Homecoming

“Toma, my friend!”
Tomaru, formerly sensei and clan champion for the Akechi clan looked up from his meal in a cheap tavern in a crossroads town. He was a man of average height, but with a warrior’s trim and muscular build. Despite his entry into middle age, he still moved with exceptional grace. His clothes were worn and poor quality, and did nothing to set him aside from the others in the room. Only the katana he had left inside the door, sheathed in a gleaming black and silver scabbard, set this cold-eyed man apart.
The speaker was another warrior, with about the same age and build, but obviously better fed and perhaps beginning to let it show. But his garb made him stand out from anyone within miles. He wore the two swords of the samurai, a light helmet and partial armor suited to traveling instead of the great armor preferred for combat. All of his gear was decorated in his clan colors of red and silver and bore their symbol of a rose flower design. He bowed deeply to Tomaru and reached up to undo his face mask and helmet and tuck them under his arm, then slid his sheathed blades from his belt and leaned them against the wall beside the lone katana marking the former sensei as a ronin.
Without his helmet and facemask, the newcomer was a cheerful bearded man, with gray shot through his hair. Tomaru blinked for a moment, and then recognized his old friend, Kazami. Tomaru’s initial smile of happiness faded quickly as he thought of the possible reasons why a former comrade in arms had sought him out.
“Kaza,” began Tomaru as his former friend seated himself on the dusty, threadbare cushions at the cheap bamboo table “what are you doing here?” The tavern owner bustled up and bowed in great haste and set a bottle of saki and a cup before Kazami. Neither man noticed him. The rest of the room was still.
“After all these years, that is your first question?” laughed Kazami. “No, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at that. Hanada sends her hopes for Heaven’s continued blessings on you and that you will return with me to see our fine children. But that is what I am doing here; I want you to come home with me.”
Tomaru drew back from the table. “I no longer have a home. And I doubt Lord Chishou or his lady wife would be happy to see me. Unless you plan to bring them just my head in a wicker basket.”
Kazami sighed deeply. “Tomaru, you didn’t have to leave. I understand why you did it, but that is in the past and no longer matters. Nor would Lord and Lady Akechi’s thoughts be important. They are both dead, killed in the last month by assassins.”
Tomaru stared at his former friend. His eyes were still, but flames seemed to dance in their depths. “Who rules the clan?” he gasped.
“Chishou’s son, Seijun, under a council of regents.”
“Seijun? But he’s just a boy, he’s just…” Tomaru’s voice trailed off as he remembered the last time he had seen the new clan lord, shortly before killing his older brother in a duel, and thought about the years since then that he had spent wandering the roads alone.
“He is fourteen, ready to begin advanced sword training and continue the schooling that would have made him clan lord later in his life. Now that training is even more important and that is why you must come home with me.”
“Come home Kaza? What are you talking about?”
“Tomaru, you are not a fool. You know exactly what I am talking about. It is time for you to set aside your guilt and return to the service of your clan. The regency council has sent me to find you; you are needed as Seijun’s tutor and possibly bodyguard. He is all we have left.”
“I never wanted to be found” whispered Tomaru, his head sagging forward.
Kazami laughed. “Then you should have found some cave to live in and not shared your name when killing bandits or lords.” Tomaru looked up sharply. “Oh yes Toma, your massacre of Lord Nimuren and his people was on all the gossipmonger’s tongues for weeks. I heard the Emperor himself supposedly laughed himself sick when his magistrate arrived to relate the story personally. Lord Kusanagi is building a prayer arch on the site and has commissioned a statue of you as well.”
“I didn’t want any of that, I just wanted…” Tomaru stared at his bowl on the table, head hung low. The other patrons were still as statues, frozen as they listened.
“Wanted what, Toma?” Kazami asked softly.
“I just wanted to help them…”
“Then come home with me. There is a frightened young man, who is trying hard not to show it, who needs help. A boy who a few weeks ago watched the funeral pyres of his parents. A boy who is even now on his way to meet His Celestial Majesty and swear an oath to be responsible for the lives of an entire clan. And he does not know who is trying to destroy everything he now stands for.”
Tomaru sighed and looked over his shoulder at his sword. When he turned back to face Kazami, his composure had returned. “We will come home. But, I do not know if this will work.”
Kazami was elated, but contained himself. “Come my friend, there are many who are waiting to welcome you home and see you returned to your rightful station.” He started to stand, but Tomaru slapped his hand on the table, making the poor porcelain bowls and cups jump. The others in the room flinched away. “I will return and be Seijun’s instructor in the art of the sword, and perhaps some other things.” He smiled briefly. ”Geography, perhaps, since I have walked many of these lands. But I can no longer be the clan’s champion, someone else surely holds that position now and I would not seek to dishonor them by taking away something they have earned.”
Kazami stood straight and proud beside his old friend. “Toma, you truly are the most honorable man I have ever known. Come then. We must hurry on our way. Seijun has much to learn from his new tutor, and I fear the time for his schooling will be short.”

