Role Playing Campaigns - The Company of Strangers Role Playing Group  

Honour's Failing
by Gord Rose (mostly) & Jodi Krangle

It had been a long many months for Kakita Kioko. Serving in the place of a Lion samurai was not easy for anyone not of the Lion clan. It was doubly hard for a Crane.

Due to the animosity between her clan and the Lion, Kioko had been accepted only because the Matsu daimyo felt that this was the way to heap the most disgrace on the young samurai. It almost seemed to Kioko that the word had gone out through the Lion clan that, although she wasn’t to be assaulted, she could be insulted and put upon, and given every detail and job that nobody else wanted to do.

For the last several months, she had served as a samurai guard at a watchtower west of Kyuden Ikoma (Ikoma Castle) keeping watch over the border between the lands of the Lion and the Unicorn. Even not considering the fact that she was treated barely better than heimin, this post felt like the one piece of land in the empire that nobody would spend any time thinking twice about. During the absence of the Unicorn, Kyuden Ikoma had been the last bastion of civilization before the vast plains leading to the mountains to the west.

Kioko had some friends amongst the Lion. There was the Matsu, Kamiko, whose sister she had killed in an illegal duel, which killing had led her to her current circumstance. There was also Akodo Yankon, another young Lion samurai who had become enamoured of the Crane not just for the fact that she was pretty, but also for the way she put up with all the hassle and fuss the other Lions gave her. He had taken to writing her haiku, albeit a little clumsily, and remarking on her turnout and such, even though she had long ago traded her blue Crane armour for the buff brown and golden lamellar of a Lion. He had even tried sparring with her, although he very soon realized he was no match for her skill with a blade. He still offered to spar with her when the opportunity arose.

But that seemed all behind her now that Matsu Kamiko had brought the summons to report to the Matsu daimyo at the city of Tonfjutsen.

Tucked away in Kioko’s saddle bags was a small present from Yankon; a beautiful calligraphy set that he said would do honour to the young Crane samurai-ko and produce writing as beautiful as she.

Now the two women rode steadily towards whatever fate awaited Kioko at Tonfajutsen.

Whatever it was, Kioko had a feeling that she’d rather not face Matsu Ketsui again.

She had learned a great deal in the last several months. They taught her much about humility ... and about how much she could bear without complaint. Which is, she was coming to understand, quite a lot. This was her life. She accepted it. She merely did the best she could to learn the lesson well - and to learn about the Lion in the process.

They respected strength. She exhibited it - though quietly. None of their loud bluster in her. But that bluster distracted those who didn’t know the Lion, from other things ... It was a tactic, like any other. She was coming to understand it. Battle tactics... interested her.

At first, she had thought it was a miracle she could make friends in such a place. But she was no longer quite so surprised. They were a clan just like any other. Her friendship with Matsu Kamiko has deepened in this time. It was just as well that she had at least a few moments to be with those who weren’t constantly interested in beating her down.

She continued to dye her hair white. This was the one thing she would not bend on. The one thing she would not change about herself. All else had changed. She wore different armor - carried a different sword - traveled with different companions ... But her hair would remain white. It was, in fact, Matsu Kamiko that secretly helped her retrieve the dye she needed - and who kept watch when she excused herself to take care of that deed. Well. She and Akodo Yankon. And when she thought of him, she could not help but smile. A very slight smile, her head bowed as she and Matsu Kamiko rode on.

If he could have come, he would have. Instead, he gave her a beautiful gift that she will cherish always. But it was the gift of his friendship - the brightness he added to her otherwise dark days - that she most appreciated. The calligraphy set he gave to her would always remind her of those days. And if some of the days spent there were not altogether pleasant, there were bright spots.

She turned to smile just a little at her traveling companion. A silent 'thank you' for time spent encouraging her to keep up her spirits. Showing her by example that she could be strong.

She must take what comfort she could now. For the Matsu daimyo would offer none.

After a brief stop at Bishamon Seido (the Shrine of Bishamon, Fortune of Strength) where they had met, the two samurai-ko continued on, finally reaching Tonfajutsen. Kakita Kioko sat on her horse, amazed at the vast military camp spread out before her. Over two hundred thousand warriors drilled and practiced in camp set on the broad fields below. And this wasn’t even the force the Lion had in the field at the moment! Matsu Kamiko laughed, a hearty throaty laugh and put her hand on the young Crane’s shoulder. “Come now, Little Sister! Does the might of the Lion armies throw pause to one so skilled as you? I guess you wouldn’t want to take them all on, would you? After all,” she reached down and gently touched the hilt of her katana in its brown and gold-trimmed saya at her side, “There may be a few samurai down there who are even better with a blade than you.” The Matsu samurai smiled at the smaller Crane beside her.

