Her red boots were stained with mud. Any bloodstains from wounds were hidden by the red of her armor and the silk cape that was draped over her pauldrons. She stomped over the still-warm corpses of the samurai that tried to defend a perilous position and protect cannons that were aimed in the wrong direction. And she knew her prey well enough to know that he’d take position commanding from atop the same hill where his artillery was.
Her mind swam in the memories of what happened and what brought her there. Her ancestral house was seized, the message said, by orders of the Minister of the Capital.
A man she once called friend. It was impossible, she remembered thinking.
While she had taken time to consider a proper response that wouldn’t bring her clan into the war she knew was coming, darker news brought by trusted retainers came to Blackbird Castle where she was. That second news had brought her and her samurai to the battlefield.
Only his banners flew in the breeze. The other daimyo in the alliance were already out on the battlefield like the noble-but-doomed Sagara, or perhaps they’d fought their way through enemy lines to escape, like the pragmatic Komagata. Her samurai were out there, given orders to slaughter any opposing forces they encountered, to further add to the legend of the Red Devil and the demon-blessed warriors that followed her from battle to battle to drench in the blood of fools.
Behind the demon-faced mask, she flashed her teeth. Morinaga Matsukaze had nowhere to run.
Over the battle drums, over the thundering of muskets, over the roar of cavalry, over the screams of the dying and the fighting, her voice bellowed out. Blood froze in the veins of those around her. A few whispered thanks to the kami and the sun that it wasn’t their name that was spoken. Many either knew the voice or guessed where it came from by the sensation of fresh winter snow trailing along their spines. It was the voice of the woman known throughout Izumo as the Red Devil, and it was best not to get in her way.
Steel gutted the man like a fish, the blade slipped into the gap between the lacquered plates of his armor.
She tossed him aside as the next came at him. Greeted him by slicing open his throat.
A third guard came at her with a spear. She closed the distance, hit him hard enough to knock out his front teeth, and used him as a shield against the sword of another guard.
After the hit, she discarded the body and stabbed the attacker in the leg. She cut his throat to keep him silent.
And then the Red Devil turned to the remaining bodyguards and their master, who stood impassive. She flicked the blood from her tanto.
“You know who I am. You know what I’m capable of.” She eyed the sacks of fear that stood against her. “Leave now, and I won’t send you to your ancestors.”
“We can’t,” one of the guards said. A woman with a spear. Something about her eyes was familiar, but she couldn’t place it.
She heard the distinct clicking of swords being drawn. Her hand hovered over her own until the man she came for stood from his chair.
The foreign-style chest plate made of a single piece of steel was better protection than he provided for his bodyguards. His helmet was decorated with red fur, arranged to give the appearance of a lion’s mane. He used a small knife to cut the cords that kept his featureless white mask in place to reveal a face that balanced precocious and world-weary. Morinaga Matsukaze wore his armor like a man who wanted to be taken seriously on a battlefield.
“Stand down.” The men obeyed. At least one of them looked relieved. “You’ve been shot.”
She glanced down. Two of the lacquered plates on her armor were cracked in that precise way that only musket rounds caused. She’d not felt the impact.
“I’m sorry about what I did, Sakura.”
“You don’t get to call me that.” She spat at his feet. “Not anymore.”
He put his arms down, set his metal fan on a nearby table. Not that he was making use of it to signal orders on the battlefield anyway. “I’m sorry.”
“Is that all you have to say? You’re sorry? I suppose you didn’t mean for it to happen.”
She sheathed her tanto. “It doesn’t matter if you meant for it or not,” she said as she undid the cords on her helmet.
She tossed it and her mask aside. Her eyes were puffy and red. Nostrils flared with every breath. Her hair was in disarray, left loose and at the mercy of the wind instead of tied tight and kept in place by little metal pins.
“It still happened. My wife is still dead.” She drew her sword and pointed it at him. “Because of you, Morinaga.”
He looked down. Almost like an apology. “I wish I could take it back.”
“Draw your sword,” she said. “So you can pretend you died with honor when I send you to your ancestors. It’s more dignity than you deserve.”
As he drew, he said, “I didn’t want this to happen. I did it to avoid this.”
The muscles in her arms tensed and tightened. Her eyes bulged as something acerbic and flaring began to climb up her throat. “You kidnapped my wife and held her hostage, and you thought that wouldn’t make me angry?!”
“I held her hostage to keep you off the battlefield!” he shouted. “I didn’t want you getting involved, I wanted to be sure the Red Devil joined no side in this fight.”
That was the only warning she gave.
He gave ground as he blocked her attack. The fire in her eyes reflected off the polished surfaces of their blades as she broke the lock with a kick to his leg. Only a lucky roll kept her from finishing him then and there.
“You should have just asked me,” she said as he got on his feet. “We have known each other all our lives. We had trust between us, once.”
Another exchange. An attack, a reply. She drew blood from a shallow cut as he pulled back. His armor was muddy. His breathing was shallow.
“You knew I’d join your side in this war if you just asked.” She hissed through her teeth. An attack. A dodge. “But instead you chose to hold her hostage.”
A block. A haphazard parry. And then a countermove that nicked the skin of his retreating neck. “It wasn’t just her, Sakura! I needed to secure the cooperation of the other neutral daimyo. I couldn’t risk them siding against me.”