* * * *

Tomaru looked around the small village as the late afternoon sun sank in the west. He handed the reins of his horse to one of Kazami’s men and walked a little ways aside. It was a very prosperous little town, the homes in good repair and abundant fields spread around it. There was a simple but beautiful prayer arch in the center of town, and Tomaru walked over to it and bowed his head, murmuring prayers to his ancestors and to the spirits of the land. The journey so far had been physically easy, but each passing day lay upon his soul like a weight. Soon they would arrive at the clan’s stronghold, and while he might be facing danger from clan Akechi’s enemies that would be nothing against the pain he felt in his soul. His left hand tightened on Breath of the Dragon’s hilt, seeking reassurance.
“Come Toma, there are rooms waiting for us at the inn.”
Tomaru twisted his head to look at Kazami. “We’re not going on to the stronghold?”
Kazami laughed. “No, we are not. After all this time on the road, the good people at court would swoon when they saw us, much less got wind of us. And you are hardly at your best to be presented. Come, we will rest tonight, get cleaned up and tomorrow we will arrive.”
“Very well.”
Kazami led Tomaru into the inn and gave strict orders to the innkeeper and his staff. The two men were bathed, shaved and fed. Clothes were brought in and measurements for adjustments for Tomaru were made with the promise of being ready for morning. Messengers were sent to the stronghold for Kazami’s ceremonial clothes to be brought for him. Finally, the old friends settled in a private room for a meal while the men of the escort relaxed in the common room. After several cups of fine saki and a good meal, Tomaru began to relax, and Kazami waited for the right moment.
“My friend, there is only one last detail to be seen to tonight. I’m sure you remember your courtesies when being presented at court?”
“I do indeed. I have not had occasion to use them in many years. But I still remember them, and shaking in fear of master Doshi when he drilled us in our duties as young men.”
Kazami shook his head. “Doshi was a terror for us, I agree. The arms master used to joke Doshi had no need of a sword, his tongue was sharp enough to slay any foe he might meet.”
Tomaru laughed “So what else must we deal with, now that your minions have cleaned the road sweat from me and promised me the finest garb?”
“This.” Kazami reached beneath the table and pulled out a long, black wooden case and set it on the table. He flipped the catch and raised the lid to reveal a wakizashi in a fine black and silver sheath. Tomaru’s face stilled as he looked at the blade. For years he had only carried his katana, the lone sword marking him as a ronin and an outcast. The wakizashi or “honor sword” declared him a true samurai.
“I know you still feel you have disgraced yourself; that you have no honor left even if I tell you that you do.” Kazami’s face was set and stern. “But, you are returning to service of your clan. You may not do so as a ronin for that would dishonor the clan. The council has given me the authority to take your oath of loyalty and honor to the clan. You will appear at court tomorrow as samurai, you will wear this blade even if in your heart you do not think you deserve it. And I know that no matter what others or even you yourself might say; you are a man of honor.”
Tomaru lifted the sword from the box and slid the blade partly free. He looked at his wavering reflection in the shining metal and saw his own eyes. He could not lie to himself or even Kazami; to be samurai again, to have honor, to serve his clan again was all he ever wanted. He sheathed the sword and set it on the table.
“I am ready.”