Kioko thought back on how Kamiko had avenged her dead sister’s honour by challenging Kioko to a duel and beating her soundly. Since that time, the two had formed a special bond. Kamiko was one of the few Lions that Kioko actually felt comfortable being around. Indeed, she felt the bond was almost truly sisterly. She and Kamiko had drawn blade together against a few foes since then, mostly bandits, a few bakemono that had crept up from the Shadowlands; and Kamiko looked fondly on the younger Crane and continually referred to her as Little Sister. Although gruff and blunt, more so than Kioko was used to with her Crane contemporaries at the Duelling Academy, she truly liked the string Lion warrior.


The two warriors walked their ponies up to the large command tent set up in the middle of the camp outside the city walls. As they dismounted, a samurai came up and approached Kamiko.

He brushed at his small moustache and stepped up to the Matsu. “You’re late, Kamiko-san,” he said brusquely. “Matsu Ketsui-sama has been waiting. The Crab are already here and making bluster, as the Crab are wont to do.”

Matsu Kamiko looked at the man, and then punched him on the shoulder. “Well, you should let us pass then, or perhaps we will show you how a true samurai conducts themselves and not lower ourselves to act the courtier as you do, Matsu Shuaje-san,” said Kamiko, a broad smile creasing her face beneath her helmet.

Matsu Shuaje grinned back and said, “It is good to see you again, Kamiko-san. It must have been difficult dealing with the pitiful Crane, the one they call ‘Matsu Kakita’, who had killed your sister.”

Kamiko’s smile disappeared and her hand dropped to her katana. Kakita Kioko, who had been one step behind her Matsu friend, stepped to the side and placed a small hand on the larger hand of the Matsu samurai. She reached up and took off her helmet, allowing her long white-dyed hair to spill out over her shoulders. “Nie, my friend. It is true what the honoured Matsu Shuaje-sama says,” the Crane samurai-ko said in a calm, soft voice, “It is never easy to deal with the ghosts of the past. Do not feel you have to stand for my honour. While I bear your sister’s sword, I am a Lion,” Kioko stared hard at Shuaje, “and not some ‘pitiful Crane’. He seeks to insult someone who is not here to bear it.” She bowed to the man in front of them.

He huffed a little, but then stiffly returned the bow and extended his hand to wave them into the tent where strong voices could be heard in argument. Matsu Kamiko chuckled softly and asked her companion, “Are you sure you aren’t a Crane courtier in disguise?” Kioko smiled a little at that.

Inside the tent, a large number of samurai were gathered. Most were warriors, but Kioko could see a few courtiers and even a couple of shugenja present. Most of the samurai were Lion, but there was a small party of Crab Clan samurai as well. Seated at the centre of the tent was Matsu Ketsui, engaged in a heated discussion with a large Crab samurai sat across a small table from her. It was these two who seemed to be arguing. Kamiko signaled that they best wait to one side until recognized by the Daimyo. Standing slightly behind the angry Crab and to the side of tent was Hida Chuan, the Crab samurai who had been betrothed to Kamiko's sister; the Crab she had met that day and traveled with some after that. He stood silent and stone-faced, not yet aware of the two new arrivals.

Seeing him was something of a shock. Though it shouldn't have been a surprise. Especially now when the Crab were so involved with everything here. She did not allow herself to stare at him though. He had his duties and she had hers. She held her hands straight at her sides and kept her keen eyes moving around the gathering to catch anything out of the ordinary. Anything she should not miss. She had not always been patient. But she learned that during her sojourn with the Lion. What choice had she but to be patient? To endure?

She waited for more instructions to be given ... though she did not relish the receiving of them.

Matsu Ketsui sighed heavily and smacked her palm down on the small table in front of them, shaking the cups of tea and almost tipping over the bottle, “By the Fortunes, Hida Shuyan, I do not wish our negotiations to break down so close to Winter Court.”

The Hida, growled a little, and spoke in a graveled voice, “So what do you intend to do? Our agreement was supposed to be cemented with the marriage of Hida Chuan here to a young Matsu maiden, one of your precious Pride. Now we learn that the Matsu is dead, and you now shame us by denying us a match.” He sat back and crossed his arms across his heavy barrel chest.

The Matsu daimyo glared at the man through slitted eyes. Oh, how she would have liked to cut the uncouth fool down where he stood, but she need the alliance that was being proposed between their two families. “We are not denying the match,” she finally said, gaining a grip on her faculties and her temper. Her advisors stood behind and to the side, tense and expectant, not really knowing what their daimyo would do. She had been known in her younger days for acting rashly, even foolishly, in some situations. “Matsu Chinji is dead. What do you propose? That we match your fine young warrior to a spirit? She has crossed into Temgoku. Would you have me retrieve her?” She sighed. “Surely we can come to some agreement.”

