Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
The Lion's Peace
Sweat ran heavy down Sendo’s face. The afternoon was unseasonably warm, and his tengai, the basket hat worn by all komuso, had become a furnace. “I chose this path,” he thought, trying his best for force the heat from his mind. “This is part of the price I must pay.” He turned his eyes, shielded to all behind the hat’s thick weave, to Bayushi Ren. He looked much smaller now, without the mantle of the Topaz Champion resting upon his shoulders. However, a much weightier destiny lay ahead of him now that he had set that one aside. A stray thought brought a line from the Tao to his mind: "Winds blow, nations change, fortunes rise and fall, but the simple folk will always be asked to shoulder the weight.” The monk was hardly a devout of Shinsei’s teachings, indeed, he had resolved to join the militaristic Order of Thunder for just that reason. However, one could only keep the company of monks, even ones as dynamic and worldly as Osano-Wo’s followers, for so long before picking up a few koans. “The former speaks of my past,” he thought. “The latter my present. My future rests upon Ren.”
“Our Clans’ future rests on this treaty,” Ikoma Sakon began. He stood upon an erected dais within the pavillion where, mere hours ago, Utaku Leila had claimed the Topaz Armor. His voice was thick with raw emotion, his frequent gestures as vocal in their certainty and passion. “With the amount of unrest that has gripped our Empire, I can no longer in good conscience continue this war begun by my predecessor. In its course, the Emperor was failed by both the strong right hand that bore his sword and his dear left hand that rested near his heart. It is my desire to now end the war that should have been put to rest alongside Akodo Tetsunori-sama. Doji Hajime-sama, please tell me that you yearn for the same peace that I, myself, do!” Across from the podium that divided the dais, the Crane Champion rose from his seat, his body possessed of all the fluid grace of water. All except his face, frozen in the perfect, icy mask of his on. As if we were fire and water, Sakon mused on their differences, but we must come to an accord.
The plains of the Ikoma were little but earth and air as far as Sendo could see. It made spotting their pursuit a matter of ease. “Draw up around Ren-sama!” he commanded. The travelling group had already come under attack once already in this journey. It would seem, Sendo thought as the riders’ sashimon o clearly identified them as Ikoma Wardens, that Sakon was abandoning all pretense now. Flight would be impossible from the mounted samurai.
“I count twenty flags,” Hitoshi offered. “Perhaps they’re just a routine patrol.” The other komuso was born a samurai from a minor clan descended from the Crab. It would seem that deadpan sarcasm transcended generations and social strata alike.
“Stay close to Ren,” he said, ignoring the comment, and moving to the rear of the group.
The samurai were upon the monks in a matter of minutes. The wardens fanned out as they approached, several horse splashing in the freshly planted rice paddies as their number could not fit along the road. “Bayushi Ren-san, I am Akodo Torogisu,” the leader of the group dismounted and bowed. “I bring you a message from Akodo Hizashi. He is regrettably detained by the peace negotiations currently underway at Kyuden Ikoma. However, he wishes to meet with you before you depart our lands.”
“I can say most sincerely, Sakon-sama,” Hajime began, “that the Crane have viewed this war as little more than Lion brutality. The attack upon Kosaten Shiro was launched with a justification from Tetsunori-sama that I can only find laughable now, considering recent circumstances. Even this excuse was readily discarded by Yarato-san with his ill-fated charge to Shiro Daidoji. It gladdens me to see the clan under your leadership wishes to end this conflict, but our terms will be proportionately severe.”
“It was a great misfortune that the garrison of Kosaten Shiro fell to Yarato-san following all of the unpleasantness that occurred there,” he paused for a moment and was rewarded with a sudden flicker in Hajime’s eyes. It was the briefest of flinches, but even so, Sakon pressed forward before the Crane could recompose himself. “And I can only hold myself responsible for allowing last night’s display to occur. I had believed that a ceremony as august as the Topaz Championship would be enough to allow our guests to put aside their grievances in favor of honest competition. I must readily admit my own limitations and willingly cede the right to hold the Championship back to the Crane.”
He willed his on to remain firmly in place, but his stomach tensed regardless. Along with the title, Akodo Hizashi had won the right for the Lion to hold this tournament two years prior. If Hajime had not seen firsthand the young samurai’s scandalous actions today, he had most certainly heard about them. Now it was the Crane Champion who knew something that made the other squirm. The only question was whether or not he would use it.