* * * *

“I feel like a fool,” muttered Tomaru to Kazami’s back. Kazami barely heard him over the sound of boots on stone and jingling armor, but looked over his shoulder. “Toma, we’ve been through this. There has to be a formal presentation. You’re fretting worse than my mother on my wedding day!”
Tomaru walked at the center of Kazami’s men, formed around him as an honor guard. They all wore full armor and swords, except for Tomaru, dressed in red and silver court robes, two swords at his side. Kazami held up a hand to stop his men and turned to Tomaru. “We have been over this,” he continued sternly. “You swore your oath, you have returned to the heart of the clan. How do you expect to teach a boy if you cannot face him in open court?”
Tomaru’s shoulders sagged. “It is harder than I expected.” He lifted his head and met his friend’s gaze. “Come; let me waste no more time.”
The group set off again and strode the last distance to the double doors of engraved red wood, bound in silver. Guards at either side drew the doors open and the party entered the throne room of Akechi clan’s stronghold. The room had many people, most dressed in the red and silver of the clan, but a few wore colors of subordinate or rival families. The Emperor’s representative and his bodyguard in jade and gold caught Tomaru’s eye to one side.
Since Seijun was too young to have a wife and was still under the regency council, the dais had been enlarged and four smaller chairs were behind his solitary throne. Seijun wore ceremonial robes and the daisho set that had been his father’s, though the katana was across his lap. Tomaru spotted the pendant that had been his mother’s and reminded himself that this young man had already suffered greatly; Tomaru would not upset him further if at all possible.
Kazami led the way through the crowd, who parted for them. When they reached the foot of the dais, Tomaru and the guardsmen knelt while Kazami bowed to Seijun.
“My lord Akechi, lord and lady Reagents, I bring Sensei Tomaru before you, for my lord’s approval of his new tutor.”
The room stilled, and then rustled in furious whispers. Tomaru remained still as he felt all eyes upon him. Seijun’s face betrayed some of his unhappiness, but his regents kept their peace to allow him the appearance of authority.
“Sensei Tomaru, please rise and approach.” His voice quavered slightly with emotion, but he maintained control of himself. Tomaru rose and climbed to the top step of the dais and knelt before Seijun.
“My lord, I am at your service.” He spoke clearly, but humbly. “You have sworn your oath to my council, have you not, Sensei?” questioned the young lord.
“I have my lord”
“And you will accept my orders and the council’s as a loyal servant of this clan?”
“I will my lord. Although, if you order me to cancel lessons because it’s a nice day outside, I will debate it.”
There was a chuckle and even Seijun smiled slightly.
“You killed my brother in a duel, did you not, Sensei?” Seijun gritted his teeth as he spat that out and the regents and Kazami flinched. The room was quiet again.
Tomaru lifted his head and met Seijun’s gaze and didn’t back down from the pain he saw there. “I did, my lord. I wish I had not, but I did.”
“And if as your lord, I order you to draw your sword and take your life here and now?”
The regents began to rise and open their mouths to protest, but before any could act, Tomaru’s left hand shot forward and his wakizashi was drawn and resting against his belly.
“Lord Seijun, I killed your brother. I did not want to, but I did.” Tomaru whispered. Tears began to bead in Tomaru and Seijun’s eyes alike. “I was going to let him kill me, I swear. I planned to let him strike the first blow, and I would miss him with my return stroke and everyone would believe that he had defeated me with honor.” Seijun watched Tomaru with anger and disbelief on his face and Kazami stared at Tomaru in shock. “But,” Tomaru choked down a sob and went on in a whisper, “when we stood face to face and I saw his hand move, I couldn’t help myself. I drew and struck as I had been trained and practiced and done before and your brother lay dead at my feet. I begged your father to let me die afterwards, but in honor he would not grant me my request. So I ran like a coward, threw my honor and position away because I could not face the fact that I had done nothing wrong by the code, but I had failed in my oath; I had not protected the clan.”
Tomaru stared Seijun down. “If you order it, I will die here today, and be no more. Breath of the Dragon will chose another, I know not who, but it will probably be a stranger to us, that is its way, and how it came to be mine.”
Seijun wiped his tears away with both hands and looked at his regents. A couple were visibly straining to stay quiet and not interfere. Seijun faced Tomaru again. “Sensei, I see why many believe you have much to teach me, difficult though it will be for both of us. I will see you tomorrow for sword practice before the morning meal. We will discuss lessons afterwards. You are dismissed, Sensei.”
Tomaru sheathed his sword, stood and bowed with Kazami at his side. They turned and walked down the dais and the honor guard formed around them as they walked from the quiet throne room. For the first time since that fateful day, Tomaru felt that he was walking towards a future again.