One the Crab courtiers stepped forward and whispered in his leader’s ear. Hida Shuyan nodded curtly. “We understand that though you have lost a brave samurai you have not lost the use of her sword. It is borne by a new Matsu samurai. If that’s the case, why not match Hida Chuan with the new Matsu?” He slyly grinned and, with some venom, added, “Surely one Matsu is as good a match as another.”

Many of the Lion gave a sharp intake of breath and Ketsui actually had her jaw drop open. “That… That is not truly the case. We can’t match Hida-san with the warrior who now bears the sword.”

There was a small cough to one side of the gathering and a small woman clad in blue stepped forward, clearing her throat. Kioko had not noticed upon entering the tent but there was a small group of samurai from other clans present at this meeting, including three Crane. The woman who now stepped forward was Kakita Nanami, the very woman who had sent her to the Lion after learning of the illegal duel as a resolution to the stain on the family’s honour.

“Forgive me for interrupting, Matsu-sama, but we,” she indicated the inter-clan gathering, “Were discussing the matter of taxes.”

Matsu Ketsui and Hida Shuyan both shook their heads slightly, baffled at how this came into play in this discussion. A few of the Lion courtiers behind their daimyo looked at the Crane courtier with suspicious eyes. Ketsui asked, “What have taxes got to do with arranging a marriage?”

“Do the Lion claim the correct number of samurai on the rolls submitted to the Emperor?” Nanami asked.

“Of course we do,” spat Ketsui. “To falsify records of troops would be dishonourable, not to mention dangerous in these times.” Hida Shuyan just looked on.

“Then the Matsu are up to their proper strength?” the Crane asked.

One of the Crab stepped forward to whisper something in Shuyan’s ear. The huge Crab grunted softly and nodded. “Then we demand the match continue,” said the Crab. Almost everyone gasped, except for Hida Chuan, who stood stoicly on the fringe of the conversation, and Kakita Nanami, who hid a small smile nehidn her fan as she retreated back to her place. “Your honour should show you that, if you have not lessened your strength in the eyes of the Emperor, then you can do no less than continue with the match as we described.”

Matsu Ketsui leapt to her feet. “Are you saying we are dishonouring you? My patience is wearing thin, Hida-sama! If that is the case, we shall decide it here and now!”

The Crab courtier stepped to Hida Shuyan’s side. “Calm, Matsu Ketsui-sama. We are not impugning the honour of the great Matsu family. Nor of any of the brave Lion, guardians of the Empire and Sword of the Emerald Throne. We merely think that the match should continue as originally planned.” He paused as he bowed to the Lion. “The honour of the Matsu can be fulfilled with the match to the other Matsu who serves in the place of Hida Chuan’s original intended.”

Matsu Ketsui’s eyes narrowed and her gaze moved from the Crab courtier to the Crane, now speaking softly to a couple of Phoenix samurai standing with her and her two Crane companions. She realized that she had been outmanoeuvred.

“Very well then,” she grumbled to Hida Shuyan, “If that is truly what you wish, then that we will do. Our agreement stands. Hida Chuan shall marry the Matsu who bears the sword of Matsu Shasomi.” Then she and the Crab, Hida Shuyan, signed the contract sitting on the small table between them. A Matsu courtier stepped forward and took the contract away. Hida Chuan stepped up beside his commander.

Matsu Ketsui sat back and then beckoned to the side of the tent near the entrance. “Matsu Kamiko, please introduce the brave Hida Chuan-san to his bride, your ‘sister’.”

She stood very quietly, aware that this was not going to turn out well for her. Even as she heard it though, she knew that there was nothing she could do to prevent the match. She too, had been outmaneuvered. And the one person she had thought would throw her to the dogs, had been trying to *prevent* this! What were the other Crane doing, proposing it? What purpose did it serve for them?

How did she get into this mess??? Oh yes. Her own decision to conduct an illegal duel. She had best remember that. Not that he was an unattractive man. But marriage? Now? And yet, the moment the paper was signed... she knew her fate was sealed.

Though her jaw tensed for a moment, she awaited her sister Matsu's introduction and conducted herself with as much austere elegance as she could muster, given the circumstances.

