Honour’s Pride

“My great lords,” I growled, biting back poisoned words as I dismayed at having to beg in front of these whoresons. “With divine respect, this is folly. We are but victims of the fieldclans. Master Dattori meant no dishonour, they made the first move. Pardons, please. You must listen. They paid in equal measure to their crime. What was lef—”
“Quiet, Tobigawa,” Master said.
Taking my eyes off the surrounding guards, the dogs, for a second, I turned to him. Old, wrinkled, a tired warrior. His eyes shimmered in the low light like koi ponds against the moon. Elegance and honour were all that remained. The laughter lines now redundant as despair gripped him. Not for what was to come, but for what I might do. Master always said anger and pride were a bad mixture, that they soured honour. But what use was that wisdom now? A candle flickered, and the perfume of incense cut through the scrubbed cypress, and the smell of the tatami beneath me. Gritting my teeth, I tore away from Master’s stare and back to the grinning hyenas that awaited the show. High on the dais, the five of them stood judging me as only the divine should. I tugged against the sweaty grip of the guards at my back, the thick white dress robes allowing movement within their restraint, something I could use to my advantage. Maybe. A bludgeon-like fist smacked me, and I recoiled.
With a wave of the pompous shogun’s hand, the beating stopped, and a strike to the back of our legs brought Master and I to our knees. Gold-gilded plate armour that had never seen a battle, adorned with intricate carvings of the sora dragons, rattled against the cur’s body as he motioned to us again. Smirking, the shogun was enjoying this farce too much. My chest tightened, and I found it difficult to get my breathing under control. To the shogun’s sides, the four lords stood in ceremonial plates of silvers, blacks, greens and greys, but never gold. That was strictly for His Godliness. Talk of honour, theirs was bought for a few gold kobans. Gold coins for cats.
At the foot of the dais stood a monster in fox-decorated armour. The Fox swordsman. Eight blades in all hung from the shogun’s pet. Representative of the tails of a kitsune, supposedly. Chances were slim, but I would take them rather than settle this with their worthless honour. How ridiculous it still means so much to Master, to all these men. No, I’d rather live. I will…must.
“Let’s get on with this.” The shogun yawned. “The charges!”
Lord Jizu stepped forward, holding a scroll for effect, and said, “Ahem.” Take your time you mongrel. “The charges levied against Lord Dattori of the Blue Moon, and his retainer Tobigawa Eyasu, are the most heinous of crimes. Those that go against the rule of the very gods, and the peace and prosperity of the shogunate. The murder of the clans within, and the illegal seizure of, the Tayo lands, manufacture and distribution of the poppy, and treason. Treason, of all charges.” The room seemed to hold its breath around me as I waited for Jizu’s final words. I blew out a breath and it was so. “Carries the penalty of death.”
The room broke into jeers and cries.
“Lies!” I said.
“Tobigawa!”
“No, Master—”
“Speak out of turn in front of his godliness once more. I plead,” the Fox snarled. “And I’ll suffer you not any longer. You will not leave this plane with honour.” He gripped the hilt of the katana at his left side and started to pull the blade when the shogun stopped him.
“Put that away.” He gestured to the Fox, and then looked at me. “Fine, let’s hear your pitiful words. A final speech, as it were.”
Master’s breaths were heavy, the rasp really was getting to my head as he stared at me. I felt it tug at my soul. I looked away from the shogun and back to the man I revered. His eyes pleaded with me to stop. Pleaded that I go with honour. My blood was hot with it. He shouldn’t have asked that of me, he knew my temper. Ignoring it, I turned back, wanting to spit in front of the cur upon the dais. Master’s gaze still heavy on me. If I could save his honour, I would. I began, “The fieldclans under Jizu’s command prepared the poppy, set fire to our fields, destroyed our crop, raided out lands. Under your nose, Godliness, did Jizu plot this. Master and I are but a sacrifice deemed appropriate of his own crimes. They brought a sword to our homes. It was only in return that they paid for it in blood. As such, we moved into the blood-claimed lands. The laws dictate it. Godliness, the laws we protec—”
I stopped in my speech as he chuckled, letting out a guffaw as the fools behind him tried their best to mimic the cries of a laughing gull. “Lord. Lord Jizu. Would you dishonour yourself by forgetting the appropriate way to address him, retainer?” The shogun said. “And what of your plot against me, against the shogunate? Treason is unforgivable. Against the heavens, it cannot be forgiven. Must not!” Cheers erupted around the room again, and one of my teeth cracked against the strain of my own anger.