* * * *

"Again!" shouted sensei Arato, the Akechi clan champion, as he began his attack on lord Seijun. Tomaru observed from the sidelines as Seijun sparred with Arato. Both wore full armor and held wooden practice swords. Arato was attempting to demonstrate a parry and counterstrike maneuver and Seijun was not picking it up. Arato was repeating the attack sequence over and over so Seijun could practice.
Tomaru watched his future pupil. The old sensei had come to the new lord’s morning sword practice and Arato was putting Seijun through his paces to demonstrate his student’s progress for his new instructor. Personally, Tomaru thought it was a waste of time. Arato was a superior swordsman and a fine teacher. Their styles differed in that Arato was more at home on the battlefield, and while Tomaru was a superior soldier, his fame had been won on the dueling field. Tomaru stepped to the sideline of the practice area. "Sensei Arato." Arato flicked his sword up in salute, signaling a pause and Seijun wearily replied, then lowered his sword to rest it on the ground. Arato turned to Tomaru and released his face mask. "Yes, sensei?" Arato had accepted Tomaru's presence in good grace, he had been told that the former champion would not seek to reclaim his position and Arato had been a student of Tomaru's long ago.
"I think I see what Seijun's problem is, may I take your place so you can observe him?"
"Certainly, do you wish to get your armor?"
"No, but if I may borrow your sword, that will be fine." Arato passed Tomaru his practice sword and stepped out of the practice area, removing his mask and helmet to allow the sweat to dry from his shaven head.
Tomaru stepped up to Seijun and bowed. Then he stepped back a pace and raised his sword in salute. Seijun saluted as well. "We will begin at slow pace my lord" Tomaru's sword moved from the salute position to ready, and when Seijun was set, Tomaru began the attack in slow motion. Seijun replied as well, meeting the sensei's blade in the parry as instructed. When he began the move for the counterstrike, Tomaru ordered, "Hold my lord. See Arato, his stance is too erect. He needs to crouch on the parry and straighten as he strikes."
Arato walked over and paced around his student.
"I see your point. My lord; when you begin the parry, bend at the knees and crouch down about a hand span. When you begin your strike, straighten your legs to put extra strength in your strike. Back to guard positions!" Arato clapped his hands and stepped back. When the two had readied their swords again, he shouted, "Slow pace, begin!"
Tomaru again swept his sword forward in the attack, precisely as Arato had. Seijun's face wrinkled in concentration as he simultaneously crouched and brought his sword around to parry. The two blades clacked together and as Seijun's parry forced Tomaru's blade out of position, he straightened and carried through with the counterattack. The tip of the wooden blade poked Tomaru in the chest and Arato clapped his hands again. "Stop.” He moved forward and examined their positions. "Excellent, my lord!”
Tomaru bowed to Arato and handed back the practice sword and stepped out of the practice area. Arato returned to his position and began drilling Seijun again, emphasizing the altered move until the young lord began to feel comfortable and they stepped up the pace.