The Crab turned as the two samurai-ko stepped forward. When the sun glistened off of Kioko’s white hair, three things happened. A spark of recognition, small yet undeniably present (and not at all bad), swept briefly across Hida Chuan’s strong face. Second, what had been almost a look of smugness on Matsu Ketsui’s face turned into stony fury when the daimyo noticed the white-dyed hair of what was supposed to be a Matsu warrior. Lastly, Hida Shuyan looked back and forth between the two samurai-ko and said, “I don’t understand. What is going on here? Is this some sort of trick?”

Matsu Ketsui glared at Kioko. “It is no trick, Hida-sama. This,” she said, indicating the white-haired warrior, “Is the ‘Matsu’ who is now betrothed to Hida Chuan. She is sister to Matsu Kamiko, and bears the sword of Matsu Shasomi. She is called by some,” and she turned her glare on the Crane courtier to the side, who was watching infolding events with the picture of the grandest innocence on her face, “’Matsu Kakita’. It is interesting how honour turns some situations into interesting scenarios of political manoeuvring, isn’t it? She serves in the Lion armies as a point of honour that her family made to the Matsu. Now she stands betrothed as a Matsu warrior to a noble Crab samurai.”

Hida Shuyan looked at Matsu Ketsui with a stoic but questioning look.

A sinister smile crept across the face of the Lion daimyo. “Do you wish to disavow the contract? Shall we begin negotiations anew?”

Hida Shuyan turned and looked at his advisors and Hida Chuan. For long seconds, the Crab seemed to carry on an unheard discussion just by looks. Then Hida Shuyan turned back to face the Matsu and said, “No. We shall honour our agreement. It is what we came all this way for, and what we need to do. Our honour demands it.” He stood and bowed to Matsu Ketsui, the rest of his party following suit as he did.

Matsu Ketsui remained smiling that strange smile. A look of intense dislike for the big Crab settled behind her shining eyes. Her chief advisor behind her became more nervous as the pause drew on. He was just about to step forward when his daimyo began to speak, her words soft and quiet, yet the meaning they carried threatened to cause him apoplexy.

“Honour. It is therefore only honourable that I discharge this warrior’s honour by claiming that her debt to the Matsu has been paid. She is no longer a Matsu. She is returned to her clan.” She turned and looked smugly at Kakita Nanami. With no small amount of venom she stated very simply, “Your Hida Chuan now stands betrothed to a Crane.”

Kioko stood very still as they watched her - as each reaction came in turn. She knew the large Crab recognized her. It was the white hair that did it. And for a fleeting, silly moment, she was very glad she continued to dye it, no matter what the others thought of her.

But as the events unfolded.... THEN she realized what the Crane had meant to do. It all made sense. Another lesson was imparted to her then. In allowing her anger and hatred to get the better of her, Matsu Ketsui had allowed herself to be manipulated into doing precisely what the Crane wanted her to. She would be none too pleased at all when she realized.

She herself would be free then. She turned to look at her sister Matsu with a tiny bit of a smile. It was a somewhat sad smile. Though she had been in a difficult position, made more difficult by people who actively disliked her and wanted to make her life harder still, she had made friends. And those days were now gone. They would never return.

Would her friend still allow her to call her "sister"? Even now that she was a Crane again?

Matsu Kamiko stood dumbfounded as Ketsui’s words hit home. Her friend? Being sent back to the Crane? Yes, she knew it was going to happen eventually. But not like this. Not under such circumstances! She exchanged looks with Kioko.

The Lion daimyo thanked Kamiko and then summarily dismissed her. It looked for a moment that Kamiko was going to protest, but then she bowed stiffly and, with a brief glance at the woman she had come to love as a sister, she left the tent. In that brief glance, Kioko thought she saw the silver trace of a tear roll across the brave Matsu’s face. She steeled herself for what was to come next.

Matsu Ketsui extended her hand. “Ho Samurai! Return the sword of Matsu Shasomi. It is no longer yours to bear. You are Lion no more. Go back to your family of artisans and players at war. Leave the protection of the Empire to the strength of those who know best how to defend it, the Lion and your betrothed’s clan, the Crab, ever-watchful Guardians of the Empire.”

The Crab stood unemotionally to one side. Hida Chuan had now stepped back into the fold of his clan as his position demanded. Now that he was betrothed, he was bound the wishes of his clan.

That tear ... whether imagined or no, nearly undid the brave Crane samurai. She swallowed down any pain though. They would meet again, she and her Matsu sister. Kioko offered the parting woman a sad but encouraging smile before she was forced back to the present by the Lion daimyo's demand that she return the sword she had used.

She did so, moving forward and bowing low so that she might offer the sword across her arms with the reverence it deserved. Despite the hostility she had been offered, there were those who had called her friend. She would do them honor now.

"I hope I have served the Matsu well, daimyo. I have learned much in your keeping and I thank you for it." The words were soft, ignoring the woman's earlier words about her "place". Wherever that might be, she had yet to quite find it.

