A drop of sweat trickled slowly down the forehead of Bayushi Jiro, but he blinked it away before it could obscure his vision. A cool summer breeze blew through the courtyard in Friendly Traveler Village, but his senses were dulled to everything but the Crane standing before him. Kakita Isao stood flawlessly in the dueling stance of his family, his hand turned upward above his daisho, as if offering a gift. The Crane flashed a brief smile at his friend, his remaining eye showing no trace of the smugness that the situation might warrant.
"Clear your thoughts and focus. The world beyond your blade and your foe is a lie." The sensei's voice echoed through the dojo, jarring Jiro's thoughts back from meditation. He stood in the middle a row of three scorpion samurai, each in the dueling stance they had been holding for hours. Every muscle in his body ached, but he dared not attempt to offer them any relief. Without warning, the sensei snapped his elaborate fan closed, signaling for the students to strike. Three flashes of steel were followed by three pieces of silk floating silently to the floor, cut from the kimonos wrapped around the opposing practice dummies. The sensei walked between the students and the dummies, carefully inspecting his pupils' work. Nodding his approval to the first Scorpion, he stepped in front of Jiro and lifted a flap of the scarlet kimono with his closed fan. The sensei turned back to his waiting student. With a blur of motion the bokken he carried leapt from his hip and slammed into Jiro's side with a painful cracking sound. Struggling to regain his both his breath and face, Jiro fell to one knee. He could feel at least two ribs floating free, dislocated by the blow. "Next time, do not leave a mark on the wood behind the silk, Jiro-san. See that you do not fail me a second time."
Time slowed down for the Scorpion samurai. He breathed in slowly, knowing his master's lessons would not be soon forgotten. Starting to exhale, Jiro lunged forward, drawing his katana and lashing out at Isao in one fluid motion. In less than the span of a heartbeat, his target shifted into a blurred haze of blue cloth and flashing steel.
Jiro's eyes went wide as the three foot blade swung upward, splitting flesh, muscle, and bone before coming to rest buried halfway to the hilt in the Scorpion's chest. "Mikado, no!" the boy shouted, struggling forward towards the dueling circle against the restraining arm of his mother. The tall Crane samurai smirked and began to withdraw his katana from the body of Jiro's sister, scowling as it became lodged in her sternum. Jerking the blade forward, the Crane raised a knee against the samurai-ko's chest, gaining the proper leverage to rip the sword free. As her body slumped to the floor, Mikado's eyes met Jiro's, and as the brightness slipped away he saw a single tear soak the fabric of her elaborate silk mask.
A single candle flickered in the darkness, illuminating only a breath of the pitch black room. Jiro sat still and contemplative, meditating on the nature of the flame. He had long since lost track of how long he had been sitting there, and it was probably light outside by now. Time had lost all meaning in his seclusion. Even the candle itself never seemed to burn down the wax that fed the flame. A voice boomed out from the darkness, shattering Jiro's trance. "Son of the Bayushi, why do you seek the secrets of this dojo?"
"To loyally serve the interests of the Scorpion clan, sensei-sama," Jiro responded cautiously.
"Evasion, yes; a useful technique," the voice echoed, "but useless here. You cannot hide your secrets from the Scorpion, little bushi. Answer the question."
Without hesitation, Jiro replied. "To punish the Crane, master."
The icy cold water of the river between Lion and Dragon lands surged up around Jiro as he tumbled out of the small fishing craft. Gasping for air, he was rewarded with a mouthful of water crushing its way down his throat. To his further terror, clawed hands began grasping at his legs and kimono, drawing him further down into the murky gloom. As his vision swam before him, he felt something latch onto the top collar of his kimono and violently jerk upwards. Retching water from his lungs, Jiro rolled to his side, seeing the bright disk of Lady Moon slowly eclipsed by Isao's worried face.
Before he knew what was happening, Jiro was on his back, staring up at the sunlight filtering down through the cherry blossom trees. Glancing towards his left shoulder, he already knew what he would see. The fabric of his kimono was sliced perfectly at the seam, only the connecting threads and not the actual fabric having been parted. With a sigh, Jiro looked up as the shadow of his friend loomed over him. "I believe the tailor grows tired of fixing that shoulder, my friend; perhaps you could practice your art more evenly in the future?"
"That's odd, the other day he thanked me for ensuring that his children will have food in their bellies until he is old and gray."
blatantly rolled his eyes above his silk mask, retrieved his sword, and got to
his feet. Signaling a servant to fetch him a fresh kimono, he turned
towards the Crane and dropped back into his dueling stance. "Perhaps this
time he will get a chance to dip his fingers into the fat coffers of the
"We shall see, my friend, we shall see."