* * * *

“…And Lord Toji’s third daughter, Yoshimi, is said to be his favorite. With the two older daughters married to the sons of allies, Yoshimi is Toji’s last chance to ally with another family by marriage. However, all reports agree that he may care for her happiness too much to use her as ruthlessly as he could. She is said to be short, but very graceful, and a gifted poet. She is planning to perform for the Emperor at the Winter Court…”
Tomaru watched his young student. In truth, the old sensei was far more of a bodyguard than a teacher. With the exception of sword practice, Seijun had many teachers, and while Tomaru attended all of Seijun’s lessons, his “teaching” was generally limited to a few wise words to drive home the importance or the essentials of what the lesson was and how it would be important.
This lesson would be no different. The protocol master was old and had a droning voice that could put a young stallion to sleep in a field of mares. It was a warm summer day and Tomaru could see Seijun slouching in his chair, his eyes desperately trying to glaze over and escape.
“My lord, do you have a question?” Tomaru asked, interrupting the protocol adviser. The old man blinked at the interruption, then turned to gaze at Seijun, as if he was really looking at him for the first time.
“Yes sensei, I do.” Tomaru watched as the young lord struggled to contain his impatience and finally blurted out “What is the point of knowing what some far away lord’s favorite daughter’s favorite poem is?!”
The protocol master began to huff up in indignation, but Tomaru raised a hand in placation. “Master Ashiro, may we take a short break? Perhaps you could step outside and have the servants bring us some refreshments, I’m sure your throat is quite dry.”
Ashiro glanced at Tomaru and the almost seething Seijun and nodded. “Yes, perhaps a brief recess is in order, I will be back shortly.” He gathered up his scrolls and departed in a barely concealed huff.
After, the door was closed, Tomaru turned to stare at Seijun. The young lord returned his stare, and twice angrily opened his mouth to speak, only to be cowed by the sensei’s admonishing stare. Finally, he glanced down and spoke.
“I suppose that was childish, wasn’t it?” Tomaru made no reply. Seijun glanced at him and sighed. “I’m sorry, I know it was, but he is so boring!”
“Not all of your lessons will be fun, or seem to have immediate use. Why are Lord Toji’s daughter’s interests important?”
“I have no idea at all!” stormed Seijun.
Tomaru let him stew for a moment. “If boring old Ashiro told you Lord Toji preferred using flanking groups of archers on the battlefield, would that be important?”
“Yes, of course.” replied Seijun, sitting up and looking more animated.
“Why?”
“Because in battle, we would respond with strong groups of skirmishers to cover our flanks and cut down his archers before they could strike, allowing our archers to fire at his troops without fear of replying arrows.”
“And that is why Yoshimi’s love of poetry is important.”
“….I don’t understand…” Seijun’s reply was slow and his brows met as he furrowed his forehead in thought.
“Let us say we are competing with Lord Toji for the Emperor’s favor in decisions made at the Winter Court. We know Yoshimi is going to present poetry for the Emperor’s enjoyment. If we were to secretly hire a renowned poet to present for us and outshine Yoshimi’s presentation…”
“Then…we would outflank Lord Toji and win the Emperor’s favor!” burst out Seijun.
“Yes my lord. But, suppose we wanted to earn Lord Toji’s support? Could we not send that same poet to Lord Toji’s court to perform poetry for Yoshimi and coach her and help her with her presentation to the Emperor?”
“Yes…”
“And that is why enduring Ashiro is important. You are doing well with your lessons on the field of battle, but you have yet to begin to understand the basics of the most vicious, dirtiest, cruelest form of warfare practiced in the Empire, a war that never stops, and rarely offers mercy: the shadow war of intrigue and influence. A war where successfully outdoing a competitor with gifts, or clothes or snide comments may earn you more success than a battle. And, the war has already begun. Assassins are not the tools of brave enemies, they are the weapons of cowards who will strike at you unaware and undermine you wherever they can, the tools of the shadow war….”
Seijun slumped in his chair and covered his eyes. “I must know my enemies’ strengths and weaknesses, their interests and desires, not just on the field of battle, but in their minds and hearts, so I can out maneuver them at court as well as in the field, to obtain my goals. Which means I must listen to master Ashiro and learn from him…”
“Yes.” Tomaru replied warmly. “But we will see if we cannot make it more tolerable. Think of his lessons as listings of your enemies’ flaws, the chinks in their armor where you might exploit them.” There was a knock on the door and the panel began to open. “And…I have heard lady Yoshimi is quite beautiful, perhaps knowing her love for poetry may help you in a more personal conquest.”
The door opened fully as master Ashiro and servants with refreshments entered, preventing Seijun from making his heated reply. Tomaru chuckled as Seijun saw Tomaru had outmaneuvered him in his reply. Perhaps the young man would learn the ways of court after all.

