“Untitled” by Lee Steele
The rhythmic sound of hoof beats was hypnotizing Moto Tsukara as he rode along the desolate segment of the Ki-Rin path that was his responsibility. Sweat flowed like so many streams beneath his heavy armor. The summer heat was almost unbearable, but of course his steed, a large and spirited filly, seemed to be enjoying herself. His only companions were a tantalizing breeze that was not strong enough to provide any relief and his yojimbo, Shinjo Saya. She was a dour and unappealing woman who was not beholden to any of his many vices. Tsukara was certain those were the exact qualifications his influential father was looking for when he filled the post.
Tsukara was being punished, harshly, and he knew it. His last endeavor brought much shame to his father. The only reason Tsukara still drew breath was that his egregious breach of honor remained a private affair, known only to himself, his father and that damnable Scorpion woman. She had seemed to be a perfect companion. Her affinity to sake and games of dice were nearly a match to his own. The generous curves of her body were everything a man could desire, and Tsukara was shocked to discover that her prolific use of profanity was even more proficient than his own.
Their last rendezvous had ended had ended cryptically. With a beguiling half smile she promised Tsukara that he would regret nothing as she turned and walked away. He was still unsure of exactly what morsel of sensitive information slipped from his lips while around her, but his father’s interests were suddenly stymied at every turn by his chief business rival, one Bayushi Nakashi. In spite of the obvious betrayal, Tsukara still longed for her, such was her dangerous allure. Admittedly his exile to the colonies was tempering the conflicting emotions.
A surprising moment of clarity broke Tsukara’s sake clouded reverie. The hair on the back of his neck was on end. Something felt very wrong. Despite his hatred of serving in the colonies, it was not a fool’s errand. The Mantis were bound and determined to make commerce along the Ki-Rin trail unappealing so as to bolster their shipping revenue, and this meant bandits paid with Yoritomo coin.
The highwaymen were upon Tsukara and Saya with alarming speed. The four men in simple clothing, each armed with an unadorned yari, seemed to appear from nowhere. Tsukara’s momentary awareness only just managed to keep the encounter from being a complete rout. The honor-less bandits thrust their yaris in the pair’s steeds with well aimed strikes to the beasts’ hearts. It was a disgusting but undeniably effective gambit as both Unicorns were thrown from their saddles. Saya was pinned beneath the crushing weight of her stallion. The rogues were on her in an instant, viciously stabbing her helpless form. Her death was as quick as it was inglorious.
Through more luck than grace Tsukara recovered quickly. He was on his feet with heavy scimitar readied just in time to see his companion’s life blood stain the dry earth. Despite his constant debauchery, Tsukara was not an unaccomplished swordsman, but he certainly knew his peril as the bandits slowly fanned out to surround him. Whatever traces of sake and opium that remained in his body were burned away as Tsukara’s world turned into a pure white rage. With a swiftness that belied his burly stature, Tsukara was upon the bandit directly in front of him. Heedless of the spear pointed at his heart, the newly invigorated Moto stepped into his swing, putting all of his weight behind it. The sharp tip of the yari deflected off Tsukara’s thick plate armor as the heavy curved edge of his own sword cut the man cleanly in half. Tsukara let the momentum of his swing carry him completely around and then some. He released the blade when it was aimed at the bandit to his left. It traveled the few feet to its target with a single spin and embedded deeply with sickeningly wet thud. Still in the midst of his spinning follow through, Tsukara launched himself at the third man, drawing his tanto mid leap. In a collision of flesh and steel the Unicorn’s dagger buried itself in the bandit’s neck while the latter’s spear found purchase under Tsukara’s left armpit, the sharp tip going cleanly through, propelled mostly by his own inertia.
The agony of his wound deflated Tsukara as he felt his momentary rush fading. He knew he would not recover in time to keep the last bandit from taking his life. The Moto attempted to find peace and dignity in his last few seconds, at least as much dignity as one can find before being stabbed from behind. The brief moment dragged into eternity as Tsukara realized the kill stroke was not coming.
Tsukara painfully rose to his feet, yanking several feet of yari from his shoulder as he turned around. He discovered the final bandit face down, dead, in the dirt with two arrows jutting out from his back. The first was a perfect kill shot to the base of the highwayman’s skull. The second jutted out from his back at an awkward angle, obviously impacting the man after he was on the ground. Upon closer inspection Tsukara saw the shafts were fletched with crimson and black feathers with a small message scroll affixed to the second bolt.
– I told you that you would not regret anything. All favors are repaid, even the unintentional ones. –
Tsukara could not help but laugh (painfully) as he read the note several times. With a painful body but light heart, Tsukara began the long walk home, knowing he would forsake all duties and vows to find that damnable, loveable scorpion woman once again.