Jato knew the ways of the Tribe, and guided it's wielder to the short sword aimed at her back. Shigeko grunted as Jato made contact with Miki's blade. She jumped back as Miki's form shimmered into being at the sudden and unexpected contact between the two blades. The girl split her image, sending it into the air, the sword aimed at her sister's neck, while she rushed her sister head on, sword held laterally, the tip threatening Shigeko's exposed stomach. But Shigeko suddenly rolled to the side, coming back onto her feet the moment she steadied herself and swung the snake blade at the point where Miki should have been. But the blade swept at nothing. Shigeko tensed and closed her eyes, blade held ready before her, ears straining for the footsteps she knew she would not detect. But she wasn't truly listening. She waited in anticipation for Jato to swing into action, relying on the sword's bloodlust to protect her against her younger sister's onslaught. The time waned on, but still no move was made aginst her. But, she told herself, I must wait; the Tribe are masters of patience and in using an opponents feelings against them, if I grow impatient, it will be my downfall.

And then suddenly, to the right, three star shaped knives were thrown at her. Jato parried one and she managed to twist her body to evade the other two. So far, no blood had been spilt this fight. Thanks to the training of the Way of the Houhou, Shigeko excelled in it's way of combat, to fight to defend, but not to take life. It made her the ruler she was today, calm, reasonable, receptive to the voices of the lower sects, diplomatic and patient. Her father, Otori Takeo, had wanted her to rule the Three Countries in his stead, knowing that she would use her teachings to govern the land, further extending the wealth, growth and stability of the land, further aiding the prospering people which he had helped. When he had died last year, she had expelled the foreigners from the land, hating them for their barbaric ways and their crude weapons. It was something even the Way of the Houhou would not assuage her to forgive. She blamed them for her father's death, even though she knew there was no way they had been involved, but she used such a pretext to banish them, eradicating the threat they posed to the land's stability. After all, if they could sway her treacherous uncle Arai Zenko, whom she had commanded to commit ritual suicide after the plots he had concocted against Takeo, who else would they sway to their beliefs, causing further rebellion and citing the way for another civil war.

Suddenly Miki was behind her! She tried to jump forward, but her younger sibling brought a foot down on the back of her legs. Shigeko fell to her knees, Jato useless in her hands. She waited for the imminent outcome of the battle.

Applause came from the surrounds of the dojo arena, and Shigeko got up after Miki took the blade away from her neck. She turned to face her younger sister and embraced her, congratulating her on her deserved victory.

"Father would be proud, Miki!" There were tears in Miki's eyes as Shigeko said this, but she did not wipe them away, instead she embraced her sister tighter. Shigeko's husband came up to the pair and inclined his head to Miki, smiling sincerely at his wife's better. Saga Hideki, the Emperor's favourite, grand general and unifier of the eight islands. He was a thickset man, kind to Shigeko, but arrogant and prone to mood swings. He smiled with superiority as Miki bowed to him, accepting his congratulations before moving to embrace their mother, Otori Kaede.

"Maruyama Shigeko, bested by her little sister and follower of the Way of the Houhou! How does it feel to finally find your better in combat?" Although their was mockery in Saga's voice, their was also love their, and he did not intend for his words to hurt his wife, and indeed they did not.

"It feels… sobering, husband." Shigeko said with a smile. "I wouldn't want to think I was the best swordswomen in the Three Countries. I might grow arrogant and warlike." He laughed at the jibe she threw at him, and inclined his head in recognition of the remark. She smiled. She did not love her husband, for their betrothal was arranged to seal the peace of the Three Countries, a common diplomatic arrangement where only the husband truly benefited. But, Shigeko was not entirely stolen of benefit, for she was aloud to rule the Three Countries as Saga's equal, and he tended to stay in the shadow of the Emperor, fearful that he may loose his favour with his Divine Majesty. But though she did not love him, she respected him and saw him as an ally more than a husband.

"Lady Saga Shigeko," Shigeko turned to see her mother approaching and bowed low to the woman she looked up to with a deep devotion. Kaede had aged dramatically in the year since Takeo's death. Her grief marked her once beautiful face and the scars on the nape of her neck, although hidden behind her luxurious hair, weighed heavily on the woman's mind, who had grown less confident in herself when her beloved husband had died. They exchanged congratulations and gratitude before Kaede moved away to join a group of vassals congregated in one corner of the dojo.

For the best part of that afternoon, a small party was held in the capital of the Three Countries, Hagi, and Shigeko watched proudly as Miki went around the various groups of people invited, loosing that once shy discomfort she once had around people. The young girl had changed dramatically since her twin sister, Maya, had died. She became more confident in company, less reserved and more open to their mother, who had gained a new found love for her youngest daughter. But, when alone, Miki would retreat into herself, become fearfully dark, and seemed to delve into a dark part of her Tribe nature. Being Kikuta, Miki was a part of the deadly group of assassin's who retained the almost mystic abilities all people once had. She could take on a cloak of invisibility, split herself in two, impose on people a deep and sometimes deadly sleep with a mere glance, and move with an almost unnatural grace and agility. Although she had been less skilled than her father and twin sister, there was no question now that she was indeed the most skilled Tribe member of the time. She was not yet of age to take over the leadership of the Kikuta family, but she intended to do so, and the Tribe supported her claim. Old family feuds had been relinquished since the turbulent period during Takeo's rule, and the Tribe stood again reunited, with the aid of Shizuka and other members of the Muto family. Akio's hard and ruthless leadership of the Kikuta had made most of the family dissatisfied and questionable as to Akio's true motives for revenge, yes they all wanted to avenge Master Kikuta Kotaro, but they did not agree with the cost Akio had exacted upon them and deeply resented the position he managed to get the once proud and esteemed Kikuta family into. But after Takeo's death, and the reuniting of the families, the Kikuta once again gained their revered status in the Tribe as the most powerful and most influential.

As the sun set and the guests departed for their mansions, Miki snuck out into the growing darkness, dressed in unremarkable clothes, dark in colour, without the distinguished clan symbol of the sacred heron. She meandered through the dark streets, passed by, unnoticed, the peasants who lingered outside the inns and brothels, drunk on rice wine and whistling lustily after the brothel girls who hovered in the windows, flirting out at the influenced men. She felt the reassuring weight of her short sword hidden beneath her garments, the deadly throwing knives of the Tribe which whistle almost silently toward their victim. She smiled at her own silent footsteps, proud of her superb abilities, and carried on toward the distant lights of a temple nestled on the banks of the river. She passed by the sacred Otori bridge, with it's quotation: The Otori clan welcome the just and the loyal, Let the unjust and disloyal beware. When she came to the temple gates she slipped by the guards unseen and ascended the flight of steps and into the temple's foyer. Just then, the temple bells tolled midnight. Crouched in a darkened corner, untouched by the flickering lights from the brazier flames, she waited.

"Sister, you do not have to hide." Came an approaching voice. It was male, soft, gentle, evoking within Miki a mixture of hatred and respect. Her half brother, Kikuta Hisao. "You are the daughter of the Otori, you are welcomed anywhere at anytime, there is no need to linger in shadows." He smiled at her as he appeared round a corner and entered the foyer.

"Greetings Hisao," She replied politely, inclining her head in greeting. He smiled warmly and inclined his head also. "I need to speak to Father, I want to see Maya."