Heroes of Legend: Chapter Two
|Heroes of Legend: Chapter Two|
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|Next||The Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow: Chapter Two|
|Source||Heroes of Legend: Chapter Two|
By Tyler Parrott
15th Day of the Month of Hida, 1123, somewhere alongside the Drowned Merchant River
Falling snow blanketed the road east toward Toshi Ranbo, obscuring the path that lay before Ikoma Tsanuri and leaving her directionless and uncertain. Somewhere across the river, to the north, a hostile Unicorn Clan army was also weathering the heavy drifts. Somewhere ahead of her, to the east, Champion Matsu Tsuko’s army was preparing for a siege of Toshi Ranbo. And behind her, the respected Commander Kyōsuke had lost a critical village to the Unicorn and was captured in the process. Her agent had failed to rescue the commander, but it was her army that had failed to reclaim the village before the river froze over and the trees lost all vestiges of life.
The Battle of Four Roads had been closely fought, and Tsanuri and her soldiers were tired and hungry. Their supplies had long run dry, with no indication from her superiors that more food and equipment could be spared. She relied now on the villages they captured to sustain her troops. Even the Castle of the Swift Sword could not feed her army through the winter, forcing them to live off the snow-shrouded plains. It was unsustainable. Tsanuri could only hope that her champion would have good news for her.
But Tsanuri had many reasons to doubt that she would see her troops fed and rested. The scrolls she carried had barely left her side—or her thoughts—since the rōnin had first delivered them to her. At first glance, she had found them to be little more than the routine records of the late Commander Kyōsuke’s campaign: quartermasters’ reports, missives to and from nearby regional lords, orders that had been relayed to him from the family daimyō through the clan’s chief ambassador, and the like. Tsanuri kept similar records herself. But Kyōsuke’s army had not suffered the same supply shortages that hers had—and Ambassador Ikoma Ujiaki’s messages openly acknowledged it.
“Believe what people say, Little Viper, but remain vigilant. The hypocrisy of the deceitful will reveal them, and you will know who can be trusted.” It was a lesson that she had taken to heart, not only because it had come from her father. Why would the clan’s leadership supply the army at Yōjin no Shiro and the army besieging Kyūden Kakita throughout both of their months-long campaigns, yet allow Tsanuri’s soldiers to scavenge for supplies at every turn? If Ujiaki knew of her shortages, did their family daimyō, Anakazu, also know? Had he agreed to it?
“General!” It was Matsu Beiona, one of Tsanuri’s more dangerous lieutenants. The rumble of her approaching horse’s hooves was muffled in the drift of fresh snow that covered the road. “Enemy scouts along the riverbank. Dosei believes they may have already spotted us.”
The frozen surface of the Drowned Merchant River paralleled the road. In the fog and snow, Tsanuri could barely make out the shapes of horses and their riders. They stood still, seemingly watching over the Lion retinue.
“Then we pick up the pace and hope they did not,” Tsanuri responded.
Beiona scowled. “You will not send a warrior to silence them? They will surely set an ambush for our return or attack the troops while we are meeting with the champion.”
“They cannot while the snow continues. And neither can we overextend our own limited forces.”
Beiona kicked her horse forward until they rode side by side. Her face, still painted white for war, showed concern. “You cannot expect them to simply leave us be. I can do it, general. You would not have to risk any of the other lieutenants. Say the word and I will strike them down before they can return to their champion.”
“I will not.”
This was not the decision of a good commander, and she knew it. Any tactical information gained by their enemy could be put to use against them, and their position on the road was vulnerable. Akodo’s Leadership warned that commanders should hide weakness and project strength in warfare. Were she trying to defeat the enemy army, Tsanuri would send Beiona to bring down the enemy scouts without hesitation.
But the sack of Onon Mura lingered in her mind. She still sometimes dreamed about the corpse-fires of peasants who had resisted her capture of their village—peasants whose slaughter she had ordered, when it became necessary. Those peasants could no longer serve the Unicorn now, it was true, but this was not their conflict. Had her army been properly supplied, perhaps it would not have been necessary.
