Kaori wakes first, before the first rays of dawn truly make their way into the Shrine chamber. She wraps the warm blanket provided by the monks around her and steps outside, into the chill pre-dawn. The monk that once helped her resolve the original dilemma, only a month and some change ago, approaches her as she steps down into the garden.
“Are you nervous?” He speaks quietly, respectful of Kimiyasu and Katai’s sleep.
Kaori shakes her head, then stops. “I am sad, and fear that this is perhaps not the best choice, but I am willing to do what my parents wish.” The lie of this being what her parents wish tastes bitter in this holy place.
The monk nods, “Come. Dawn is spectacular from the hill. We have just enough time to get there.” Kaori turns and follows the monk up the hill and to the bench. They sit just as the light begins flowing into the valley. Kaori watches it chase the darkness across the farmlands and the fields, turning the deep void of the black earth into something fertile and new. She watches houses emerge from under the starlight, the first green shoots coming forth to meet the dawn’s rays, and finally again she watches the light reach out and caress the mountains and the hills, turning the black-and-purple shadows into fiery red-orange-yellow and white at the heights. She sighs at the peace of everything, and watches her mother and sister exit from the Shrine chamber. The monk grabs her arms suddenly and she turns towards him alarmed, but he is not looking at her.
Kaori looks out, at the close end of the valley, a cloud of dust comes around through the pass, and Kaori sees it now that it has been pointed out: a column of soldiers. She gasps. The monk seems to read her mind.
“This is a sacred space. They will not defile it. Go, warn your mother and sister.”
Kaori does not waste time, she rushes down the hill, almost falling at several points as the songbirds begin their morning notes. “Mother, Kimiyasu!”
“What, was it daughter, what happened? And look at your kimono, you look like you’ve mucked in with pigs.” Kaori gasps for breath.
“What is it Kaori?” The worry is apparent on Kimiyasu’s face, and Katai’s anger quickly dissolves.
“Soldiers… coming through… the pass…” She collapses into Katai’s arms.
“Soldiers?” Kimiyasu places her arm on Kaori’s shoulder. “Are you certain?”
“I saw the dust, and the formation. They had banners, but I didn’t know the sign.” She hugs onto her mother tightly.
“Shhhh,” Katai holds her daughter, trying to stop her from trembling and holding back from doing such herself. “We are safe here, no one would dare spill blood on sacred soil; no one is suicidal enough to offend Heaven.” Kimiyasu and Katai share a look, and then the three are comforting one another as much as they are comforting themselves.
When the men arrive, they come already aware of the news. Huiren speaks to Katai away from the rest of the families. “It seems they are on their way here. It is my hope that they need only provisions and then will be on their way. Their mark is not the Governor’s though.”
“Surely they would not attack a holy Shrine?”
“War is a devil that taints the minds of men and makes of them its slaves. I dare not speak to what they will and will not do, but I believe you are correct, my dear wife.”
“Oh husband,” she collapses into his arms, “I am scared…”
Away from their parents, the three siblings are also conferring as Hensei approaches their parents.
“Do you think they’ll postpone the wedding?” Kaori says.
Weili shakes his head. “There wasn’t an auspicious time for another two seasons for this marriage. It is today or not at all in the eyes of the Tsukino family.”
Kimiyasu fans herself erratically. “But Hensei will have to treat with them, how will he do that when he is here overseeing the paperwork?”
“Hensei doesn’t need to oversee anything, the priest can officiate the wedding without him. He needs only witness the sharing of the wine.”
Kaori also begins fanning herself erratically. Weili reaches out and places a hand on both their shoulders. “Baichang and I will be here to protect the both of you, don’t worry. You’re safe here.”
Kaori and Kimiyasu nod their head.
As the ceremony begins a man on horseback approaches the wedding party, on his back is a banner, at his sides are weapons of war. He waits patiently until after Kimiyasu and Baichang share the rice wine, then Baichang and Kaori. Hensei extricates himself from the wedding party and approaches the man on horseback.
“I am Hideki Hensei, goverment liason for this village. I see you do not carry the banner of our lord, Governor Harukaede Daning.”
The man does not dismount. “That is most unfortunate, Liason Hideki. I have heard good words about your skills as an artist. I did not realize you had been stationed here. My name is Warchief Wunuo Sukehide. I am heading an occupation force into this valley to claim it for my Lord.”
“It would seem this is terribly unfortunate. Honor dictates that we should resist as is our duty to our Lord Governor.”
“As I said. I would regret having to kill such an exalted artist.”
“Your men are not attacking though.”
“This is a holy place. More importantly, we do not wish to destroy the village. I have strict orders to kill as few people as possible. Our Lord needs this village and its produce in order to continue his war effort, and in order for that to work, he needs this village producing, not razed to the ground. We have heard of the skill of the Tsukino family in producing more than most thought possible from this soil.”
Hensei looks over his shoulder. “Their eldest son is the groom in today’s marriage.”
Huiren and Baichang’s father both step forward. Huiren places a hand on Hensei’s shoulder and the two share a look.
“I will stand with you friend, as is our duty.”
“For the good Inaba Huiren has done this village, I would be honored to stand with both of you.”
Distracted with the ceremony, Kaori does not hear her father’s words, and wonders what is going on with the rider.
“Then I propose a duel, I will fight the three of you in succession. I trust all of you have heirs?”
Huiren complains, “That is hardly fair, unless you judge your skill to be that great, and then I would accuse you of bragging.”
“I have been three years on campaign. I have faced numerous duels and won entire battles because of it. I would wager my skill is suitable to the task.”
“Should I fall, I assume you will take my post, honorable Warchief, as government liason?”
“For the time it would take my Lord to send a more suitable replacement and thus allow me to continue, yes. You do not have an heir?”
“I am as yet unmarried.”
“I see then. I will honor you at the shrine after you have passed on then.”
“Thank you, Warchief.”
Finally the three travel down the hill and to the road. Kaori watches them go, concern growing within her. Kimiyasu reaches out her hand and holds it, for comfort and to prevent Kaori from dashing off in the middle of the ceremony.
When it is over, Kaori rushes down the hill to the road. Hensei and Baichang’s father lie dead to one side, composed for burial. Kaori and Weili see the swords of the Warchief and her father flash in the midmorning light, and then lock together. Kaori screams out her father’s name. Weili and Katai hold her back. The temple priest rushes over to the bodies.
Huiren smiles bitterly. He had not wished Kaori or Kimiyasu to see this, his death on their wedding day. He is skilled enough to know that the Warchief was not being boastful, even with the two surprise wounds from Baichang’s father, the man’s icy demeanor is deadly. He leans in as their swords are locked.
“Make it clean. For my daughter.”
The Warchief nods. The two pull back simultaneously and then rush forward. The Warchief deflects Hensei’s blow with an unexpected twist that leaves him open, and then slices sideways.
Huiren’s head flies to the side by the other bodies. Kaori screams, and the world goes dark.