* * * *

Tomaru clumped down the hallway. His normally calm or pleasant expression had been replaced by a fixed look of displeasure. The household staff took note of it and made way with greater than normal courtesy and he made sure to politely acknowledge them.
As he approached the council chambers, he tried to improve his demeanor, but it was hard. Today was his birthday and he disliked being reminded of his advancing age. Oh, he knew he was still a vigorous man, and one few could stand against in battle, but that hardly mattered today. No one defeats age. And loneliness was a powerful ally to his worries.
The council chamber doors were closed and there was but one guard posted. Normally the doors were open and a pair of Seijun’s household troops stood watch. As Tomaru approached, the lone warrior bowed to him. “Honored Sensei, Lord Seijun has asked the council to wait upon him at the Master of Horse’s practice field.”
Tomaru glanced aside at one of the windows. It was a beautiful late autumn day, still warm and pleasant. He acknowledged the guard’s message and turned to head for the nearest outside door. Behind him, the guard smiled briefly, before returning to his proper, on duty position.
Tomaru exited the main building of the keep and headed across the courtyard to the outbuilding that housed offices for many of Seijun’s subordinate commanders. Behind it was a practice field set aside for mounted exercises, the Master of Horse generally used it for examining new warhorses and proficiency tests of their troops. Today, the rest of the council and Lord Seijun sat in the small reviewing stands as the horse master paraded a warhorse before them.
The sensei stopped and stood in awe. The horse was amazing, in his mind the very model of equine perfection. It was a glossy black stallion, young enough to be nimble and powerful, but old enough to be well trained and experienced. His build spoke of power and endurance, but he agilely obeyed the horse master’s commands as he was led in review by his reins. His saddle, tack and harness were beautifully crafted in the clan’s colors and the silver and crimson glowed against the black.
Tomaru remembered himself and approached the rest of the council, forcing his eyes off the magnificent horse as he made his courtesies to his fellow council members and his lord. Why were they all smiling at him?
“Ah, good morning sensei, you are well today?” asked Lord Seijun.
“Yes, my lord, and yourself?”
“Fine, fine. Tell me, what do you think of this animal?”
Tomaru faced the horse again, now standing a few feet away at the horse master’s shoulder. Again, its very appearance took his breath away, as if it had been created by the gods just for him.
“Truly, it is magnificent. I have not seen a horse of such quality in many years. You will truly make an impression when we arrive at the Emperor’s court next month.” Tomaru swallowed a bit of raw envy.
Lord Seijun walked over to stand next to Tomaru. The young lord had put on amazing growth spurt over the last six months, and his rigorous practice under Tomaru’s tutelage had filled out his build as well, to the dismay of the clan’s tailors and armor smith.
“You know, I do believe you are correct. Anyone would make an eye catching figure on such a mount.” He waved his hand and the horse master placed the reins in Lord Seijun’s hand. Up close, Tomaru was smitten by the horse’s presence and thought it was surely his lord’s due to ride such a beast.
“Yes, even an old dueling master and former ronin could not help but turn heads on this horse.”
Tomaru turned in shock. The assembled council laughed at him as he stared at Lord Seijun who held out the reins to him. “On the celebration of your day of birth, I give you this gift.”
Tomaru numbly accepted the reins. “My lord, I cannot accept this, this horse is worthy of a clan lord, possibly a member of the Imperial family, not me.”
“Oh, I quite agree. Nevertheless, he is for you.”
Tomaru tried to pass back the reins. “Honestly my lord, I would be ashamed to ride behind you on a horse that is better than yours.”
“I know, but I have a fine horse, and I had this horse specifically selected for you.”
Courtesy required that a gift be refused three times, both so the giver could show the sincerity of the gift and the recipient could express appreciation. Seijun closed his hand over Tomaru’s and squeezed his fingers around the reins. “Sensei, take this gift, I beg you. It is my wish as your lord, your student, and your friend.”
Tomaru looked at the young man and was somewhat shocked to realize he was no longer looking down at him. Humbly, he bowed his head and mumbled, “Thank you Seijun.”
Seijun stepped back. “His name is Tobikuma, and I think you should spend some time getting acquainted. You are excused from your duties for the rest of the day, but I expect to see you clean and presentable for dinner tonight. Honored Council members, back to chambers, we have some work to do.”
The rest of the council flowed down and past Tomaru with many well wishes, as they left, the sensei turned to his student. “How did you know my lord? He is as perfect as I could have desired, as if I had chosen him myself.”
“You did, Sensei.”
“My lord?”
Seijun chuckled. “You said I needed to improve my understanding of court intrigue, the power of gossip and casually spoken words and how many insignificant clues are like bits of straw, that woven together can form a whole picture as a bird builds a nest. So I set myself a task, to learn what you truly desired as a gift without you knowing it. My soldiers, servants and advisors have all been listening to you and probing you with questions, all except your friend Kazami, for it would have been too easy for him to learn these things from you. Granted, they are my clan’s people, and bound to obey my wishes, but if I can gather such specific information from such a close mouthed opponent as your self, I may be able to learn the ways of court after all.”
Tomaru bowed deeply to Seijun. “Truly my lord, knowing that you have learned so well might be the greater gift you have given me today.” Tomaru straightened with eyes that were suspiciously moist.
Seijun waved a hand. “Go Sensei. Your things have been laid out in preparation for your ride. The gods have given you a beautiful day, go and enjoy your gift.”

