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Faces Of Honor
by Darrell Whitney

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Obviously this piece of fanfiction depends upon PSO fitting into the PSI-IV continuity in a specific way. Should future PSO games negate this possibility...well, that's the risk of fanfiction, isn't it? For those intrigued by references to Alys's previous encounters with Rane Juael and the Zeman law, see my short story, "Sixteen Strokes."


"Right this way, sir," the pretty green-haired woman said as she pulled the curtain aside. She smiled winsomely at Kenji Hirata, but the young warrior's heart was not moved by her good looks. In her profession, the invitation she offered was completely impersonal, a truth that was made all the more obvious by the fact that Kenji's hooded white cloak concealed most of his face in shadow. Besides, he was here to do another kind of business.

The back room was somewhat less fetid than the rest of the low dive, owing to the fact that most of the spilled bodily fluids were in the common room instead of here. Still, Kenji could barely repress the urge to vomit, and could not understand how human beings could so degrade themselves as to be there, let alone eat and drink what the tavern served. Even dishonorable scum like the man who sat across the room's single table from him ought to be better than that.

It just went to show, he thought, that just as his clan had always taught, once the Way of the Warrior was lost, so did people's very humanity follow suit. It was no surprise that a stinking den like this should exist in a town like Kadary, which catered to mercantile trade.

The man who sat waiting for Kenji was a merchant. Indeed, Kenji considered the graybeard to be the very epitome of a merchant. They were all thieves anyway, stealing from those who actually produced goods, so it was only the logical extension of the profession to trade in stolen wares.

"Good afternoon, sir," he addressed Kenji. "Will you join me in a glass?"

"I am here to do business, nothing more."

"Really, young sir, there's no need to be so insulting about it. Still and all, a deal is a deal. You have the payment?"

Kenji reached into his pocket and took out a leather pouch. It clinked as he tossed it onto the table. The graybeard reached out a dirty paw for it, then spilled the meseta into his other hand.

"You dare insult me by counting it?" Kenji roared, enraged. "I should spit you where you sit!"

"I have learned, my young friend, never to trust in another's honor. Everyone has such a different definition of it, you see."

The graybeard tucked away the money, bent down, and brought out a wrapped package about four feet long which he set on the table.

"Now you see, young man, I fully expect that you will not trust me until you have checked what you bought."

Kenji could not deny the truth of that. He picked up the package and unwrapped the cloth bindings to reveal a long sword in an ornamental sheath of polished ebony-hued wood accented with diamond inlays. Slowly, even reverently, he drew the weapon. Even in the sputtering lamplight the brilliant gleam of laconia from the curved, chisel-pointed blade was unmistakable. Power seemed to throb in his fist.

"Yasha," he breathed, all but overcome by the presence of the legendary katana. This blade, together with its siblings Kamui, Sange, and Agito, had felled a kingdom in the early 2000s, over two hundred and fifty years ago. It was the pure expression of the warrior's soul Kenji held in his grip.

"Then you are pleased, young man?"

"I am very pleased," Kenji said. "You have plied your filthy trade excellently." The spirit of generations of his clan seemed to sing out to him, hearkening back to the Eppi region of long-lost Parma. "There is yet still the matter of your insult to me, however."

His stroke was as quick as lightning, the magical blade shearing through the scrawny neck of the trader with barely any resistance. The man was dead before he even had time to perceive his danger, as shown by the placid, even smug expression on his face.

Kenji did not so much as think of reclaiming his meseta from the corpse. A knight killed only for honor, whether personal or in service to his lord, never for gain. He flicked the blood from Yasha's edge, resheathed the weapon, and hooked it to his belt, blade down. Pride and honor burned in his heart as he walked out of the back room and through the dank bar to the sun.

It was said that the four legendary katanas had the power to destroy a planet. Even with but one, Kenji was certain he could build a new Motavia, one free of places like Kadary and Aiedo.

* * * * *

Tedashi Miyama looked down his long nose at the man who faced him.

"Your suggestion is absurd, Kenji," he snapped out, leaning back in his seat. "This is not three hundred years ago. The ascendancy of our clans is past. For a short time we were a power to be reckoned with in Motavia, yes, but in the end we were brought down." He pointed at Kenji's waist. "That sword you carry was part of it."