Matsu Ketsui took the proffered sword. Calling to one of her advisors, the woman stepped forward with a long cloth wrapped bundle. The daimyo took it and, unwrapping it, presented Kioko’s sword back to her.

“Pray, hold a moment,” the soft silvery voice of the Crane courtier spilled out over the gathering. Kakita Nanami stepped forward, taking the katana in the fine blue enamelled saya in her small delicate hands. She looked at Kioko with a flat stare. “You handed over your katana to the Lion for safe keeping?” The two Crane samurai in her entourage gasped. Nanami shook her head. “That has brought great dishonour on your family. Giving up one's katana is placing the very honour of a samurai in someone else's hands. As I speak for the daimyo of our family, and represent the Clan in these negotiations and thereby speak for the Clan daimyo, I say that you are no longer fit to carry a sword on behalf of the Emperor as a Crane.”

A tense silence descended in the tent.

In a sad tone, the Crane said, “Kakita Kioko, I strip you of your family. On behalf of the Clan and family daimyos, I hereby declare you ronin,” and she dropped the katana at Kioko’s feet.

Kioko was ... stunned. She didn't know what else she could have done, given the circumstances that had been presented to her at the time. She had trusted another's honor. Apparently ... that was not to be done. She hadn't meant to dishonor anyone - least of all her family! But now ... What could she do now?

Her sword on the ground before her, she merely stared back at the Crane who had orchestrated all this. Kioko was as manipulated as the Lion daimyo. And it shamed her to realize it. Another lesson learned. The hard way.

Perhaps this had even been planned all along. And now ... the Crab samurai was betrothed to ... a ronin? Surely he would not wish that. Nor would his clan.

She swallowed down any response though her eyes were becoming rather bright, and bowed to the woman, accepting her defeat in this game with as much grace as she could. She had lost. Everything.

Hida Shuyan erupted, “WHAT?!?! A ronin! No Hida being betrothed to a dishonoured and unproved ronin was part of the bargain. I cannot accept this dishonour on my family, let alone my clan. The agreement is off!”

Matsu Ketsui leapt to her feet. “We have signed the contract. It is done. Even now the contract is on its way to the Ikoma libraries.”

“I cannot accept that,” the Crab said. “I shall contest this agreement at Winter Court in front of the Emperor. My daimyo will not be pleased.” With that, he spun on his heel and stormed from the tent, trailing the rest of his entourage behind him.

As Kioko watched, Hida Chuan broke his countenance to grace her with one of his non-descript and emotionless stares before turning and following his fellows from the tent.

Matsu Ketsui, her face turning redder by the minute, turned on Kakita Nanami. “You! You manipulative bitch! Now our agreement with the Crab is at risk. I should have you cut down for this!”

Kakita Nanami, looking suitably shocked at the Lion’s words, said, “But Great Matsu-sama, it was not I that pressed for the match when Hida-sama showed reluctance.” She brought her fan down gently into her hands. “I merely pointed out what me and my companions from the other clans were discussing. Surely you do not think that it was my aim to disrupt your agreement?”

The Kakita bowed, turned, and with her two Crane companions, left the tent. The other samurai form the other clans had left a few minutes ago when they sensed the trouble brewing.

Ketsui clenched her fists as she watched them go. “ARGH!!! I find dealing with that duplicitous clan almost as hateful as dealing with the Scorpion.” She whirled around and glared at Kioko. “And you! You miserable piece of filth. Somehow you were involved in all this … right from the very beginning! I should have you killed right now.” She reached for her katana, starting to draw it from its saya. “I’ll kill you myself! Crane!”

Her advisors swept forward, “Nie, Matsu-sama! Do not sully your honour by playing further into their hands. Let the ronin scum leave. Banish her from our lands and turn out. She is honourless now.”

One of the Lion samurai turned to Kioko. “Leave now, scum. Or you may not have a head to bear the shame you have brought on your family.” He kicked the katana at Kioko’s feet. “And take that filth with you!”

That hard stare from Hida Chuan was difficult to bear. Events had simply swept her up. She hadn't been experienced enough to realize any of what had been happening to her. Right from the start. And now she had made enemies of many she would never have wished to make enemies. Perhaps Hida Chuan himself hated her now. She wouldn't blame him if he did.

Stupidity was no excuse.

As the Matsu daimyo came at her with the intent to draw her sword, she merely gazed back from eyes gone dull with self-loathing. If the daimyo cut her down, what would it matter? But her advisers stopped her. Pity.