Break, next scene

Tomaru woke in the deep night, suddenly wide awake. He sat up and looked around and listened, but all was quiet and the paper walls were faintly translucent with lights from the hallway. Still, some anxiety tingled at his heart. No, not tingled, burned…
He leapt from the bed and pulled on a robe and grabbed his swords from the rack beside his bed. Now that he was standing, he could smell the smoke.

Break, next scene

Tomaru hustled down the hall way at Seijun's side; champion Arato covered their lord on the other side. Behind them came the rest of their party and a few of Seijun's honor guard covered the rear under Kazami's command. The smoke and dim light made it difficult to see, but Tomaru was ready when the first attackers came at them at an intersection. Breath of the Dragon flashed in the dim light as Tomaru struck down the leader with his first stroke and he took up a defending position to keep the attackers at bay while Seijun’s party escaped. Breath of the Dragon's inlay began to glow as it tasted blood, but Tomaru dared not call upon its fire here in the palace. Instead, the sword heated to a searing temperature, leaving wounds that blistered from the blade's heat. Tomaru wove a veritable wall of sword slashes and cut down another black clad opponent and began forcing the others back.
 A sudden clang of steel pulled at his attention and he saw Arato and Seijun were now engaged with another band of attackers blocking their path. Clan lord and champion alike were closely engaged and unable to make progress. Tomaru returned his attention to his enemies and dealt a death blow to one who had tried to throw a shuriken at Seijun from behind and left his defenses open for just a moment too long. The Akechi honor guards were struggling to get forward to help Seijun and Tomaru grimly held his place, striking down another in the flanking attack.
Only two assassins were left and Tomaru threw himself forward with a paralyzing war cry. For a moment, he had his opening and he threw all his defenses to the wind and attacked in a series of blindingly fast strikes on his two opponents. His mighty blow cut off his first attacker’s hand and continued on the strike the other, slicing his throat open to the spine. Tomaru reversed his swing and dealt a gruesome disemboweling stroke across the first one’s belly as he gripped his severed forearm in shock.
The sensei whirled and threw himself towards Seijun, sword raised. But his heart froze as the lord’s attacker swept forward and began a powerful overhand swing at Seijun; the very move the young lord had had so much trouble with in the training circle. But months of hard practice and the best teachers had hardened Seijun, and he effortlessly parried the lethal blow and counter attacked. His strike was exquisitely timed and slashed through the ninja’s padded armor and between his ribs to cleave his heart.
Seijun withdrew his sword as Arato struck down his last opponent and the two led the Akechi party towards the door at the end of the hall. Tomaru followed, his mind reeling with relief as he promised prayers of thanksgivings to the gods when this was over.
Arato preceded the party through the door and scanned the courtyard for archers and other assassins then led the way to a guardhouse where they could shelter behind its thick walls. Kazami’s men spread out to check the building and secure the doors. Arato hustled Seijun inside, but Tomaru remained in the doorway to watch as the Emperor’s people fought the fires. A pair of priests were calling the spirits of water from a well to carry globules of water to drop on the fires. Another appeared to be summoning fire spirits and forcing them to smother and slow the fires. Household guards and staff fought the fire as well in mundane ways with buckets and brooms; one even slashed burning pieces of wood and paper wall away with his sword to prevent the spread of fire.
They seemed to be gaining and the fire would not spread to the rest of the palace from this isolated guest wing, but now that he had time to consider, Tomaru was shocked. To attack an Imperial guest in the palace itself, to set fire to the most revered structure in the empire, all spoke of ruthlessness beyond compare. Who could hate Seijun and Clan Akechi so much, that they would risk the Emperor’s wrath? Tomaru didn’t know, and the fear for Seijun that hid within his heart grew as he watched sparks and smoke fly up from the burning structure.