Sendo tensed his stomach, finding his center. He would not be one to start this fight, but he would not be caught unaware should it come to blows. “My apologizes, samurai-san,” Sendo bowed, sharply. Balancing his tengai was one of the first lessons of necessity he had learned as a monk.. “There is much work to do in the Plains of Thunder after the recent Emerald Championship, and the abbot is eager for our return. Hizashi-san is, of course, most welcome to visit him there once his business has concluded.”
Torogisu bristled slightly at the rebuff. “Sensei, surely as Ren-san’s tenure as the Topaz Champion has ended, his own clan will be eager to see his return.”
“_Surely,_” the aggravated voice of Bayushi Ren cut through the conversation as he did through his entourage, “I can speak for my—”
A horse screamed and a bowstring sang.
Doji Hajime smiled and Sakon could not tell where sincerity began and artifice ended. “If you are prepared to give that up, Sakon-sama, perhaps then my terms will not be as extreme.”
“By all means, Hajime-sama,” Sakon smiled in return, hoping to match the same fine line of Hajime’s smile, “continue.”
The horse fell, its rider tumbling into the shin-deep water of the paddy, sending a cloud of insects to flight. Its aim spoiled, an arrow flew harmlessly overhead. Hitoshi stood lopsided, with one foot planted firmly on the road and the other plunged into the water. “You bring such cowardly deeds against the Order of Thunder?!” he bellowed and it was as if Osano-Wo himself lent the man his voice.
Torogisu appeared shocked but not surprised, as if he had expected something, but not quite this. Sendo took full advantage of his confusion, leaping forward to deliver a solid kick to the samurai’s chest. Torogisu sprawled backwards, his flailing body causing the two horses directly behind him to rear in surprise. “Take them,” Sendo shouted, “but keep Ren safe before all else!”
“First and foremost, we demand the return of Kosaten Shiro,” Hajime began.
“Done,” Sakon cut in before Hajime could continue. “I ordered the garrison to withdraw a week ago. Your scouts in the area should find no Lion currently occupying the castle.”
Sendo grabbed the shaft of yari aimed for his heart and twisted, dismounting the rider at the other end. Reversing his grip, he hurled the spear and an onrushing warden. It flew wide, but caused the rider to turn aside all the same. More are coming the earth at his feet whispered.
“Sendo-dono!” a monk called, and the tone in her voice told Sendo that she had heard the same from the earth. “You must get Ren-sama to safety!”
Casting a quick glance behind him, he saw that Hitoshi had somehow gained a horse of his own. “Hitoshi, with me!” he called as he sprang onto the back of Torogisu’s horse where it waited dutifully for its fallen master.
“Second, no Lion shall cross into Crane-held lands for a year and a day,” Hajime continued. “Following this period shall be one of five years wherein the Crane must approve of any travel papers issued to a Lion for the purposes of entering our lands. Given the sudden nature of both Tetsunori-sama and Yarato-san’s attacks, my people require assurances that such events shall not occur again.”
“Ren!” Sendo shouted charging his horse headlong into the press.
The boy was surrounded by the bodies of fallen Lion and the monks who sold their own lives to keep his safe. A look of horror and revulsion marred his normally childish features as he ducked underneath a hasty strike and plunged his sword into the samurai before him.
“Ren!” Sendo shouted again, snapping the boy out of his daze. As he rode by, the monk grabbed his kimono at the shoulder and hoisted Ren behind him onto the horse. Hitoshi was already clearing a path for them from the melee and riding on.
“Finally, we shall arrange for an exchange of hostages. I understand that you have but one child, Sakon-sama. We shall not ask you to turn over your sole heir to our custody, given the recent change within the Lion’s leadership.”
“How compassionate of you, Hajime-sama,” Sakon said approvingly. “I shall arrange for a list of the children of my most prominent vassals to be prepared immediately and sent to you at Kyuden Doji.”
“I shall do the same,” Hajime agreed. “There is no need to put off this long-desired peace for the sake of logistics. Do you find my terms agreeable?”
“Hai,” Sakon said, withdrawing his personal seal from his kimono sleeve and approaching the podium where the treaty rested. Hajime did the same and, together, the two Champions ended the war.
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