After months of fighting with the Unicorn over scraps of storehouses, Tsanuri could no longer imagine the glory of victory. Dreams of a decisive win had given way to memories of dying friends and hungry nights.
“You are not wrong to be wary of the enemy scouts, lieutenant,” Tsanuri said, “but we are no threat to them, and with the snowfall they are no threat to us. I will not allow you to instigate a retaliation with a preemptive attack.”
“You are putting too much trust in the enemy showing us mercy. If they attack while we are separated from our army, those deaths will be on your head.”
“They already are!” It came out harsher than Tsanuri intended, and louder. For a moment, the entire retinue paused at her outburst. “Thank you for your vigilance, lieutenant. But no one will engage the enemy at this time.”
Beiona pulled the reins of her horse and rode to the back of the retinue with a scowl. Tsanuri wiped her nose at the cold and realized her face was flushed. With a wave, she signaled that they pick up the pace, and her lieutenants followed.
Across the river, the Unicorn scouts—who had been standing still and watchful throughout—turned their horses and rode into the snowfall.
By the time Tsanuri and her lieutenants arrived at Matsu Tsuko’s war camp, the sun had fallen to the horizon and exhaustion had settled upon them. The sight of makeshift palisades and Lion banners elicited a halfhearted cheer from some of her samurai, but the best Tsanuri could manage was a thin smile.
Ashigaru in cotton garb emerged from around their campfires, hurrying to retain what warmth they could as they took the reins from Tsanuri’s followers. When one reached for Tsanuri’s horse, the commander pulled the reins away. “I must see the champion at once. Where is she?”
“In the big tent with the Lady Kakita, most likely,” the ashigaru, a middle-aged woman still dressed in her armor, replied with a gesture toward the center of the camp.
“Lady Kakita?” Tsanuri looked to the tent in question, as if it would somehow provide an answer to her confusion. “Very well then, stable my horse while I speak with Matsu-ue.”
“Yes ma’am.” The ashigaru took the horse as Tsanuri dismounted. She hurried toward the command tent, her mind racing with yet more unanswered questions. Tsanuri couldn’t think of anyone who would fit the description of Lady Kakita from nearby Toshi Ranbo. Perhaps the wife of the Kakita daimyō had left his castle before its destruction, or the diplomat who had been staying in Matsu Seishin’s court had been given leave to depart. But when the Crane Champion was stationed in the city, why would either of them be negotiating with Tsuko on her behalf?
After one of the door guards reported Tsanuri’s arrival, the young general was admitted. The biting cold that had been clawing its way through her clothes and boots yielded to a still heat from the central hearth. Matsu Tsuko stood near it, a table haphazardly covered in papers and small figurines beside her. Across from her, a tall, austere lady dressed in a fine blue-silver winter kimono sat before a calligraphy set and pondered an incomplete composition.
“You have traveled through quite a harsh storm to meet with me, General Ikoma,” Tsuko said in greeting. The Crane woman also acknowledged the young commander but said nothing. Tsanuri bowed.
“It is of the utmost importance,” Tsanuri replied. She looked nervously at the Kakita. “I apologize for interrupting. I did not know you had company.”
“The Lady Kakita Barahime has been my guest since our escape from her late castle, and she shall continue to remain so until I have resolved my grievance with the Crane Champion over the death of my betrothed, if that can still be managed.”
“Is that not why you have come to Toshi Ranbo?” Tsanuri asked.
“It was,” Tsuko admitted. Her voice was low, almost hesitant—wholly unlike the fervor that Tsanuri had come to know from the older woman. “But the Crane—along with the forces of the Scorpion and Phoenix—are preparing to march their armies south, and I do not think it wise to delay them.”
Tsanuri’s confusion must have been clear on her face, as Barahime explained, “Lord Bayushi Shoju has violently seized control of the Forbidden City with an army of Imperial Legionnaires and loyal Scorpions. He now reportedly sits upon the Emerald Throne, having murdered the Emperor and declared himself in league with the Shadowlands.”
