Asuka set down his pen and looked out his study window at the moonlit mountains. He felt like an old man. Surely thirty-nine was too old to go crusading like this. Wasn't there a western story about a senile warrior who charged his horse at windmills? Mikazuchi was at least as invincible as those whirling giants. Asuka would have started this fight twenty years ago if he'd thought he could win it.

Then one young scholar from the Research Department had stripped his excuses away.

"I was looking through old genealogical records on an assignment for Mikazuchi-sama. I found a document which indicates the Asuka family. . ." She swallowed, frightened of her own news, and had to try again. "The document proves that you are the rightful Head of the Chi-ryuu."

She had shown him the proof. It had seemed completely genuine, and matched what records the family had. It was preposterous. . . but it had to be true.

An ordinary toujinshi could choose not to throw himself into an impossible fight. He could close his eyes to a Head who seemed to have no goals but money and power. He could even stand by while the Chi-ryuu ignored real threats to continue the disastrous vendetta against the Ten-ryuu. He could ignore anything, if the alternative was near-certain destruction. If an ordinary toujinshi had to give up looking at himself in the mirror, he could learn to shave without. The Head of the Chi-ryuu, though - he was the embodiment of a greater cause, and an older honor.

Asuka stood up and padded through the house. He followed the sound of his wife's old-fashioned clock to the door of their room. Silently, he looked in on their bed, and her sleeping on it. He'd expected to break her heart with this suicide-by-honor. Instead, she'd broken his.

"Let me come with you."

He'd refused, given all the arguments he'd expected her to use on him. The fight was hopeless, it would accomplish nothing, it was just a quick and wasteful way to die.

"I was Chi-ryuu before I was your wife. I'm sworn to defend the Head, not to sit and wait while he's in danger."

He'd ordered her to stay.

"Give me any order but that. Don't make me watch you go into battle alone."

Watching her sleep, he whispered his answer again. "Our sons. Let Yuuma and Souma keep their mother." He looked over his shoulder, at the line of light coming from under the boys' door. "And don't tell them the truth."

He walked to his sons' bedroom, and cracked the door. The light came from a small lamp by Souma's bed, so he wouldn't have to sleep in the dark. Souma's face was visible in it, round and small and soft. Yuuma was on the other side of the room, only barely lit. He shifted in his sleep, dreaming of becoming a toujinshi. His dreams would come true the day after tomorrow. As for Souma, he followed his big brother everywhere. He'd follow Yuuma into the Chi-ryuu as fast as he could. What would it make of them?

Corruption on one hand and treason on the other.

Asuka shivered, hoping this was just worry and not prophecy, but that was the Chi-ryuu, now. Toujinshi were getting salaries and stock options to do things the Chi-ryuu were supposed to prevent: release demons, plunder Pandemonium. Fight a needless war.

He walked over to Yuuma, knelt down beside him. When he was dead, Yuuma would be the true Chi-ryuu Head. He made a good heir. He was strong-willed, his chi was powerful, he'd studied the toujinfu well. The shikigami waiting for him was a Byakko, a legend. He had in Souma an ally who would never turn against him. And he idolized his father, and wanted above all else to be like him.

It would be so easy to destroy him, though. One would need only to tell him what he was, and he would meet the same fate as his father. Asuka reached out and laid his hand on Yuuma's forehead. The boy shifted in his sleep. The man bowed his head in. . . what? Blessing? Farewell? Apology? He sighed and stood up, leaving his son - his beautiful boy - to sleep in peace.

He closed the boys' door and stepped out onto the porch. Crickets were singing in the woods, and his wife's clock was ticking in the house. There were no other sounds.

Asuka was going to die. There would be no simple defeat and oblivion for him; Mikazuchi would not be so merciful. Maybe his wife would be allowed to simply forget. He knew she wouldn't escape unscathed, because she was going to follow him to Tokyo. He hadn't argued with her hard enough. He never had the breath to argue with her - he'd drowned in her dark eyes long ago.

He was willing to die - but Yuuma and little Souma were going to see their mother look at them like strangers. Could he really do this? Wasn't there anything else? He could try to rally the Chi-ryuu. . . but Mikazuchi signed their paychecks. Any position of rank or trust in the Chi-ryuu was filled by a Mikazuchi loyalist, these days. Asuka didn't have many friends in the faction, and those few were mostly other shrine keepers, far from the center of power in Tokyo. They weren't enough to make a difference, and he wouldn't drag them into this unless there was hope.

What about the Ten-ryuu? Asuka wanted peace between the factions anyway; if he was the rightful Head, he could begin it on his own authority. He could go to. . . Go to who? The Ten-ryuu had been shattered. There was no hierarchy, just a few wanderers and scattered shrines. There was no one he could deal with that they would follow. The closest thing they had to a leader was the keeper of their largest shrine, the Taihaku temple in Kyoto. As Asuka remembered, she was less than ten years old. Mikazuchi was having her watched instead of destroyed in case someone who was an actual threat tried to make contact with her.

No, he had no one but himself. Asuka was powerful. He would have faced any other toujinshi in either faction with a cheerful heart, confident of his chances, but he was no match for Mikazuchi. So, with nothing else to do, he would send Mikazuchi a note. He'd just now written it. It was sitting on the desk in Asuka's study:

Dear sir, I would like to request an appointment at a time of your convenience, to discuss matters of policy and inter-faction relations. Respectfully, Asuka.

If Mikazuchi didn't know what Asuka was, (and it would be very foolish to assume he didn't know the contents of the records kept in his own building ,) addressing him as an equal would be enough of a hint. He would get the appointment, go to Tokyo, walk into Mikazuchi's office, and. . . and they would talk. Perhaps they would come to an agreement. Perhaps even a windmill could be slain, if one's aim were true. And perhaps, someday, when they were strong enough, there would be real heroes to do the job Asuka couldn't, two brothers with clear eyes and clean hearts and a dream of peace.

Asuka was not afraid, but the approach of death made him feel like an old man. He stood on his porch, and watched the mountains reach for the waning moon.