Takuro staggered slightly as he walked out of the sake house, wincing at the bright light of the morning sun. His two comrades laughed as they spilled out on either side, similarly unsteady from the previous evening’s entertainments.

Takuro glanced about him with an arrogant sneer. He and his brothers had arrived in this village almost a week ago. This place was unaccustomed to being visited by samurai; the peasants here were weak and afraid. They had offered food and lodging with quiet terror, asking for nothing in return, clearly petrified by the two swords at his hip. Takuro and his brothers had decided that they liked it here; this village was theirs now.

As he looked around, however, he realized that something was different. The peasants all huddled at the edges of the open square before the sake house. They watched quietly, waiting. There was still fear in their eyes, but it was different somehow.

“You are the ronin that calls himself Takuro?” called out a calm voice. A man stepped forward from the shadows of a building across the street. A thick cloak was draped over his head and shoulders to war off the evening chill. Like Takuro and his brothers, he wore the two swords on his hip, the symbol of a samurai.

Suddenly the haze of Takuro’s alcohol and exhaustion was burned away by a surge of adrenalin. He felt his brothers tense beside him. They had all been ronin long enough to know the dangers of the life they led. Samurai were warriors, soldiers whose blade served the whim of their daimyo. A ronin, a samurai with no master was a wild, uncontrolled force in the Empire. Though they offered no allegiance to any man, they had no protection save their own wits.

“I am Takuro,” he growled. “What business have you with me?”

“I am an acquaintance of a young lady by the name of Sei,” the stranger replied. “She has told me that you treated her in a disrespectful manner. Is this true?”

Takuro laughed, and his laughter was echoed lewdly by his brothers. “Yes it is true, and what of it?” he asked. “She is nothing, just a geisha.”

“She is my friend,” the stranger said, “as are the men and women of this village. If you are men of honor, you will offer them your apology.”

“Apologize to peasants?” Takuro asked with a laugh. “They are unworthy. I will treat them as I please and you will stay out of it.”

“If you will do what you please, ronin,” the man seemed to spit out the word, “then so shall I – and it pleases me to champion this village’s honor. If your apology is not forthcoming then the matter will be settled with violence.”

Takuro eyed the man cautiously. “You are a fool, stranger,” he said. “There are three of us and one of you.”

“So you accept my challenge?” the man asked.

“So be it,” Takuro laughed. “I do not know where you came from, but you have come a long way to die is this forsaken village.”

The man allowed his cloak to fall from his shoulders, revealing long white hair and a brilliant blue kimono, the mon of a crane standing on one leg emlazoned on his right shoulder. He adjusted his stance, holding his right hand palm up over the hilt of his katana, as if offering a gift. He looked up, fixing cold crystal blue eyes upon the ronin and his brothers. “My name is Kakita Mitsuo,” he replied in an even voice, “and I come from the Esteemed House of the Crane.”

A chill of fear ran down Takuro’s spine. The Kakita were among the most renowned swordsmen in the Empire. Even so, it was too late to back down now. He could not show weakness in front of these filthy peasants, not after lording over their village as he had. The Crane had challenged him, and what remained of his honor demanded that the challenge be answered. Of course so far from the eyes of the Crane’s kin, there was no reason for the fight to be a fair one.

“Kill him,” Takuro hissed to his brothers.

They ran forward with a defiant cry, drawing their blades and moving to flank Mitsuo. The Crane glanced quickly from on to the next and fell into a low stance. He ducked smoothly to one side, avoiding the first man’s sword and kicking at the man’s ankle to throw him off balance. Mitsuo’s blade was free of his sheath and in his hand faster than the eye could follow, moving in an upward stroke and deflecting the second blade with a clang. The sword came back down with a savage stroke, cutting cleanly across the first man’s back. The second man’s blade lashed out again and this time Mitsuo did not move quite quickly enough, a lash of blood welling across his left arm. His return stroke was deadlier still, his shining blade slashing from hip to shoulder and leaving Takuro’s brother to fall in two pieces.

Mitsuo turned, blade still in hand, and face Takuro again. The leader of the ronin still stood at the doors of the sake house, watching the battle placidly.

“These men were your brothers,” Kakita Mitsuo hissed. “You would not fight beside them?”

Takuro laughed. “They had no chance against a Crane,” he retorted. “Better that they should die that I. They served their purpose.”

“I still stand,” Mitsuo replied, moving toward the ronin.

Takuro began to back away. “Not for long,” he answered. “You grow weaker every moment you bleed. A bit longer and even a Kakita will be easy prey.”

“You will not live that long, ronin,” the Crane snarled. He leapt toward Takuro, blade held high. The ronin drew his own blade in reply, deflecting the Crane’s stroke. He drew a knife in his free hand and slashed it across the Kakita’s stomach. The man’s blue eyes widened with pain. Takuro expected the man to falter, but he did not. He felt a cold sensation in his shoulder as the Crane steel severed his arm. A swift kick sent him sprawling to the earth

Takuro laughed as the taste of his own blood filled his mouth. He looked up at the Crane defiantly. “Fool!” he spat. “You are days from any healer. You may kill me, but you will die of your wounds as well. You have given your life for nothing.”

The Crane only smiled. “For the coward there is no life,” he said in a steady voice. “For the hero there is no death.”

Then Kakita Mitsuo’s blade fell one last time, and ended Takuro’s life.