In the retrospect, in times after, Akemi would piece together what had happened. The fact that having Clark and Jia both following her, fighting in her name, had crossed the line to real authority. That having that authority, had given her the command enough to draw forth soldiers of her own. That training Jia properly had changed the script for them all, had turned the three of them from the arm of the House of the Wasp, into something new.
But in that moment, all Akemi cared about was finishing this. If there was no home for Jia here, if there was none for her anymore, then all that mattered was leaving in one piece. So she punched Miyako, her cousin by blood and little else, with enough force to break a normal person’s jaw right open.
As it was, all it did was manage to make Miyako stumble back, but it was enough. Enough of an opening, with her focus caught between the two battles more than Akemi’s own, to be leapt upon. And leap upon it, leap upon her, was exactly what Akemi did. More bone soldiers came up around her, either pushing back Miyako’s forces or joining in the raw attack. Any one of them would have been child’s play for Miyako to stop. But all of them, at once, with Akemi at the head? That was something different.
Strike after strike rained down, Akemi swinging the Blade of the Executioner with all her training and all of her strength. The New Moon screamed under the assault, the metal forced to endure all that force put upon it again and again. She could feel the edge yielding, the damage she was doing to the weapon. And she knew Miyako could feel it too.
That armor fared little better, when her blows got through the princess’s guard. It was strong, reinforced with authority and ordered to protect its wearer, but strength could only do so much. Akemi had cut through worse, had poured her hate through the Blade of the Executioner more than once. If Brenda had told them what had happened, it would have come with a warning. Miyako would know. Would know what Akemi had done to the Steel Icon, a weapon and armor bound as one.
It was that certain knowledge, and the raw fear that came with it, that forced Miyako’s hand. She managed to catch the Blade of the Executioner a second time in the fight, grappling both of Akemi’s hands to try and keep it under control. The raw force of her will pushed out, and the bone soldiers staggered, unable to maintain their fight without their leader’s momentum. “TO ME!” she cried, pulling what was left of her forces. She needed backup. She needed more targets for Akemi’s wrath, needed to at least try for something, anything.
And then Akemi let the Blade of the Executioner go. She let it fall into ink-stained grass, as she instead fought Miyako’s grapple. Her grip on the princess’s wrist forced the New Moon from her hand in turn. A kick into the side of Miyako’s knee got around the built-up armor joint almost entirely, twisting the one of flesh underneath. A dirty blow, the kind of thing her teacher, her predecessor, had kept from the rest of the House. Never assume anyone can be trusted until they’re sworn to you. Not blood, not friends, not kings. We are on the edge of everything the others build, and that makes us dangerous.
Maybe all that bitterness had been for a solid reason.
But that was a thought for later. A thought Akemi would reflect on, in the days to come. In the moment, she threw her screaming cousin to the ground, let her land on the bad leg as the soldiers descended upon her. In one hand, she called up the Blade of the Executioner. In the other, she scooped the New Moon off the ground, that steel wailing in a resonant hum, trying to leap from her hand. It rejected her authority, would not fight for her, would not cut flesh in her name.
She didn’t need it to. She needed it gone. Akemi simply threw the thing as hard as she could into the wall, through the wood, into the stone, embedded to the guard. A flash of motion from the Blade of the Executioner, from her sword, carved open three of the soldiers. Another strike took two more. A whirling kick, sent one into a pair of its comrades, let her see the exhaustion and wounds on her own people. Clark and Jia, on their feet, but ready to keel over, just staring at what was left of the fight. Her own bone soldiers couldn’t even get in to help, their instincts overridden by a base yearning to not fall.
Miyako’s forces, focused entirely on Akemi, lasted seconds. When it was over, when ink spilled onto the ground so thick the green of grass could not be seen, when Miyako struggled to get to her feet, to call her blade with enough will to draw it from its resting place…
That was when Akemi finally planted her boot onto her cousin’s breastplate, and pinned her to the ground. The Blade of the Executioner sank into the grass, needing no point to drive through the soil, as she brought it down a hand’s width from Miyako’s head. “We’re done.”
Miyako stared, eyes wide, beyond fear. All the way into terror, a raw panic at what she’d unleashed. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“Mercy for mercy,” Akemi said. “Our lives, for yours. A good bargain, and you will take it. Or I will decide your other leg is no longer part of the deal…Now, you will let us leave. And then you will do three things for me, as a final favor to your own blood.”