“The only time you risked my siding against you was when you threatened Kotori!” Sakura went for the throat again. Hissed as he managed to avoid dying. “And you’d have known that. You were always the clever one between us. So why, Morinaga? What’s the truth behind your lies?”
Another exchange. He held his own before pulling back again, evading and avoiding. One of his guards stepped forward, only to be stabbed by a blade slipped between the plates.
Morinaga lied. She knew it as plainly as she knew the weight and balance of her sword. She’d known him long enough, worked beside him as he climbed the path of the bureaucracy and administration. But why lie to her?
Sakura yelled as she kicked the dead man aside. “Answer me!”
He stood his ground, held it against her attack. He’d drawn his sai and caught her blade between its prongs.
She kicked him in the leg and pulled back to avoid being locked in.
Two more guards. She pulled away, roared as she clashed swords with them. She recognized the style, fought students skilled in it before. One attack dodged, then another. Then a half-empty bottle of sake smashed against the side of the head. A stab between the eyes followed. She pulled her tanto out with a slash, cutting at the other guard’s cheek in the same motion.
He kicked her in the leg when she overextended. She answered with a stab between his legs. A cut across the throat put the man out of his misery.
She roared as she returned her focus on Morinaga. A small part of her still couldn’t fully accept what had happened, hadn’t come to terms with what had to be done. With the call of blood vengeance. That part of her had to be silenced if she was to force the truth out of the man before sending him to his ancestors.
“Fine.” He seized the offensive, pushed close. “I did it because you chose her!”
Her eyes widened. “What?”
He pushed back. There was contempt in how easy her movements to push him back were.
“We’ve known each other all our lives. All those years I spent as a guest of your father’s, years where I learned beside you. Grew up with you. Loved you.”
He lashed out. The sword was wild, the prongs of the sai wilder. She blocked. And then, with deft ease, cut the back of his right hand to force him to let the smaller weapon go.
“I loved you! I still love you!” he shouted. “But you never, not once, noticed how I felt!”
Another guard interrupted them. Faster than the others, armed with a spear. The Red Devil was pushed back. She thought she recognized those blue eyes behind the mask.
“But I could live with that. I could live with waiting for you to finally take notice.” His voice was soft, but with a tension underneath, ready to burst. “And then you chose her. You chose Kotori.”
The spear kept the pressure on her, but the Red Devil refused to be deterred. When the spearhead thrust at her side, cut the straps that held some of the plates in place, she dropped her tanto and sword. And she yelled as she took hold of the shaft. A yell became a primal, bestial howl as she swung the guard to crash against the unused cannons through strength of rage.
Morinaga stood there, trembling.
“I loved her.”
“You should have loved me. You owed it to me.”
He attacked. She dodged, then used a nearby table as a shield. His slashes were wide and wild, meant to keep her stepping back and away. To put distance between her and her weapons.
She spat at him. “I owe you nothing but death, Morinaga.”
He growled. He overextended on his next attack. Steel cut into the pauldron, then into the straps of leather. It nicked the skin under her collarbone and drew blood.
She pulled closer, close enough to taste the sake on his breath. And then she twisted his good arm, pressed until he bit his lip to keep from crying out. His grip on his sword loosened, and she pulled it away from him. His eyes widened and he reached to take it back. She kicked him in the shin, then a knee between the legs. As he tumbled down, she pulled back a half-step.
“My wife died. Thrust a knife into her own throat so she couldn’t be used against me.” She kicked him in the throat. Hard enough that he fell with his back to the mud. “She loved me. You? You’re nothing but a coward.”
Sakura thrust the point of Morinaga’s sword into his neck, wondering if he felt that cold edge. Wondered what words the gurgling sounds he made were meant to be as she thrust deeper. She let go and left the blade there for a moment. One last look at the man that was once her friend, that she trusted. The man who took her beloved Kotori away. She thought about taking the head but decided to just leave the man there to rot.
The Red Devil picked up her blades, taking one of Morinaga’s banners to wipe the mud and blood from them. After a moment’s thought, she pulled them all down as a signal the commander’s camp fell. The battle was over.
She looked at the guard she’d tossed aside, the one with the familiar eyes. A realization came to her as she looked at Morinaga’s still-warm corpse. She heard the news, though she’d not been able to attend in person. She thought about sending a gift, but the dangers on the road made her decide against it. And as war began to loom, it became pointless to bring up the matter. She’d regretted it, once upon a time. Not anymore.
She’d met the woman before, only one time. Before the arrangement was made, during an attempt to secure potential alliances. The eyes were just as intense then. Save for one small detail.
Sakura guessed what kind of woman was behind the spear, on the circumstances that brought that warrior there. She looked at how the arms and footing were steady, but the shoulders revealed hesitation and uncertainty. The combination was one she’d seen over and over again in warriors that lacked the confidence in their skills to challenge someone of her reputation.
“Will you be avenging your husband?” she asked, blades ready.
The grip on the spear tightened. “He was my husband.”
“Did you even like the man?”
“Duty demands I act.”
“And you have,” Sakura pointed out. “You didn’t answer my question.”
The guard removed her helmet and dropped her spear. “He isn’t worth it, is he?”
Sakura took a final look at him. “No. No, he isn’t.”
The Red Devil walked away, her rage starting to cool. Around her, the roar of triumph resounded as Morinaga’s army surrendered the field.
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