Kenji's eyes widened in surprise.

"Don't look at me in shock, boy," Tedashi snapped. "Do you think I wouldn't know one of the legendary katanas? Yasha, is it not?"

"Just like a merchant to have a keen eye for valuable goods!" Kenji sneered, his momentary discomfiture channeled into bluster. "You are one of the three lords of the Miyama, but you have lowered yourself to be nothing but a trader!"

"The world is different than the one of your romantic dreams. The clans change, so that we may live in it."

"No, Tedashi!" Kenji roared. "It is only cowardice that makes you shrink from your true role! The warrior does not meekly accept defeat! He takes sword in hand and demands that the world yield to him!"

Tedashi shook his head.

"You are but a boy, lost in the dreams of the past."

"No, you are a weak man who has succumbed to the temptations of the present! If you will not defend the bloodline of Aerie and become our standard bearer, I will seek out your brother and sister. I will be the strong right hand of the new Clan Lord, the new king, and we will raise the kingdom anew. No coin-stacker of Aiedo or their Hunter pets, no ink-stained scholar of Piata, no dirt-digger or blue-furred tinkerer will be able to stand against us. But first, Tedashi, I will make certain that your merchant's ways no longer stain Miyama honor!"

Even as Yasha was sweeping from its sheath, Tedashi yanked on a bell-rope and two curtained archways flew open, a bodyguard bursting through each one. To Kenji's eyes they looked like a merchant's typical bully-boys, large men in leather armor carrying shields (to better interpose between their paymaster and danger) and stout wooden batons gleaming with metal studs in rows down the sides.

Kenji stepped to his right and brought Yasha down in a swift arc. The razored laconia edge sliced off a chunk of the leather shield, carved a shallow gash in the guard's chest, and continued on to knife through the man's weapon-hand, severing it halfway up the forearm. Blood fountained as Kenji kicked the wounded guard back and turned to face the second man, who was swinging his baton at Kenji's head. The warrior brought Yasha up to parry, which the katana did very effectively by hacking through the thick wood and sending the striking end rattling off into a corner from its own momentum. While the guard stared in shock at the remains of his weapon, Kenji made two more cuts and left him a bleeding corpse on the stone floor.

"Now for you, Tedashi."

The merchant shrank back, wide-eyed, into his chair as Kenji advanced remorselessly on him. Suddenly, Tedashi's hand flickered, and he came out with a small knife from under his tunic and sent the blade flying at Kenji's face. The warrior parried with Yasha and struck the knife from the air to go spinning away to one side.

"Coward's tricks," Kenji sneered.

Tedashi's head bounced once, then rolled to a stop. Its glassy eyes still stared up at Kenji with abject terror.

"A fitting end for the unworthy."

* * * * *

Kachiko Miyama's garden pavilion was ordinarily a place of restful contemplation, where the beauty of a palm oasis in miniature could soothe the spirit, but it was not so that morning. The tension in the air was reflected by the fact that she did not offer her guest tea made with her own hands as she had many times in the past, but instead had summoned a female servant to pour thick Motavian coffee from a silver urn. But for her stark white hair the girl might have been Kachiko's twin, Rane Juael thought. Genetics could play strange games, and masters of low character had been known to take advantage of servants, so it was possible mistress and maid were cousins in fact as well as appearance.

"It is Kenji, you know," Rane said. Zema's master merchant had contacts in all corners of Motavia, so while an underworld killing in Kadary and the slaying of a merchant and his guards in Monsen had frustrated local authority, he had easily been able to tie together the threads. "I always knew that he was a hothead and an ironbound traditionalist, but I'd never realized that he was a madman."

A tight frown possessed Kachiko's ruby-bow mouth.

"Do not presume too much on our friendship, Rane. The Hiratas are still cousins of mine."

"Part of being a friend is to say what needs to be said, even if you don't want to hear it."

She opened her mouth, trying to reply angrily, then closed it again.

"You are right," she said softly. "The truth should never give offense."

"I've studied the history of when the Eppi clans were the preeminent power on Motavia. If I understand correctly, the king and his subject lords were from your clan, the Miyama. The Hirata were knights and officers, serving as your strong right hand."