Tsanuri was without words. The news of the Emperor’s death had been sad, but to think now that it was a direct assault upon Heaven, and by the forces of Fu Leng himself…
“But there is more,” Tsuko said. “Shoju’s armies—including the Imperial Legions—are being led by Ambassador Ujiaki.”
She is quite capable of feeding her own soldiers, one way or another. Ujiaki’s words had been meant only for Commander Kyōsuke, but Tsanuri doubted that she would ever forget them. He had allowed her soldiers to starve, if not actively engineered it. And now he had betrayed the Empire and sided with the Shadowlands by allying with an evil usurper. How could this be? And yet…
“I…will admit that I have my own reasons to mistrust the ambassador,” Tsanuri admitted. “It was one of the reasons I have come to meet with you. However, what I have brought is perhaps best shared with you alone.”
Kakita Barahime smiled gently from where she sat by the hearth. “I do not wish to intrude upon the tribulations of your clan. Allow me to step outside while you deliver your report.”
At that moment, Tsanuri’s stomach growled loudly, and her face flushed. Barahime stood, adding, “I think it would be best if I got you a meal, as well.”
“Thank you, Lady Kakita,” Tsanuri offered Barahime a perfunctory bow as the noblewoman put away her composition and made her way to the tent flap, where two guards escorted her out.
“I will admit, I am surprised to see her here, where your most confidential military strategy is devised,” Tsanuri said once Barahime was gone. Tsuko shook her head.
“You are not the only one. Were she not as skilled with a blade as she is with a brush, perhaps it would be safe to let her wait out the snow with Lord Isebō at Yōjin no Shiro. But I promised to keep her under my protection, and she has more than proven herself as a traveling companion. And for as long I must delay resolving our grievance with Kakita Yoshi and forestall vengeance against Doji Hotaru…” A cloud fell over Tsuko’s face, and she looked down to the hearth. “I wish Arasou were here. He always knew what needed to be done.”
After an uncomfortable pause, Tsanuri offered, “You are as capable a warrior as he was. I have no doubt that you can lead us out of this schism and restore the Lion Clan’s good name.”
For the first time, Tsanuri saw pain in her champion’s eyes. Pain and grief, the suffering of a woman to whom closure had been denied too many times. Though her kimono bore intricate patterns of woven golden flowers, the firelight washed them into a single plain amber. She looked, in that moment, less like the champion of a Great Clan and more like a woman huddling by the fire in a cold darkness, lost and alone.
Tsanuri produced the scroll case she had brought with her and offered it to Tsuko. She had a report to deliver, and there were details Tsuko needed to hear. “My lord, I have come to you with updates from the Unicorn warfront. Most recently, we failed to recapture Four Roads Village after Commander Kyōsuke was overrun. While I was unable to rescue the commander, I was able to recover his records so that they stayed out of the hands of the enemy. Some of them have given me cause for concern, and I wish to share them with you.”
Matsu Tsuko took the scroll case and opened it, laying them out among the papers that already covered the nearby table. As she scanned the scrolls’ contents, Tsanuri explained the problems she had been facing: the loss of Commander Kyōsuke at Four Roads Village, their precarious hold on certain captured Unicorn villages, her soldiers’ lack of supplies, and the cost of that supply shortage upon her army’s ability to succeed. Tsuko’s brow furrowed as she listened to Tsanuri’s report.
“The orders and messages sent to Commander Kyōsuke by Ambassador Ujiaki are of special concern to me, as he clearly knew that my troops suffered from a lack of supplies—yet nothing was ever done to secure our supply lines. All I heard from him, and from Ikoma Anakazu, was that we were to press the offensive and rely on the land. It sounds now like you and your forces were fully supplied. If that is true, then why was nothing sent to us?”
While she was still poring over the scrolls, a scowl unconsciously began to turn the corners of Tsuko’s mouth. “Are you accusing Ambassador Ujiaki of betraying the Lion and attempting to get you and your soldiers killed? Accusing Lord Anakazu—your own father—”
“We don’t think of each other like that.” Anymore. “General and lord. Nothing more.” The mention of her father brought up fond memories that only hurt more for his absence. He had been someone who always shared her excitement, from finding a quail in the grass when she was a child to her rapid advancement within the Akodo War College. But she did not want to think of him now, certainly not while she and Tsuko attempted to resolve the crisis that hung over their clan. The loss of him was still too raw.