“Lies! All Lies!”
“Tobigawa. SILENCE!” Master strained.
I tried to rise, but the men at my back beat me down again, the encircling guard taking a step closer.
“How dare you!” The Fox drew his katana, bringing it above his head into the Kamae of Heaven.
“Away, I said, Kita.” The shogun descended the dais, stopping by his pet. “You dare call my good lords…” He made a show of turning back to them, waving his hands, and back to me. “My dear friends. Liars?”
Realising my betrayer tongue had made a mistake, I’d gone too far, I backtracked, “No. Many apologies, my Godliness.” I bowed as low as I could with the guards at my arms, feeling the chill from the tatami. “Please accept my apologies. But you see—”
“ENOUGH! You insult my good nature. Here I am, full of mercy, in front of my good peoples, in front of heaven, offering you a chance to regain your honour in death. And yet you exploit this opportunity, woman, by begging and pleading.” He clapped. “Bring Lord Dattori his tanto.” My heart sank. “This will go on for no longer.”
Death. Oh gods and dragons above. This is what years of service to the shogunate has brought Master? To him, a life well-served in death, but to me it was a waste. The badump badump of blood raging like lava was in my ears. I trembled. Anger rose in me. Master never did manage to tame it, said it was a demon’s hold of me. “DEATH?” I shouted. “This is what farcical lies have earned my honourable Master?” My anger had bit into me now.
“How dare you raise your voice at me! Kita, here.” The Fox strode towards us at the same time the servant carrying the tanto entered the room. I gulped hard. The Fox and his eight blades clattered over to me. The servant was there, too.
The guards pulled Master and I to our feet, letting him go while they clasped me. It was strange. He straightened his robes ready to receive the blade. Master wheezed and I closed my eyes hard, a pit opened in my stomach at the weakness this ordeal had left such a great man with.
The shogun took the tanto and Master bowed as he handed it to him with a smirk. Dishonourable smirk. Master held the bow for much longer than he should have.
Thump thump, my blood was a torrent of madness. “No. NO MASTER. YOU CAN’T.” My breathing was shallow, fast. “DON’T. NO. DON—”
Master swung around, tanto outstretched, moving towards me quicker than I thought he could and slashed opened my chest. I fell back into the guards, the warmth of my life pumping down my chest. My head dizzying.
The guards cried out and the room erupted in laughter. The shogun waved his arrogant wave once more, “Very good, Dattori. You still know your place, but that is one step too far for your…pupil. KITA!”
The Fox drew closer, katana held to heaven still, smiling a gaunt smile.
Blood poured down my chest, my head lighter and lighter. Ears buzzing. That’s when Master spoke up, “Please Kirsam— Godliness. Forgive her. She holds a passion for her service. A passion to preserve the shogunate’s laws. She only wishes to serve. Allow her the honour of death in that service. By my honour—”
“Silence, beggar. This is finished. What honour?” Anger gripped hold. The shogun turned, and it was then I saw the glint in his eye. Then I knew. “It is not her honour that is lost!” Too late. As the shogun stepped back, the Fox’s blade sung as it cleaved Master’s head above the eyes, taking his honour, and his life, eternal. Taking my honour, or my care for it with him, stoking my anger. I probably couldn’t have stopped it if I wanted to.
I heard a cry. Someone shouted as I dropped to my knees once more. My own shout. Like a white-hot knife that cut through everything, it all went quiet as I fell into the pit. A buzzing and a distant laugh. Gone. Master. No. I won’t settle like this.
The hum receded as I snapped back from my despair. The sticky blood on my chest. Eyes squeezed shut, tears tracked down my cheeks as I realised the chance Master gave me. What his final act had done. Looking down, I was knelt in a pool of my own blood. They’d not even known. I looked up and laughed in the shogun’s foolish face. Anger. I laughed at him.
The Fox took a step back and levelled his blood-slicked blade at my head.
“Kita. She will have her honour. Her Master died without his for it. Whatever it is worth without that buffoon in the heavens.” He gestured to Master’s lifeless body then bent down, doing his own work for once, and chucked the tanto at me.
