of Hida, 1123, alongside the Drowned Merchant River

As Ikoma Tsanuri approached the enemy war camp, she saw that the peacefulness of the fluttering purple banners was not shared by the samurai who stood below them.

Even after months of brutal fighting between the Lion and the Unicorn, the young general could still remember the names of the soldiers she had lost. But if Matsu Tsuko could convince Shinjo Altansarnai to find common cause with the Lion against the treasonous regent, they could achieve peace, or at least a truce. Respite for herself and her soldiers was so close, she could nearly grasp it.

Yet as Tsuko and her tiny retinue drew near the Unicorn tents, they were vastly outnumbered by the warriors guarding the yurts, let alone the soldiers amassed within. Shinjo, Utaku, and Moto samurai sat astride their horses with their bows strung, while infantry stood with spears held at attention or with scimitars at the ready. Such an array of force might not have been assembled if Shinjo Altansarnai were sympathetic to their requests—or if she hadn’t been alerted to their coming.

Allowing that scout to return to Altansarnai without confrontation had likely given away the position of the Lion armies’ leadership. While it had not resulted in an ambush, as one of Tsanuri’s lieutenants had feared, it had provided the Unicorn with ample time to prepare for their arrival. Perhaps the Unicorn had even prepared a holding chamber for prisoners, as they had at Four Roads Village.

Tsanuri hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

She clenched her fists at her sides. After convincing Tsuko that this diplomacy was necessary, Tsanuri still wanted to believe that Altansarnai would be open to negotiations. Yet she couldn’t hold the Unicorn Champion’s mistrust against her.

After all, were it not for the marriage treaty that had instigated this entire conflict, Tsanuri would still have a father.

Even the daimyō of the Ikoma could hardly agree to marry the Unicorn Clan Champion when he already had a wife and daughter. But neither could he disobey his lord when Champion Akodo Arasou ordered Ikoma Anakazu to forswear his family so that he could fulfill the conditions of the marriage arrangement that had been agreed upon by both champions. She’d kept the painful memories of his departure pushed to the back of her mind, but given the context of the negotiations, it was hard not to think about them now.

The Lion approached the camp, and three Unicorn samurai rode out to meet them. Leading them was Shinjo Haruko, daughter of the champion, wearing a stern but weary expression that Tsanuri hoped was not a prelude to what lay before them. Perhaps Haruko’s exhaustion came from the same place as her own: months of battle without end in sight.

“Matsu Tsuko of the Lion, I have been instructed to escort you and your samurai to my Altansarnai Khan.”

“Then I will follow your lead,” was Tsuko’s only reply. The Unicorn samurai fell into ranks around the Lion retinue as they entered the war camp—it was an armed escort, but so far, no weapon had left its sheath.

As they rode, Tsanuri noticed how close she and Haruko were in age. In fact, had Altansarnai not refused the marriage arrangement at the final hour, Haruko would have become the daughter of Ikoma Anakazu. Like Tsanuri, Haruko was a talented young warrior and an heir to a powerful lord. She had most likely also commanded Unicorn soldiers in the ongoing conflict between their clans, just as Tsanuri had. But to think of her as a replacement for Tsanuri…for a moment, she imagined facing Haruko directly on a battlefield, resolving her jealousy with steel.

We’re not here to fight, Tsanuri reminded herself. She was here to assist Matsu Tsuko in negotiating for peace—or better yet, an alliance to employ against Ujiaki. She tamped down on her anger and focused on keeping her composure. Such emotions would do her no good in the enemy’s court, and she had always prided herself on her level-headedness.

The Unicorn Champion’s command tent was a wide yurt decorated with colorful purple designs on heavy felt that flew the crest of the Unicorn Clan proudly from either side of its entrance. The inside was equally ornate, with beautiful wooden chests and fearsome suits of armor lining the walls; carven posts flowed with sculpted horses. At the center of the tent, smoldering coals drove back the cold.

Staring down at them from a raised seat at the other end of the space was Shinjo Altansarnai, her purple robes fluttering with colorful petals and her greying hair bound tightly behind her head in a warrior’s braid. Beside her stood a proud, bearded man with olive skin, his hands within his sleeves, and a much younger Crane Clan courtier who sat on a pillow—Doji Shizue, if the cane that lay beside her was any indication. The man had to be Iuchi Daiyu, the Unicorn Champion’s paramour, spiritual adviser, and the father of her children. Shinjo Haruko took up her position at her mother’s side and knelt in front of Daiyu.

Matsu Tsuko relinquished her swords to the Unicorn guards as they entered, but Tsanuri was permitted to keep hers as Tsuko’s bodyguard for the negotiations. Based on the half-dozen samurai who followed the Lion inside, however, it was clear that the Unicorn would not permit any harm to come to their champion.

“I will admit, I was surprised to learn that you were here,” Shinjo Altansarnai said as Matsu Tsuko approached and took a seat on the hard ground before the Unicorn Champion. “And even more so when my scouts informed me that you intended diplomacy, Matsu-dono.”

They had not sent word of their intentions ahead, but such a small group of high-ranking individuals openly bound for the Unicorn war camp would have been easily understood.