“…What?” Miyako managed. Confusion? Acceptance? Not even she knew, not after the shift. Not after the agony running through her leg, not after the cry of her sword unable to help her.
Akemi raised a finger. “You will tell my father I am sorry, that I wanted to see him one more time, and I hope to one day see him again.” The second finger. “You will tell my blood brother that I will welcome him with open arms, when I have settled my affairs. We both know he will end up with my title, and the freedom to do so.” And the third finger. “And you will tell your father, that they are off limits. You want me? You come for me. Or I will break him the way I broke you, and keep them safe by the sword.”
She stood, pulled her sword from the dirt and glanced behind her. The New Moon quivered in the wall, trying and failing to be wrenched free by Miyako’s feeble order. Without giving it a second look, Akemi walked from the site of battle, ignored the weight of fatigue in her limbs, and hefted her pack in one hand. “Do not be a fool and force me to throw your life away, Miyako.”
She walked, and didn’t stop, as she approached Clark and Jia both. “I must ask you both to walk again, or else cast me away.”
They left, all three of them, with a stunned Princess Miyako of the House of the Wasp in their wake.
“I know you can hear me, Sable! Show yourself!” Akemi bellowed into the night sky, away from the protection of the campfire. She stood without her armor, body still nursing some bruises from the fight, and alone. It was the third night she had done this since they had begun their travels outward, the third night she took the risk upon herself to try and get a better plan than simply going back the way they’d came.
Their journey outward from the Lands of the Wasp was only just keeping up with the pace of their journey into it, from the more extensive wounds Jia and Clark had sustained. They had been pushed to their edge; Clark’s arm still needed to be in a sling, and Jia had been nursing a limp. Things were improving, but simply not fast enough if something were to go wrong.
All the more reason to make this work, to limit how much further they had to travel to get to somewhere that wouldn’t be actively hunting them down. Akemi waited, but when only silence greeted her, she finally planted her feet, and took a deep breath. To hell with it. Who would they send, if they found her? Who would have the jewels to come at her after the stories Miyako would tell? “SABLE! NOW, you thrice-damned coward!” she cried, at the top of her lungs, with enough force and volume to damn near command the dead.
For the third time, Akemi stood there alone, and waited. That ronin would not go far, not with a debt hanging over his head…And not with the interest he had shown, no doubt wanting something like this to happen to her. For her to be as much a ronin as he. He wouldn’t deny himself the perverse thrill, not for long. That much, she knew.
It took nearly a minute for a shape to step out of the darkness, and several more seconds for that shape to be Sable. Shirtless as ever, flaunting his good looks and his supposed lack of need for any genuine protection. Yet he had those knives of his hooked to his belt, one hand resting on a hilt. She had him scared, and fighting not to show it. “Well well, lo—Akemi,” he corrected himself, “I never expected to see this. What happened to your little friends, hmm?”
“You want out of your debt to me, Sable.” It wasn’t a question. It didn’t need to be.
He paused. “Calling in a favor already, are we? I suppose I can guess…Ferry somewhere, is that it?”
She gave a nod. “Unclaimed territory. Not the former Lands of Fire, it’s too obvious. Somewhere else to stake a claim.”
That got Sable to raise an eyebrow. “Not planning to sell yourself to some other lord or lady, I take it? Finally seeing things my way?”
Wisps of frozen mist left Akemi’s lips, despite the warmth of night this time of year. Focus, center, control. She needed that damned head attached to his shoulders, no matter how much she wanted to rip his tongue out and feed it to him. “I’d be right to blame you for the entire lot of this, Sable. Give all of us ferry, or I will find something more dangerous to use your life on.”
“More dangerous than a midnight ride through countless pieces of territory, with a second ronin, the heretic girl and the blonde? Surely you can’t be serious.” He saw the shift in her, the active effort to avoid lashing out, and it was enough to get him to take a step back.
“Don’t tempt me…Now swear on your life, you will do this favor. You’ve seen me fight. You’ve seen the aftermath. Don’t think you could get away with a betrayal.”
Sable winced, putting both hands up in front of him. “Easy, easy. I’m many things, but I’m not a traitor, I’ll have you know…But fine. We’ll have to move quickly. This is always a little dangerous, and that’s with me all by my lonesome.”