“I make no accusations, Matsu-ue,” Tsanuri responded shakily. “I merely wish to understand why the leadership of the clan seemed to be abandoning me…again.”
“I knew nothing of the supply shortages you describe,” Tsuko answered. “Had I known, I would have ordered a redistribution of the clan’s resources to better support your campaign. When we assaulted Kakita Palace, my army fought at full strength, with the element of surprise. It is why we were successful.”
It felt like the answer she had been expecting since she read Kyōsuke’s records. But Tsanuri didn’t feel any more at ease for it. “Given that Ujiaki has manipulated events to drive my armies toward further aggression toward the Unicorn, I cannot believe that this campaign is fully justified. I…my soldiers and I will fight as long as we have to, but their lives should not be wasted fighting a war that advances his ends, whatever they may be. It would be a debasement of not only my troops, but also what the Lion Clan stands for.”
Tsuko turned her gaze on Tsanuri, her eyes now burning with renewed wrath. “What you say is bold, general. But it is also correct. Whatever his faults, Toturi would not renounce his titles for a lie. That means that our soldiers, and those of the Imperial Legion, now stand behind a usurper. What you have shared with me only furthers that belief.” The champion stepped back from the table, Ujiaki’s message to Kyōsuke still in her hand. “We cannot allow Ujiaki to destroy what our ancestors have worked so hard to build with this clan.”
Tsuko began to pace. “Recall your soldiers from the Unicorn front and ready them to march on the capital. I will do the same. The forces of the Lion must march unified behind one Champion, even if that means Arasou’s justice will have to wait.”
“And as for the Unicorn?”
“Let them reclaim their own lands while the snow constricts them. Once we stand again with a clear honor and purpose, perhaps we can settle the Shinjo’s insult for good and move past such bloodshed as you have been forced to endure.”
The memory of the Unicorn scout lurked in the back of Tsanuri’s mind. If we leave this territory to the Unicorn, our lands will surely be overrun while we defeat Ujiaki. I should have ordered Beiona to strike them down before they could report our position.
But the certainty that Tsanuri had felt then was still present in her mind. Each time they struck at Altansarnai’s forces, the Unicorn retaliated. If Tsuko and Tsanuri were to defeat Ujiaki and unify the clan, as they both wished, they could not do it with Shinjo Altansarnai still poised to attack. “With respect, Matsu-ue, I do not think they will regroup in their own lands. If we leave Shinjo Altansarnai an undefended border, she will take it as an opportunity to invade. That is how they do war.”
“What would you do to secure that border?” Tsuko asked.
“If we negotiate with them, their champion will listen,” Tsanuri replied. She feared Tsuko would be loath to ally with their enemies, but Ikoma lands lay close to Unicorn territories, and Tsanuri knew much of the Unicorn champion’s reputation. “They are only in this fight because we have continued to engage them in combat and make demands that they did not agree to. I believe that if we allied with them, Shinjo Altansarnai would not only retreat from the border, but perhaps even join us in the fight against Ujiaki.”
“That is a bold presumption.”
“I know. But I believe Ambassador Ujiaki is behind much of this conflict. If we present this to the Unicorn champion, she will listen.”
As she stalked to the door of the tent, her hand still gripping Ujiaki’s scroll, Tsuko fell silent. Lost in thought, she wandered to the hearth and looked down into the coals. This time, the light that fell upon her kimono turned her flowing brown hair into a golden shawl about her shoulders.
Tsanuri spoke again. “This conflict has seen too many samurai on both sides dead. If we give them the opportunity, the Unicorn will do the right thing.”
Matsu Tsuko considered the coals for a moment longer, then looked to Tsanuri. Gone now was the doubt and pain that had plagued her before, replaced with a resolute fury. “Very well. I wish to see our clan made whole once again, and if that means we must negotiate with our enemies, then that is what we will do. Tomorrow, we prepare. We will put your theory to the test, or we will fight.”