“I did not at first intend to meet with you, Champion Shinjo,” Tsuko admitted. “But our conflict has been long and bloody these past seasons, and recent news has forced me to reevaluate the needs of my clan. Rokugan faces a dire threat, one which affects even the far-ranging Unicorn.”

“I know of the fires that burn in Otosan Uchi,” Altansarnai replied. “And I also know that the Champion of the Lion now goes where the waves will him.”

Akodo Toturi served well as the Emerald Champion,” Tsuko declared, “but it was his brother who led the Lion. Now I come to you as Arasou’s heir, and as Champion of the Lion.”

“Hmph,” Altansarnai answered. The possibility that Altansarnai might be biased against Tsuko for her close relationship with Arasou was not one Tsanuri wanted to contemplate. “So, what does the Champion of the Lion wish from me this time?”

“If you know of the situation in the capital, then you also know that Ikoma Ujiaki commands the Imperial Legions at the behest of the treasonous Shoju.” Tsuko spat. “The Lion will not abide treason against the throne, and so I intend to rescue our troops serving among the legions from the wicked influence of our former ambassador.

“Last spring, a disagreement regarding a betrothal led to seeds of conflict being sown across our lands. When summer came, those conflicts grew. You proved yourself an honest opponent—I have the greatest respect for your clan and your samurai’s skill in warfare.

“But it is now winter, and we have naught to reap but continued bloodshed while the Emperor’s murderer deigns to sit upon the Emerald Throne. I ask if it is still a season for battle between our clans, now that Ujiaki is an enemy to us both—and Shoju threatens us all.”

At this, Altansarnai tilted her head. Daiyu’s eyes widened in suspicion or surprise. If they sensed weakness in the Lion, would the Unicorn respect it, or exploit it? Tsanuri had been so certain that they would listen, but…

“Have you come to sue for peace, Lady Matsu?” Altansarnai asked.

“I have come to offer a respite only,” Tsuko said. “It is in neither of our clans’ interests to continue fighting while the snow makes such endeavors difficult. And once we have meted out justice to the criminals in Otosan Uchi, perhaps we can find a diplomatic solution to our differences—one that is more acceptable to both our clans than our last attempt. To continue fighting now would only tax our samurai unduly.”

The Unicorn Champion’s face grew hard. “Perhaps your samurai are taxed unduly, yet it seems we remember this autumn quite differently. Was it not your servants who drew blades against us, demanding that we relinquish our holdings lest you take them by force? It will take years, perhaps generations, to repair the devastation wrought by Lion armies upon my land and its people.”

She was not looking at Tsanuri, yet the young commander felt the sweat collect on her brow. The hunger of her troops, the slaughter of the peasants at Onon Mura…the suffering was still too close to her mind. She wished she did not agree with Altansarnai.

“Your people are not the only ones who have suffered devastation,” Tsuko snapped. “Or did you think we had forgotten the raids and depredations of Utaku Kamoko? But if the usurper is not brought down, he will spread yet more ruin. We cannot tolerate the blasphemy he has committed. I am not asking for your forgiveness or your surrender, only for you to unite with the Lion against a treasonous regent and a treacherous ambassador.”

“Do not think I have forgotten the last time a Lion Clan Champion wished to find unity with me and my clan.” Altansarnai loomed like a wolf upon her dais. “And Toturi’s offer was even less compelling than Arasou’s.”

“As much as I loved Arasou, I am not him, nor am I his brother,” Tsuko replied. “I am not here to offer an arrangement concocted by advisers. I come as one champion to another, to beseech you to turn your attention to the Empire we both serve.”

The expressions of Altansarnai’s councilors remained set against Tsuko’s request. Only the gentle Shizue seemed receptive to Tsuko’s proposal.

The sweat now ran down the back of Tsanuri’s neck, and she glanced around at the Unicorn samurai watching from the edges of the tent. None of them seemed ready to fight, but even allowing the Lion to return safely could still result in more bloodshed. If Altansarnai rejected Tsuko’s appeal, the northern lands of the Lion Clan would be wholly unprotected when they marched upon Otosan Uchi. Altansarnai needed to understand, to agree to a reprieve, for the subjects of the Lion to remain safe.

“You may not be Lord Arasou or Toturi, but do not think me blind, Lady Matsu. You call yourself Champion of the Lion, yet what proclamation makes it so? Have you conferred with your daimyō and selected a replacement after Toturi’s departure, or have you simply chosen the position for yourself? Will you use me to dethrone your so-called traitorous ambassador, only to strike at me when our forces are weak, as when you led your generals against Kakita Palace while your champion was unable to stop you? I wonder why you profess such hatred for Ikoma Ujiaki: because he threatens the Empire, or because he threatens your control of your clan? Your word is no better than that of the Ikoma lord who sought to marry me.”

With those words, Altansarnai might as well have just spit in Tsuko's face.

This negotiation had been something Tsanuri had advocated for, something she had convinced Tsuko to attempt. If it failed, and the future of the Lion was ruined because of it, such a catastrophe would be on Tsanuri’s head. She could not let the prospect of a truce slip through her grasp now.