As the sword was kicked in her direction, she looked down at it for a long moment. Only then did she pick it up without ever unwrapping it, and walk from the tent, never looking back. What did it matter if anyone struck her from behind? It didn't matter. Not anymore.

She would never be able to go back to the school... to learn more of her Iaijutsu ... She would never be able to see her friends again - or her relations, and hold her head up high as one of them. She was ronin. She shouldn't even have picked up the sword. Why she did, she still didn't know. She could never wield it again. Not that sword ...

Dazed, she simply started to walk...

Matsu Kamiko was there when Kioko left the tent. When she saw Kioko come out with a stunned look on her face, clutching the Crane sword still wrapped in its covering, she guessed at what had just transpired. She had heard the shouting and seen the Crab leave in a furious huff. Now her friend looked as if her entire world had cracked asunder and thrown her into Jigoku.

She stepped forward as Kioko wandered out of the tent and grasped her friend by the shoulders. She reached down and from her pouch pulled a small cloth-wrapped bundle. She looked down at the small package in her hand. “I brought these in case we had need of celebration.” She held the bundle out to Kioko, tears now streaming down her face. “Know that regardless of what our families say, I shall always love you as my Little Sister. Take care and be brave, Kioko-chan. May the fortunes shine on us that we may one day meet again in love and friendship.”

With a quick hug, she turned and slowly walked off, leaving the stunned Crane - no - ronin standing in the dusty field. Kioko looked down at the bundle in her hand. She unconsciously, almost mechanically, unwrapped the package. Inside were a small amber ring and a finely crafted saya guard (hilt plate) for a katana. The saya guard was engraved with images of wind spirits swirling around the hole for the blade.

As she gazed numbly down at the gifts from her friend, she noticed the cloth registering a damp patch where her tears had begun to fall lightly to the wrapping. Tucking the presents inside her armour, she wiped the back of her hand quickly across her face and set off slowly, leaving the camp and the scene of her personal drama behind in the dust stirred up by the feet of thousands of Lion samurai.

She couldn’t see a few rows of tents over as the Crab party passed the gathered samurai courtiers from the other clans that the Crab advisor exchanged a small knowing nod and brief smile with Kakita Nanami, who quickly disguised the satisfied look on her face behind her fan and laughed at something one of her companions had said.


After almost three days of wandering aimlessly, Kioko was tired and hungry. Ronin were not well treated in this heartland of Lion Clan territory. She had not eaten since she left Tonfajutsen, and her armour was losing some of its enamel and painted trim. She finally sat herself down by the side of a trail and ate some berries from a bush beside her. There weren’t many left this close to winter. It was the first food of any kind in so long, but she knew it would not be enough to fully satisfy her hunger. If she didn’t find more to eat soon, would she be reduced to begging?

Why had this happened? Kakita Nanami should have at least allowed her a chance to commit seppuku. But even that much honour had been denied her.

Now what was she to do?

She absent-mindedly crushed one of the fat berries between her fingers.

From the other side of the road she heard a squawk followed by a cackling voice, “If you treat them like that, what small bounty the Fortunes provide you will be wasted. You should treat these gifts as the treasures they are.”

She looked up, startled that she hadn’t heard anyone approach, and saw a strange figure. Leaning on a staff, dressed in a brown robe and bearing a katana thrust through his obi stood a creature she had never seen before. It was almost as tall as she, but more resembled a great crow than it did a man, even though it walked on two legs and carried its bo staff in one wing as a man would in his hand.

She had stumbled on one of the mystical Kenku, a race of bird-like humanoids. She had heard of them because they were renowned masters of kenjutsu, some even rivaling the iaijutsu masters of her own family.


The words of her friend ... her sister ... who would always call her that, it would seem, no matter what their families said, echoed and stayed with her over the days. She wore the ring her sister had gifted her with. As much honor as she could bestow upon it, now that she supposedly had none, she would offer it. The hilt ... well. She hadn't known what to do with that. But it was within her belongings for the day that she discovered its true purpose. In the meantime ... she continued to carry the wrapped bundle of her Crane sword.

Many times she thought she might have simply used the sword on herself. Many times she knelt with the bundled sword in front of her and merely stared at it. She hadn't unbundled it at all since receiving it back from the Matsu daimyo. But she could not do it. It would be dishonorable to take her own life now when there would be no one to carry the word back to her family that their honor had been restored. It would be senseless. There would be no point to it. So she kept on traveling, kept on walking when there was no food and only the water she could find for herself at streams or troughs when no one was paying attention.

Kneeling by that berry tree with the crushed berry in her fingers, she was startled when she was spoken to in that bird-like voice. She had never met one of the Kenku before. It was the words that startled her the most though. She looked down at her wet fingers and blinked again. She hadn't even realized what she had been doing.