Three days, it had taken to force Sable to appear before her. Three more were used up on the escape. Flitting from shadow to shadow, the ronin dragging them along. They moved as fast as horses and as silent as phantoms, from sundown to sunup, in nearly a straight line through whatever they had to go through. No fights, no slowing down more than they had to.
It took them through forests and grasslands, through rocks and through sand, to an unloved and unwanted coast. Their last exit took them out of the shadow of a rock at sunset, the sound of lapping water reaching Akemi’s ears before her eyes came back on. She gripped Clark’s hand firm, pulling him out of the shadows behind her. “What is this place?”
“What you asked for. Unclaimed territory.” Sable, through first of them all as their guide, swept his arms out wide. “This beach is the best I can do on such short notice, loves. It’s not much, but the House of Sky to your North are fairly peaceful, and the House of Stone down that way have some good-sized cities to disappear into. If you want better, you need to give a man time to find it…”
Jia dropped herself into the sand almost as soon as she had her bearings, and realized she wouldn’t be hitting anything too painful in the process. “What good is it, then?” she asked, sucking in air. Her stamina was miles beyond what it had been, but she could still only take so much, and it was rather less than her more experienced comrades. “We’re just hiding in the open, here, aren’t we?”
“No.” Akemi, of no House and no Land, set her pack down. “We’re not hiding. Ronins hide, sellswords hide, whatever you call them, they’re all hiding the same,” she said, refusing to look at Sable. “I will not be a ronin.”
Clark put things together first. “My Lady, are you sure…And here? I mean…”
“Find me a better place, and I will change my mind.” She pulled open the pack, looking through what she had left. Their rations were long gone, of course, consumed and then some just to get them this far. First out came her sword. Then, her tools to maintain her equipment, to forge metal. Much would need to change. “Your debt is paid, Sable. Leave with your life your own, and do not darken my doorstep again.”
The ronin paused, his hair caught aflow by the ocean breeze. “You’re serious. You’re actually doing to do this…I thought you wanted somewhere to keep your head low, not…”
“Not what?” Jia asked. “What is this plan, what are you supposed to change your mind about?” The scared peasant girl was long gone. Now there was just a restless warrior without much cause, and with far fewer answers than she liked.
Akemi laid out her things, drawing the Blade of the Executioner from its scabbard. “If no House will take us, and if a ronin is a warrior with no House to call her own, then we make a House. This land is ours to claim, and we will forge something upon it. We will fight, we will war, until we have our place or die.”
“…What? That’s, we, we can’t…”
“That’s how this works. We do this, and have a chance. We act as ronin, it is simply fight until we die, no other option.” Akemi took her sword, her last real link to the House of the Wasp, and gripped it tight as she stood. When Sable stepped back from her, putting some solid space between the two of them, she paid it no mind. Her focus was only on a point in the distance, where the sun met the horizon.
And, staring at that setting sun, she began to speak. “Heavens above, earth below, LISTEN WELL! I am Akemi of the House of the Wasp, she who claimed her title of Executioner! I relinquish the title, I cast off my House, my allegiance! The Blade of the Executioner is my own, loyal only to my very soul! I stand alone but for those loyal to me, and claim their loyalty as my authority! Those who would follow me into the lone wilds, are proof of my right to command! Acknowledge that right, grant me that authority firm, or so help me, I will take it!” She pointed the Blade of the Executioner to that sun, its rounded end aimed right for the heart of the orb, and waited.
There was nothing. No protest, no strike upon her for reaching beyond her grasp. The only sign of anything at all, was perhaps the most simple; the sigil of the wasp, cast onto the base of her hilt as solid metal, cracked like thin clay. A brush of her thumb took it aside in crumbles and shimmering dust, and left nothing. No sign of who she had once been.
Sable stared, his heart pounding a mile a minute. “You actually did it. You *lived *through that.”
Jia’s own mouth hung open. “That…What was that…?”
Clark took a deep breath, knowing what this meant. There was no going back, ever, now. Not for any of them. “What’s next, my Lady?”
“This, was clearing the slate. And now we put something better upon it.” Akemi looked to the edges of this unclaimed territory, and then to the sword in her hand. Both needed new definition. Both needed a lot of work.
But Akemi of the House of the Wind, certainly had a pleasant ring to it.