“Lord Anakazu did not seek to deceive you! And neither does Lady Matsu!” Tsanuri found herself shouting before she had even thought to speak at all. Blood rushed to her face as the entire assembly turned to her. What am I doing?

Silence fell across the room.

I should have let Tsuko speak for herself. I have no real authority here.

But the betrayal that she felt from her own clan’s leadership still stung in her heart. She could sit by and allow Altansarnai to impugn Lord Arasou as much as she wanted—and if she took issue with Ujiaki, Tsanuri would happily join in. But such a brazen insult to her father, even to his memory, was beyond what Tsanuri could stand. Not now, not when so much of the suffering this marriage treaty had brought upon them both could be laid at the feet of one manipulative ambassador.

If I’m going to make a scene, I cannot let it be in vain.

She continued. “Lady Matsu’s attack upon Kakita Palace was in fulfillment of the blood feud between their families, and she captured it justly. Even as the enemy demolished the stronghold to drive her forces out of it, she took it upon herself to safeguard the lady of the palace, to whom she had given her vow of protection. I know of no one else who would risk their own life to defend an enemy lord while escaping a castle that was being destroyed around them. Do you?”

“Do you always allow your yōjimbō to interrupt proceedings like this?” Iuchi Daiyu asked wryly.

“Ikoma Tsanuri is one of our most trusted generals, and she has personally advised me on this matter.” When she looked to Tsanuri, Matsu Tsuko’s expression hardened. “She speaks the truth about my escape from the destruction at Kakita Palace.”

Doji Shizue spoke up. “I did not know we had the honor of speaking with the daughter of the Ikoma daimyō.”

“Not anymore,” Tsanuri corrected her. The Ikoma are the face of the Lion, her father had once told her. Indeed, she had seen him and his emissaries speak their minds in foreign courts. It is our duty to ensure that our clan’s achievements are known and its passion unquestioned.

Yet she had never thought of herself as an Ikoma—she was too reserved for the normal stereotype of her father’s family, and she had found the Akodo War College much more comfortable than her father’s court or her mother’s libraries. Yet here she was. And she surprised herself with how much she had to say. “You may have spared my mother’s life, Champion Shinjo, but I lost my father the day he was ordered to marry you. You and your children are not the only ones to have suffered from your arrangement with Lord Ikoma.”

Shizue’s fan, which had been resting comfortably in her lap, shot up to cover her expression. Tsuko’s eyes widened in surprise, and her lips curled in the hint of a smile. Haruko gasped audibly, and Daiyu furrowed his brow. Altansarnai frowned, breaking her stony resolve for the first time.

“My Lady Tsuko comes to you with a request for aid against Ujiaki the Schemer, and she does not ask alone. For too long have I watched my soldiers die to your swords, by his manipulations. What damage he has wrought must be stopped and undone. The command given to Lord Anakazu may have been Arasou’s, but it came with Ujiaki’s seal. If you are unwilling to join us and strike down the traitor, then the mercy and kindness you showed my mother was clearly a lie.”

Once again, silence fell upon the assembly, but this time with less severity. The quiet murmurings of a couple samurai at the edges of the tent hung in the air. Tsanuri met Altansarnai’s gaze. As the two judged each other, the uncertainty that had been plaguing Tsanuri since reading Commander Kyōsuke’s records finally fell away. If the Unicorn Champion refused them now, it was on her head—not Tsanuri’s. Tsanuri had shared the pain she carried and challenged Altansarnai to respect it.

Haruko looked up to her mother with a questioning look, prompting Altansarnai to speak. “I am sorry you have unwillingly paid this cost, Ikoma-sama. When I withdrew from the arrangement to marry your father, I wished to see your mother's life spared. She helped me see that the treaty would benefit neither of our peoples. I never sought war between us, but I could not ignore the violence that greeted my decision.

“Perhaps the justice that arrangement lacked can be found now, without further bloodshed between us. If Lady Matsu is true to her word,” Altansarnai gave Tsuko a meaningful look, “and wishes only to find a new path forward for our clans, then I will stand down my troops so that we may find a less bloody resolution of this conflict.

“And if what you say is true—that Ujiaki has betrayed both our clans by devising the strife that has unfolded between us—then I would be glad to aid in his defeat. Let us strike down the usurper and then discuss what each of us can offer the other in restitution for the damage that we have inflicted. Ikoma-sama, at least, deserves to be returned to her family and station.”

Matsu Tsuko lowered her head in agreement. “You will find your trust is not misplaced. I will share what strategies we have devised to march on Otosan Uchi, in case they can be improved with your forces. And when it is over,” Tsuko glanced up at Tsanuri, “we can see about restoring what this past year has taken from each of us.”

Tsanuri bowed low to both champions. Before raising her head and returning to her seat, the young general swallowed the tears that threatened to emerge. Despite Altansarnai’s mistrust, she would join the Lion in their attack against Ujiaki and Shoju. It would keep Tsanuri’s soldiers safe from an ambush, and it would strengthen their assault upon the capital.

And, perhaps, when it was all over, she could have a father once again.