"Not mine," Kachiko said. "I have studied those histories as well. The time of our kingdom was one of injustice and hardship. The Eppi traditions of honor and nobility were scarcely acknowledged, in favor of those which advocated power and brutality. It was as if we had chosen only the worst facets of our historical culture to exalt instead of the best."

"Somehow, I doubt that Kenji sees it that way."

"True," Kachiko admitted. "In a way, I blame Hideki for that. He filled the boy's head with dreams of warrior pride, but also with his own towering resentment."

"Hideki Hirata washed out of the Hunter's Guild, didn't he?"

Butterflies flitted lazily past, ignoring the fact that the shadow of death hung over the house.

"Yes," Rane's hostess sighed regretfully. "He was a master swordsman, but lacked the patience to apply his skills in other areas. Or perhaps it was an excess of pride, not the inability but the unwillingness to become a complete hunter. Even Galf, the Thunder Sword, could not stand against Hideki in the practice circle, and he believed that should be enough. The Guild disagreed, and well they should."

Rane shook his head.

"Hideki committed suicide last year, did he not, when the Guild denied him readmission for the third time? It's not hard to see the pattern."

Kachiko nodded.

"No, not at all. But, Rane, you are very well-informed on these matters. How is it that you know so much?"

"There is a member of the Eppi clans who interests me a great deal. I felt it only right that I should learn as much as I could of what is important to her."

A faint blush graced Kachiko's cheeks.

"Your concern is unexpected."

"And unwanted."

She looked up, her eyes bright as they met his.

"By no means," she told him. "Indeed, it is most welcome. However, your interference would not be greeted in the same fashion."

"Kachiko, the man is a murderer."

"He is my problem to deal with."

His eyes held hers for a long moment.

"If you truly believe that, then you should give him what he wants."

* * * * *

The ring of steel on steel echoed out over the practice ground. Swords clashed noisily, bringing a smile to Kenji's lips. Even though they were blunted practice weapons in the hands of students, this was still the honorable business of war.

"They are promising young men, Master Hiro."

Hiro Miyama did not turn around.

"That they are."

He clapped his hands sharply. The dueling students lowered their weapons at once.

"Everyone! That will be enough for today. I regret to interrupt your training, but I have pressing business I must attend to."

"Yes, Master Hiro," the students chorused. All six of them, the duelists and observers alike, gathered their gear and went inside the building. Only when they were all out of the practice yard did Hiro speak again. Still he did not turn.

"I would not have them throw their lives away for your madness."

"What are you saying?" Kenji snapped, a dangerous growl in his voice.

"I was informed by letter transmission of Tedashi's death, and of its manner. Combined with the theft of Yasha and your arrival here, the conclusions are self-evident. When you drew your sword against me, my students would feel obligated to defend me."

"Then they are worthy warriors, the kind I would gladly stand alongside in your service."

"Service, Kenji? What service? I have no need of servants."

"You are the hereditary Clan Lord of the Miyama."

Hiro laughed harshly.

"Empty fantasies and the dream of the foolish."

"Yet you practice the martial ways, and train others in them."

"This is a world harsh with injustice. Strong swords are needed to fight in it. Your father could have been one such, but he sought glory in battle for its own sake."

"My father was a hero, denied his rightful place by weak-kneed cowards!"

"Your father was a fool, but he taught you to be something worse than that."

Kenji's hot blood boiled over at the insult.

"Damn you, Hiro! Draw your sword and we will prove which one of us is the fool!"

"So you can salve your conscience with the illusion that you bested me in a duel of warriors? I shall not grant you the satisfaction. Yasha makes any comparison of skill irrelevant."

The legendary katana sang as Kenji pulled it free from its sheath.

"I will not warn you again, Hiro. Turn and face me!"

"No. If you will have me dead, then you will have to cut an unarmed man down from behind."

"Do you think I will let you bluff me into staying my hand?"

"Of course not. I know what you are. I merely want you to see it as well." He began walking away.

Kenji swung Yasha, and blood flew.

* * * * *

"Thank you for coming, Alys," Rane told the hunter. "I'm glad you trusted me, especially after how things turned out the last time I commissioned you for a job."