Seething, they’d not known their mistake. I could Bloodreach, and why would they know? I, Master’s final secret. Damn mine honour. I will not bow to these pigs. Red hot, I breathed in and out furiously. Placing my hand into the puddled blood, smearing it until I gained purchase, driving it with the anger, I turned the insubstantial and made it substantial. I worked the blood in my hand and drew forth a crimson blade, parrying the Fox’s katana at my face as I dashed, in the same movement, backward. Sword in the Kamae of Metal, the dragon’s tail, it trailed a streak of blood as I went.
All around me, faces went white. The colour dropped, and toothy grins closed up. A shout behind me, probably the shogun frantic, but I couldn’t care. I would live.
Jumping into the first set of guards, landing badly on my foot, I moved into the middle of four. They were just about quick enough to have their blades half-drawn as I cut down the first one, and just about quick enough was the second to have his blade out as he went down. Turning and striking, the third managed a parry. But there was a second’s thought in his riposte. A second you don’t have against a swordswoman like me. As I brought the blooded blade down across his, he was done. My feet were doing the good work now, nicely planted. Seeing a couple move ahead of myself, the fourth didn’t have a chance. Feeling more guards close in, I pirouetted, lashing out hard with a blade that could cut the gods. It sliced through their own swords, their armour and their flesh, leaving them a mess on the floor around me. Dancing backwards, but panting hard, I put some distance between the oncoming guard.
In the background, the cowardly shogun and his lords shouted from the dais, their men crowding in front of them. Shouts I couldn’t discern from the blood pumping in my ears encompassed the room. I tasted metal. Blooded, I was faster, braver and in less pain than I should be. Than any man would be. But I couldn’t get them, not now. I turned and broke through the canvas out into the night air. Crickets replaced the shouts. Respite from the madness. A cool breeze whipped up from the Naiji river ahead. My destination. My escape.
I caught the wind in my step and tore through the night, closing in on the dark waters. Only the rush and crash of violence against riverbanks guided me towards it. Told me of its presence.
Thump thump.
A few yards before it and I was undone. A blade hissed out of the darkness, and I turned it away. Again, a second, and I stepped backward. A third and I half-turned but another strike caught me in the side, opening a second gash, blood flowed again, and I dropped to one knee. Looking up, expecting a unit, but seeing one man, I gasped. The fox-masked helmet snarled in the moonlight and the white plate rippled as if it were the foaming, white waters behind me. A wakizashi in one hand and a katana in another. The only man I’d ever met to wield two-handed and still dance the way he did. Another six blades at his back. The Fox.
I stood and swayed on the spot. The night swarmed around me. Not good. I moved backwards, creating distance between us, I held my sword in front of me. A fool’s guard. It took all my effort to stand. My breath was hurried and what blood left in my body still flowed from me. I had not the strength to control it. With each pump in my ear, time was whittled away. Master’s gift was costly. Would cost me. Anger turned into anger. His killer in front of me. I screamed, forgetting my guard, I leapt at him. The Fox shifted and in one movement closed the distance and parried my strike. Only his first blade met mine, and I turned it away once more in time to meet his second. I was knocked back with an impossible third strike. I dodged and tried to create some distance as to not let him control the fight but received a slash to both shoulders in my flight. Impossible. His blades danced unpredictably like the tails of a kitsune. The Fox moved forward again, his two blades seeming like four with their reach. Blood gushed from me. I took the initiative and stepped into his slash. With a two-handed grip on my unbreakable blade, I evaded the flurry in a spin and slashed heavy. Not at him, but at his offhand. The force of it shattered one of his legendary swords. Carrying on in the spin, I brought my blade around, but he stepped away. Hot and heavy, pain lanced through me. Unimaginable. A searing pain in my abdomen. I dropped my blade and it splashed against the earth. Wet and thick agony. I cried out. No. Staggering backwards, away from his blade, a third that had replaced his broken second. I was run through. Pain. White-hot. Unbearable. I vomited. My head pounded with razors upon daggers.
He laughed.
I cried again. The water rushed behind me and he stepped forward. The fox mask smiling. He swung his blade and I leapt backward, the tip slashing my throat as I fell into the raging waters. My pride had engulfed me, swallowed me up.

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