"I do not mean to be ungrateful, honored one. I was not thinking. That ... seems to be a great failing of mine lately." She sighed and bowed her head.

The Kenku introduced himself as Crakakaw.

“Eh? What mean you? You are favoured by someone. I see that nemuranai on your hand, and I am familiar with kenjutsu enough to recognize that you have a katana slung in that bundle across your back. Why let it lay still when you could rely on more than just your wakizashi?”

She introduced herself only as Kioko. She hadn't thought about how she would explain this to anyone if she were asked. The Kenku's question was valid, perhaps, if one did not take into account many other things. From the outside, that is how it might appear.

"The ring was a gift from a Matsu I honor greatly and call my sister, as she called me the same. I hope that one day we will meet again, she and I. As for the katana... I can no longer wield it. I have been stripped of my family and the honor they gave me. I am no longer Kakita." She bowed her head. "I could not bear to leave it behind in the dirt. But I can no longer wield it as the Crane samurai I once was. I am ronin now."

Crakakaw cackled. It seemed these creatures were light of mood, as most fey from Chikasudo, the realm of Spirits, were, but a little more serious than Kitsune and others. “Ah. But the Emperor has need of good strong swords. Would not yours be turned to good use that way? Do you feel you have no honour just because someone has said, ‘You have no honour’? I cannot believe that a Matsu who would honour someone with such an enchanted ring would do so if that person had no honour. Come; show me the blade. If it is truly a Kakita dueling blade, they are too beautiful to hide under cloth wraps.”

The Kenku danced from one leg to the other, almost hopping in place, as he drew forth a rice cake and munched on it.

Kioko tilted her head at the creature. What he said made sense in an odd sort of way, though it went against all she had been raised to believe. But his mention of the ring... "This is an enchanted ring? How can you tell, Crakakaw-sama?" She said this as she was taking the katana out of its bindings. If he truly wished to see it, she would not deny him. His was the first friendly conversation she had had in three days, after all.

Her touch along the blade was reverent as she showed it to him. Tears glittered in her eyes. She would not be able to learn more of her craft. Not ever again. Maybe this was the reason she had kept it hidden all this time ... to not be reminded of that ...

Crakakaw took the sword from her and began to inspect it. “The ring? I sense the spirits bound to it. It is a nemuranai of a brief blessing. It can guide one’s strike as if the hand or blade carried a stronger enchantment, especially against foul creatures of evil.” He passed a wing over the fine dueling blade. A soft trill escaped his throat. “Truly a fine blade. You shouldn’t shroud it as if it is dead. It needs to fly and sing, to feel the wind across it’s cutting edge. It should … but why do you cry, child?”

The information about the ring was, of course, good to know. And it was kind of her friend to give her something of such value as a parting gift. Something that might help to keep her safe. But when her tears were noticed, they only fell faster, sliding down her cheeks and leaving silvery trails. Her head remained bowed. "I will never be able to set foot in the Kakita dueling school again. Such a fine blade ... You are right. And I will never know how to wield it with the skill it deserves."

The Kenku cocked his head at her. “You already know how to wield it. Truly, a sword such as this almost wields itself. It's too bad the saya gaurd is slightly chipped. All you need is a teacher who can give you the finer points. And there is more to the world than the Kakita Dueling Academy.” He cackled. “Never is a long time, and I don’t think you’ll live that long. Especially if you keep squashing your berries like that.”

He flipped his wing and Kioko’s katana whirled about in a full circle, coming to rest in front of her, flat of the blade up. Resting on the flat of the blade was a sprig from the berry bush bearing five plump berries.

“Eat up! With winter coming a being needs their sustenance.”

Crakakaw cackled and took another bite of his rice cake.

The mention of the chipped saya guard made her blink. Her friend had more to offer her than she'd even imagined. How had she known...? She took out the small wrapped package of the saya guard her Matsu sister had gifted her with, unwrapped it, and placed it down near the Kakita dueling blade. Only then did she look up at Crakakaw, the tears already drying upon her cheeks. "I do not know of one who could take this blade and place it upon this guard... but it seems ... perhaps that is a way for me to once more wield it without shame." For doing so ... that would be to the honor of her Matsu sister ... and make the sword her own again in a way...

It was only then that she noticed the berries - and a smile came to her lips at the bounty they presented - for the first time in many days. "Thank you, Crakakaw-sama. You are far wiser than I."