Alys Brangwin shrugged. The Eight-Stroke Sword didn't look like Motavia's most famous hunter. Her tall, lithe but curvy figure, long brown hair, pretty face, and bright blue eyes looked attractive, not threatening. At close range, though, things changed. It was her expression that did it, the clear confidence in her eyes, the set of her face, her body language. Confidence, willpower, skill, and training made her who she was, not superficial physical details.

"Fifteen thousand meseta buys a lot of forgiveness, Rane, especially when you paid it up front."

"The situation was urgent–is urgent. I wanted you to know I was serious."

The same servant as before poured coffee. Alys didn't touch hers, though. How like her, Rane thought, not to bother with social amenities when she was concentrating on business.

"I gathered that. Why didn't you want me to bring Chaz?"

"He'd be killed. I didn't want that on either of our consciences."

Alys smiled wryly.

"That boy will surprise you one day, Rane. He's going to be one of the great ones." She paused, then added, "Of course, if you ever tell him I said that, I'll have to come back here and kill you."

"Of course," he agreed with a smile.

"So what's the problem?"

"Alys, what do you know of the Eppi clans and their role in history?" Kachiko asked.

The hunter shook her head.

"Basically nothing. I understand that a few families held on to their original customs from Parma, but so did all kinds of other people. History isn't my strong suit."

"We originally settled northeast of Monsen, in a town called Aerie. In the 1800s a kingdom was established there, absorbing other villages by conquest until it controlled perhaps a third of Motavia. However, the rulers of the kingdom proved to be corrupt tyrants. Among their ill deeds the king in the mid-1900s executed the families of three blacksmiths. They vowed revenge, and they and one of their students each used their arts to create four katanas of unmatched power. Legend has it these weapons were instrumental in bringing about the kingdom's downfall. In any case, Aerie was destroyed and the survivors of the clans scattered throughout Motavia."

"Kachiko's family, the Miyama, was the clan of the king," Rane explained. "If the kingdom of Aerie existed today, she would be its queen. In the last two weeks, her two elder brothers have been murdered. We believe it's a man named Kenji Hirata who is responsible. What is more, he has obtained one of the legendary katanas, Yasha."

"Out to settle old scores?" Alys suggested.

Rane shook his head.

"You'd think so, but no. We believe that Kenji wants to rebuild the lost kingdom, and is trying to get the 'rightful' kings to assume their status as Clan Lord."

"You must know this Kenji pretty well to make a claim like that."

Kachiko nodded.

"The Hirata clan was close to mine for generations," she said. "Although I have not seen him personally since he was a child, the ties of family remain strong, despite Aerie's fall."

"So why did he kill your brothers? While dead kings can probably do a better job of ruling than live ones, they aren't exactly great at raising up that patriotic spirit."

Alys, Rane recalled, could often be sarcastic, especially when someone was giving her the runaround. Kachiko rose to the challenge, facing the hunter directly.

"My brothers and I pursued different paths in life, Alys, but we all agreed on one thing: the past is dead and it is better so. There are many valuable traditions in our family worth preserving for future generations. Violence and conquest are not among them. Kenji, like his father before him, never was able to learn that."

"Apparently not...Wait a minute–Hirata? Is Kenji related to Hideki Hirata?"

"That was his father," Rane confirmed.

Alys groaned.

"What, do they breed for stupid? Hideki was the best swordsman I've met. Heck, he took Galf in a practice bout once, though Galf was getting old at the time. Is Kenji anywhere near as good?"

Kachiko nodded.

"From all reports, he was an excellent student of his late father's sword style."

Alys groaned again.

"And he's got that...Yasha. What can it do?"

"The legends say it strikes like lightning and with perfect accuracy, and that it can slash through flesh, wood, steel, silver, or magic with impunity."

"Magic?"

"You have seen fighters parry hurled weapons in combat?"

"If they're good."

"Yasha can parry techniques."

Alys shook her head grimly.

"Then I'd say a lot of people are going to be killed, unless we can think of something brilliant to trap him."

The serving girl picked up Alys's untouched cup.

"Then trap him we must," Kachiko replied. "Fortunately, we have bait which is sure to attract him: me."

