Shiba Sagura knew he was in trouble. He knew that his entire world was about to turn on its head, one way or the other.
He did not mean to challenge the Spirit of Honor’s word, especially within his hearing.
He did not intend to sire a child with another man’s wife. To his mind, the child would be haunted by that stigma for the rest of its life… and so would the young Phoenix.
He never wished to ostracize himself by his words and drunken actions, to offend Kakita Kiyo, to infuriate Bayushi Mamoru.
These things occupied his thoughts as he awaited the dawn, and a duel to the death he did not believe he could win.
No one else slept that night, though for an entirely different reason. Toritaka Hitomi, Sanjuro Tatsuya, and Sanjuro Yuzuki were approached by an old ‘foe’: Ineko, the Song of Blood. She offered them her friendship and assistance in return for a simple boon…
Tatsuya and Yuzuki sent her away, debating whether turning over a copy of the Path of Man to the bloodspeaker could cause much trouble in the future… and if that trouble was worth the gain. While they debated, Kasuga Kiyomi, who had sneaked into Sanjuro Daichiko’s nursery to hold the baby, was also confronted by Ineko. When the same request was put to her, the Tortoise immediately chose to learn about her companions: how to cure the curses Tengoku, Jigoku, and all Creation had thrust upon them.
Dawn approached, and Sagura’s meditations were interrupted by the arrival of his uncle, Isawa Keitaro, fresh from the defense of his brother’s keep. Keitaro bore a message in response to Sagura’s letter, orders from Yoshio. The message was sternly worded, telling the younger Phoenix to maintain the Honor of his Clan and their allies in the Miya, to forget his inner turmoil over a Dutiful act, and to preserve his life.
“A samurai’s life does not belong to him. It is given to his lord, to spend as he chooses in the pursuance of his own Duty. You have made your own choice, my son, and now you must live with it. Our family needs you.”
‘Must live’ rang in the young samurai’s mind, and his recently-regained vision cleared: he knew what he had to do.
When his companions assembled, and he faced the Spirit of Honor across a dueling circle, Sagura bowed, like a reed before a mighty wind, and recanted his offensive words. So Honor relented.
As his companions stepped forward to greet the relieved samurai, the Shadow Dragon sprung its trap. After all, how could it refuse such tempting, unaware, sleep-deprived targets, and a chance to capture or slay the Spirit of Honor as well? Shadows sprang to life, lesser avatars of the Dragon itself.
Hitomi, Yuzuki and Tatsuya stepped forward, proud and confident. Kiyomi ducked behind her bodyguard and cousin, and Sagura stepped forward to duel with his own opponent. The battle that followed flowed perfectly, the companions in harmony with each other once more, and with each blow another minion of the Shadow Dragon was sent howling back to the Nothingness.
The battle ended when Sagura paused to stare down at the arrow through his heart.
Time froze: within the arrow was bound a Beast, a creature embodying 107 lifetimes filled with mistakes and wickedness. Sagura’s past self, prepared to consume his soul and drag it to Gaki-do forever.
A samurai would have stood his ground. He would have fought the Beast to the death, conquering it or being devoured by it. But Sagura had gained wisdom over the past year: he found a path besides Bushido, one that held a more certain victory, if he could bear the price.
“You are a part of me.” He accepted the Beast into himself, to keep it penned with his will, to accept all of his mistakes, and to move past them.
Kiyomi watched all of this as though from afar, piercing the frozen moment, her own curse causing her to see how her dead friend would be judged. But the blazing letters above his head that signaled his final destination shifted constantly: Jigoku, Gaki-do, Maigo no Musha, Yomi, Tengoku… until at last the Fortune of Death himself stood before them for his deliberations.
The Tortoise bargained and reasoned and pleaded for the Phoenix’s life as he contained the Beast. And Emma-O, The Final Judge, at last relented. The Phoenix rose again.