No, it was more than that. A true dread stole over Tomaru as he stood there in the doorway and behind him, the babble of Seijun’s party stilled as they sensed it too. The sensei turned from the fire to look into the night as he sensed the approach of some…thing. The flickering fires and the movements of those fighting them threw dancing shadows across the courtyard, but what Tomaru saw was the true essence of shadow. It had form and substance, a tall, misshapen insectoid outline of pure darkness, only once it was within the light spilling from the guardhouse was it revealed. The people inside cried out in fear and terror, and Tomaru gripped Breath of the Dragon so tight that his knuckles popped.
It was eight feet tall, and looked something like a slender cricket standing upright on powerful legs. Its upper four arms ended in gleaming, razor sharp claws and claw tipped tentacles writhed around its mandibles. Its hard, chitinous carapace shaded from black at the feet, through dark purple to blood red at its head and claws and glistened with a slowly dripping slime.
“Stand aside, warrior, and you will live and only see me again in your nightmares.” Its voice was a hideous scratching and clicking, and the people behind Tomaru threw themselves to the floor, moaning in agony with hands over their ears.
Tomaru held tight to the reins of his fear. Breath of the Dragon slid from its sheath and he raised it in defense. “You be gone demon, you are an affront to the gods and the spirits of the land. Leave now!” Tomaru quaked with terror inside; he was moments from utter panic. Only his duty and the power of his sword in his hands kept him on his feet.
The oni tilted its head and looked curiously at the sword. “Ah, the fabled Breath of the Dragon. It will be an interesting trinket to lay at my Master’s feet beside the soul of your lord. Otherwise, it is of no consequence.”
Breath of the Dragon hissed like a legion of dragons in rage. For the first time in Tomaru’s experience, Breath of the Dragon brought forth its fire without being summoned or called. Tomaru knew that there was no surrender, no escape, only honor and…the attack!
The old sensei rolled his wrists and whipped the flaming sword around in a circle of fire then swung it upwards in a powerful two handed blow. The blade cut through the outstretched claw the demon had extended and scored the upper limb above it. The demon screamed in agony and Tomaru only barely kept to his feet. Black, tarry ichor dripped from the monster’s wounds and burned from fires the katana had ignited with its touch. The slime trickling down the oni’s flesh did little to extinguish the flames.
Tomaru pressed his attack and whirled around in a full circle and delivered a powerful horizontal cut across the thing’s belly. More foul fluid gushed from the cut; it blackened the grass it landed on. With another scream, the demon swung a heavy limb around and clubbed the sensei to the ground. Tomaru felt a bone snap in his shoulder and rolled away as the creature raised a foot to stomp him. He swung an offhand cut and sliced it across its leg. He rose to his feet as the beast swung to follow him. Tomaru’s shoulder was killing him; he knew he couldn’t rely on his left arm anymore, his strikes would be weaker.
Arato burst from the shadows in the guard house, his sword held high. He leapt in the air with a battle cry of equal rage and terror and swung his sword down with both hands and all the force of his body, full onto the oni’s back…
The sword, an heirloom of the Akechi clan, shattered as it struck the demon’s back. Shards flew in all directions and many cut Arato as he fell to the ground, off balance from his failed attack. There was not a mark on the monster’s skin. The demon swiveled at the hips to face Arato and Tomaru took his chance. He leapt forward and stabbed Breath of the Dragon deep into the demon’s side between its arms, and buried the flaming blade so far that its tip emerged on the other side of the oni’s body. It threw back its head and screamed as flame erupted from the wounds on either side of its body; the oni seemed to sag like a candle in a fire. Then there was a bright light and a wave of cold and the creature was gone. Breath of the Dragon lay on the ground in a perfect circle of dead grass and dried soil.
Tomaru crept to the sword and cautiously gripped its hilt; it was comfortably warm to the touch and felt good to hold again. As the sensei straightened, he whispered in an odd voice, “No trinket am I, to be given as a trophy.” Seijun watched from the doorway, blood running from his ears. For the rest of his life, Seijun would never be sure if his sensei had spoken the words, or if he had heard the sword itself speak…