* * * * *

The town of Zema struck Kenji in two opposing ways. On the one hand, it was one of the major links in the east-west chain of mercantile commerce across Motavia. This made him curl up his lip in distaste. The spread of this filth had to stop, he knew. Too many people were motivated by greed rather than honor. The social order had to change. And yet Zema also offered him hope, for here was a holy place, Birth Valley, the sacred valley of life where pilgrims flocked year-round. Zema was a place of the elevated spirit as well as the base, a strange contradiction.

Kenji was just reflecting on this when the messenger approached him. It was a young man, barely more than a boy, with spiked blue hair.

"Kenji Hirata, sir?"

"How do you know me?" he snapped. He was a heartbeat away from drawing Yasha, sure that the boy was a forerunner for minions of the corrupt law of this town. Had Kachiko Miyama sunk so far as to cower behind outsiders to settle family business? Only the knowledge that, if the boy was but the messenger he seemed, drawing a weapon would only attract the very attention Kenji was trying to avoid, combined with the fact that he could see no active threat, stayed his hand.

"I am from the home of Kachiko Miyama, sir. My mistress anticipated your arrival, and described you for me," he quavered. Had his mistress also told him of what Kenji had already done–no doubt some twisted story, bereft of the true facts. Or was it only that the boy had the perception to see how close he had come to death?

"You have a message?"

"Yes, sir. My mistress understands that you and she have matters to discuss of a most urgent nature. Accordingly, she bids that you call upon her tonight in her garden pavilion. No member of her household will raise a weapon against you, and she hopes that you will in honor stay your hand against them and not lay siege to her home."

Kenji's blood boiled. What did she take him for? Did she think he merely wanted to expunge the Miyama name, finish the destruction Yasha and its siblings had begun? How could she be so blind?

He took a deep breath to steady himself. He had not spoken to Kachiko. She was not privy to the conversations between himself and her late brother. She knew only that he came to her with her siblings' blood on his hands. Grief was permitted, and it was not hard to understand how it could disturb judgment. Kenji himself had recently lost his father; he understood grief and pain.

"Tell your mistress I would meet with her. I will call at seven."

* * * * *

"This is a stupid plan," Alys said.

Rane could not help but chuckle.

"It's your plan, Alys."

"So it's the best available plan. That doesn't make it a good one. A good plan would be to get a couple of dozen tech-users and bury him in Nagras. He couldn't parry every one of them."

"We can't do that," harrumphed Captain Thurgood, leader of Zema's town guard. "There's no proof this Kenji Hirata did anything, much less the multiple murders you say he committed. There isn't even a posted bounty on his head. The only charge you could prove is possession of stolen property if he really does have that sword."

"I know," the hunter said tersely. "That doesn't justify a preemptive strike, and if you tried to arrest him and take the katana we'd be guaranteed to lose a couple of guards at least. That's why we're doing this. Now, why don't you go do something useful instead of getting on my nerves?"

For a moment, Rane thought Thurgood was going to say something and get himself into a world of trouble, but he proved that he possessed the good judgment of an officer by harrumphing again.

"Yeah, well, I've got better things to do than swap smart remarks with the Eight-Stroke Warrior," he said, and stomped off.

"He's getting brighter," Alys commented. "He gives me what I want, saves face, and even jabs me with that idiotic nickname all in the same sentence."

"You're just angry that he threw you in jail the last time you worked here."

She shot him a look.

"That's not why I ran him off."

"Oh?"

"In order to take down Kenji, we need a confession. If I approach him, or Thurgood, or you, or anyone else, either he'll keep his mouth shut or he'll start killing people, depending on how nuts he is. The one person we can count on him flapping his lips to–presuming you and Kachiko are right about what motivates him–is Kachiko herself. The only problem is, that means she has to talk to him. We have to be perfect in springing the trap–and so does she. She has to get out and we have to make our move fast, because if we're a heartbeat slow he'll kill her and escape."

"Then it's up to us to make sure that doesn't happen," he said tersely, his inner feelings beginning to show through the facade of good humor.

"You love her." It wasn't a question. No surprise; in his experience Alys Brangwin never bothered with questions. Or tact.

"Is it that obvious?"

"Yes."

"So what, did you want to quiz me on how I felt about the woman I love being bait in a trap to catch a madman?"

Alys gave him a sour look.