The Kenku just cackled and hopped form one foot to the other. “Wise? Maybe. Wisdom comes with time and experience. I have been here for quite some time. So I guess by that reasoning I am wise too.” He cackled again. He swept his wing back again and Kioko’s katana slid quietly and easily back into the saya. “Then again, being wiser than you doesn’t take me far, does it? By your own admission, you are foolish. You keep a lovely blade such as this, perhaps the finest I have ever wielded, wrapped up in your dirty laundry.” He scooped up the saya guard Kamiko had given her. “Aiieee! And you bear another nemuranai from the Matsu you claim to honour but keep it hidden in your armour!”

He clucked at her; then turned one big round brown eye to her and winked. “Foolish samurai-ko!”

She only smiled at his teasing. For she was coming to realize that was what it was. She took one of those sweet, ripe berries and popped it into her mouth. And it felt very good in her empty stomach. Sweet and tart ... There was no seasoning quite like hunger.

"She has honored me greatly, you are right," she said to his words. "Perhaps I am not entirely unworthy of her regard after all." And the thought of that comforted her immensely.

Crakakaw smiled, as much as a birdman could, and said, “Ah! Maybe you are older than you look? That sounded very wise to me.” He took Kioko’s sword from the saya, slid the chipped hilt off the blade, and replaced it with the finely crafted saya guard. He brought it up close to his eyes and cackled again. “Ha! I think you’ll like this gift,” and he tossed the katana across the road to the other side into some bushes.

“Now,” he said, his eyes gleaming, “Call your sword.”

She watched quite carefully as Crakakaw took the hilt and simply ... replaced it with the new one. How did he do that? She had thought a forge would be needed ... but ... apparently not. Then she gasped as he tossed it into the bushes. And the way she'd felt when he did that told her in no uncertain terms, that the blade was hers. That she FELT it to be hers. Despite having her family stripped from her. Despite being made ronin.

When he told her to call it, she tilted her head a touch, her white hair sliding down over her shoulder. But she held out her hand and thought of the blade, willing it ... though ... not really sure *how* to go about calling it... She hoped that was it ...

Kioko concentrated, small beads if sweat breaking out on her forehead. The Kenku shook his head. “That only works when you are drawing it from the saya. I said ‘call it’!”

Kioko looked at him again, then extended her hand, calling out “Sword!” and her katana swept up and flew across the road and into her hand. She looked astonished from the katana to the Kenku, who was now laughing and hopping from one foot to the other.

“See? You should never treat gifts as anything but the treasures they are. They can often guide you through with their power. This saya guard is a nemuranai! The spirits of the wind have graced it. It will spring into your hand more quickly from the saya, and you may call it from short distances away and it will come to you.”

Kioko looked at the katana in her hand with a baffled look on her face, then she looked back up at Crakakaw with the same look. He shook his head.

“Ai!! You are such a loss! So young, I don’t know how you’ve lived as long as you have.” The Kenku shook his head back and forth, a soft trill coming from his throat. “I’ll have to take you under my wing if you are to give justice to these wonderful nemuranai your sister has given you.” He wolfed down the last of his rice cake, stepped back and struck a duelling pose, one wing over the hilt of his katana. “Tell me Kioko-san, when was the last time you sparred?”

Kioko smiled and took up her stance across from him. “Too long, Crakakaw-sama. Too long.” And with that, she took her sword in a tight grip.


A week or so later, the ronin Kioko was trudging along the imperial road near Kaeru Toshi (Captured City). She had left Crakakaw two days ago after having spent some time with him, sparring and learning more about herself than anything else. The Kenku had agreed to be her sensei and she could return to the forest between Kaeru Toshi and Shiro Sano no Kakita anytime she wished. With the admonition of “You will most likely cut yourself or something, clumsy as you are with that sword, that you should take these with you,” he had gifted her with three small vials of curative potions.

Kioko smiled a little, thinking how the strange creature had come to be her sensei. Indeed, there was little to smile about. It had been two days of empty belly and now it was raining. She had had to leave the road and walk down onto the muddy fields three times already as parties of samurai and imperial messengers had passed. Climbing up onto the road the last time, she had slipped and cracked her knee against one of the cobbles. The pain had settled down to a dull throb now, but her constant trudging continued to remind her of her fall.

She was making towards Crane lands, where she would skirt Shiro Sano no Kakita and make south for the lands of the Fox clan and her friend Seppun Sezuhoji. She really didn’t know what else to do, but she figured she could at least spend some time in Mura San Daippo (the Village of the First Step) and collect her thoughts as to what she should do next.

She slipped slightly on the wet pavement and her knee sent a sharp reminder of pain up through her body, just as she heard the approach of another party of imperial troops or some such. Wincing at her knee’s protest, she limped off the road onto the verge once more and stood ankle deep in the flooded field.

Her day just couldn’t get worse.

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