"I know how you feel about that, Rane. Anyone knows how you feel about that. I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate you not getting in her way. It's all well and good to risk your life for others, but it's another thing to sit back and watch someone you care for do it for you." She clapped Rane on the shoulder. "That takes more courage, I think."

* * * * *

Kachiko looked critically at her reflection in the mirror as the servant settled the elaborate headdress over her head, tucking wisps of lavender hair under the edge so that the gold-and-ebony border framed her face. She had chosen to meet Kenji in the formal robes of the Clan Lord of the Miyama, something she would wear only at weddings, funerals, or other formal ceremonies, the only time these days when the concept had any meaning.

Tonight, though, she wore them for another reason. Kenji was coming to meet with the last of the Miyama bloodline, and that was how she would receive him. Tradition–culture–was important to Kachiko, even though she did not live in the world which had given rise to it. Traditions had to adapt to reality, a truth Yasha's bearer could not understand, but they also had to be preserved. As a Miyama, she had responsibilities, just not the ones Kenji thought she had.

"Rane and Alys have the best of both worlds," she told her reflection. "They realize that only by using me to draw Kenji out can he be caught without destroying a number of innocent lives, but they fail to carry that reasoning forward the last step–that to make certain Kenji is trapped, I will have to be trapped with him."

It was her duty, she knew, to solve this problem. For once, let a Miyama do the right thing, to resolve a problem of the clans and not be the cause of trouble through greed and arrogance.

Perhaps, Kachiko thought, this was the final act of the katanas' vengeance, to at long last bring about the end of the Miyama overlords, their Hirata retainers, and the final vestige of the kingdom the two families had misruled. After all, without Yasha, Kenji would not have set foot on his obsessive quest, would he?

It was time. She checked her robes once more, then turned towards the door.

Pain exploded through her skull after a single step, and darkness swallowed Kachiko.

* * * * *

The same boy who had delivered Kachiko's message admitted Kenji to the Miyama home. He showed the warrior through the foyer, down a hall, and into the enclosed garden. The faint perfumes of night-blossoms filled the cool evening air, and Kenji paused to appreciate the beauty around him as the boy closed the door. Like Hiro, Kachiko at least paid service to some of the clan traditions; although the plants around him were those of a Motavian desert oasis the garden could otherwise have been from a lord's manor in Eppi two thousand years ago.

It remained to be seen if she would truly be a Miyama, however.

Glowflies flitted above the flowers, their violet and blue lights flickering as Kenji made his way towards the pavilion, an octagonal gazebo set near the far wall of the courtyard. The Miyama home was a square, with the garden in the center, and followed standard Motavian construction with its crenelated walls. They made Kenji think of castle ramparts, manned by warriors who sent slashers and bow-gun bolts down upon their enemies.

The pavilion was a star of glowing light in the garden, with two ornate blown-glass lanterns hanging from the roof's rim. Kenji climbed the stairs and stepped within. Kachiko sat at the table, looking like a queen in her formal robes of black and gold, the pale light flattering her.

Perhaps, Kenji thought, there was hope for the clans yet. Perhaps here was a Miyama who had not forgotten honor or the Way of the Warrior.

"Good evening, Kenji," she said. Was there a faint quaver in her voice? A bit of not-quite- repressed nervousness? "We have much to discuss."

"We do indeed. The fate of the clans, of Motavia–"

"I have not given you leave to speak, Hirata!" she snapped. The tremor in her voice was definitely there, but so was the power of authority. The use of his last name merely emphasized his traditional standing as one of a follower clan, a family without Miyama authority.

She was most beautiful, he thought, and younger-seeming than most women in their mid- thirties. It disconcerted him momentarily.

"You slew my brothers, Tedashi and Hiro, did you not? You cut them down with the katana, Yasha."

"They were honorless and corrupt. They refused to take up their place as a Miyama, as Clan Lord. They refused to rebuild Aerie. The clans have lost their way. We blindly follow the customs of other families, of outsiders and even Motavians. We throw aside the Way of the Warrior for the pursuit of money! I gave each the chance to accept his rightful destiny, to take my service as my ancestors served yours and theirs, to rebuild our heritage at long last. Tedashi was corrupt and Hiro was a coward, so I cut them down."

"And so you came to me, a murderer with bloody steel in hand. You wish the last of the Miyama to accept her brothers' killer as her loyal knight? You are absurd. You have forgotten what it means to be a true servant of the Miyama."

Before he could say anything more, she raised her hand and gestured sharply. "Zan!"

As the word of her technique left her lips, Kenji drew Yasha and struck in one single motion. He heard the rush of wind from the technique but felt nothing as Kachiko's dead form slumped down in her seat. As she dropped, her ornate headdress fell askew, and locks of white hair slipped free.

White? He had not seen Kachiko in a decade, but surely she could not have white hair yet?

The popping and snapping of wood caught his attention. Acting purely on instinct, Kenji flung himself aside as the eight support pillars holding up the pavilion roof–pillars carefully weakened before Kenji's arrival–cracked and burst apart, letting the roof–and the load of stones secreted within–come falling down, crushing corpse, table, chairs, and lanterns. He felt a heavy impact across the back of his legs.

Now, faces were peering up over the crenelated walls, ropes falling, figures descending. Kenji's mind reeled with pain, but more so with shock. It had been a trap! He had been caught in a cursed, dishonorable trap!

* * * * *

Alys did not waste time with questions or posturing. She rushed up to Kenji and slammed her boot down hard on his wrist twice, quickly, until his hand spasmed open. Another flip of her foot sent Yasha skittering away.

They'd been lucky, she realized. A beam had pinned Kenji's legs, but the main bulk of the weights had missed him. Even acting out of reflex–no doubt reflexes magically assisted by the katana–he'd nearly jumped free. If Kachiko hadn't called the trap down on herself instead of following the plan, he'd surely have escaped it entirely.

"Congratulations, Kenji. You just confessed to two murders in the presence of half the Zeman town guards, not to mention a couple of other fairly credible witnesses."

He looked up at her, eyes widening in recognition.

"You..." he sneered. "I know you. Alys Brangwin, the best of those stupid hunters who play at being warriors. You didn't even have the courage to face me in combat."

"Why should I? I don't get paid to strut around, playing stupid games to feed my ego. My job is to get a murdering psychopath with a magic sword off the streets."

"A typical coward. You know nothing of the Way of the Warrior."

She kept herself, with some effort, from kicking the young man in the face as Thurgood's men tied his wrists together before starting to remove the beam pinning his legs. Instead, Alys squatted down, fisted one gloved hand in his short hair, and jerked his head back so they were eye to eye.

"You won't understand this, but I'll waste my time saying it once. When you've decided to start killing people, there's no honor to it, no justice, and there's damned sure nothing to be proud about. You didn't kill those people for honor. You killed them because they wouldn't do what you wanted them to do. You're not a noble hero who's entitled to some formal, ritualistic end on account of your social role, but a stupid idiot who's good with a knife and can't figure out why that doesn't mean something. Real honor comes from protecting people, and that woman you just killed had more of it than you could imagine on your best day. Now, shut up."

She slammed his head back down and stalked away, sick of warriors and legends and magic and self-sacrifice and honor and the whole damned thing.

* * * * *

The side of Kachiko's head throbbed as she and Rane stood hand-in-hand, looking down at the grave. A mild concussion, the healer thought, from being struck from behind with a porcelain vase. Despite her injury, though, she would not have missed this ceremony. She had endured the pain and the bursts of nausea and dizziness through the funeral, and she endured them as she and Rane paid their last respects.

"She did exactly what I'd intended," Kachiko confessed.

"Then she has my gratitude a hundred times over for saving your life."

"She wouldn't let me sacrifice myself. She took my place and gave her life for mine." There was still a kind of bewildered wonder in her voice.

"Loyalty is an admirable tradition for all of us."

"But this...I'd never have asked her for this." Kachiko waved her free hand, clenched in a loose fist, at the grave.

Rane clasped her fingers more tightly.

"She knew that. It's part of what made you worth doing it for."

"She won't be forgotten," Kachiko said fiercely. "So long as there are Miyama, we will remember her. We'll remember the name of a girl who showed us the true meaning of duty, loyalty, and honor..."

Kachiko opened her hand, and let the soft white petals scatter down over the freshly turned earth of the grave, where grass had not yet taken root.

"...Shino."

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