The Last Chapter of the Snowbird Saga

AUTHOR'S NOTES: Well, here it is. Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to this story, and for leaving Snowbird's Last Stand in kind of a cliffhanger. It's been an interesting summer, in the Chinese sense of the word.

But in any case, this will indeed be the last Snowbird story in the Clan War saga, at least. (I do have some ideas for some later stories, but we'll see. I have Inuyasha, Evangelion, and NCIS stories that desperately scream to be finished.) There will be an epilogue after all this is finished—kind of a curtain call for the characters, depending on who survives…and maybe a quick glimpse into the future, in the era of the Word of Blake Jihad.

I'll explain more in the next chapter, which will resolve what questions I don't answer in this one. (Don't worry, Bien, I haven't forgotten your character or Felisanna!) And no, this isn't a victory lap for the Snowbirds. There's one more battle left to fight. What, you didn't think I'd forgotten Cavell Malthus or Sudeten, did you?

A few quick notes: I'm indebted to James Clavell all over again. There's more than a faint whiff of Blackthorne and Toranaga in this chapter. The line "the definite partiality of Almighty God" is a quote from Rear Admiral Sprague in his after-action report to Nimitz after the Battle of Samar, while the line about "no one throws me my own guns" is from The Magnificent Seven. Seems entirely appropriate. A big tip of the Banpei hat to Michael Stackpole, of course—finally got to meet the man two months ago. It was a big inspiration, and this chapter takes place between Blood Legacy and Lost Destiny.

And—as always—a HUGE thank you to everyone who's stuck by me all these years, and read and reviewed the Snowbird stories. I hope this story is worthy of your patience.

Unity Palace, Imperial City

Luthien, Pesht District, Draconis Combine

10 January 3052

Sheila Arla-Vlata felt her stomach churn as she waited. She had been brought here by a court chamberlain and asked, very politely, to wait. That had only been a few minutes ago, but it already felt like hours. All she wanted to do was leave, as quick as she could, be back on the Minerva, and heading back home, if home was still there.

She felt terrible, though not as bad as she had been feeling. After the battle on Kagoshima had ended, she had come down with something that had put her in bed for two days, half-delirious and so sick she could barely stand. Rainbow Levine had told her it was simply overwork and exhaustion, and had told her bed rest would resolve the situation, along with a few antihistamines and maybe an aspirin or two. Elfa had taken charge of the cleanup from the siege of Toriiyama, along with Ryuken-ni's commander, Misayoshi Kittakyushu. The latter had been unbelievably affable and seemed almost apologetic, as if he hadn't meant to impose on the Snowbirds' fight to the death with the 17th Jaguar Regulars.

Beyond the door guarded by two impassive, statue-like guardsmen in full samurai armor was the receiving room of the Gunjei no Kanrei, the Warlord of the Draconis Combine, Theodore Kurita. He was not the realm's ruler: that would be Takashi Kurita, the Coordinator, but Sheila knew Takashi would rather be dead than speak to a lowly mercenary such as her. The Coordinator's pride—and pride was everything to a samurai—was undoubtedly already badly damaged by the week prior to Sheila's arrival: the Battle of Luthien, already attaining legendary status. The Federated Commonwealth had retaken the planets of Twycross and Planting, but had later lost both again. The Combine had kept the planet of Wolcott free of Smoke Jaguar conquest, but that had been largely due to trickery and the incompetence of the Jaguar commander. Now the Combine had stopped cold a combined Jaguar/Nova Cat invasion of their own capital, and thrown the invaders offplanet.

Actually, they had done it twice—Luthien and Kagoshima. In both cases, however, House Kurita had needed mercenaries to help them. Sheila knew that had to be galling to a nation whose hatred of "hireswords" was legendary.

The doors opened and both samurai crashed to attention immediately. It was the chamberlain again. He half-turned and bowed Sheila through the door, though she noticed that his bow was just enough to be correct. Obviously, he wasn't liking this. Screw him, Sheila thought morosely, and walked through the doors like she owned the place. She was wearing her dress uniform, all white and blue with a long, flowing cape, and at six feet tall she towered over the chamberlain. He hurried to get ahead of her. To Sheila's surprise, they were in a hallway, not a room, flanked on either side by shoji ricepaper walls. Just reaching the door ahead of her long-legged stride, he knelt, slid the door open, shuffled in, motioned her through the door, and closed the door behind her, remaining in place.

Sheila half-expected a throne room of sorts, with a hundred samurai arrayed in flanks, ready to die and/or kill for the Kanrei like in a hundred bad samurai holofilms she'd seen. While the room was large, there were no samurai that she could see. Instead, the only people present were Theodore Kurita, who sat alone on a raised dais, and a young woman Sheila recognized as Omi Kurita. Both were dressed in silk kimonos and were kneeling on tatami mats; Omi sat behind a low table with what Sheila recognized as a tea caddy. The room smelled pleasantly of jasmine.

One tatami mat was empty, directly in front and below of Theodore. Sheila, feeling extremely self-conscious, walked forward, stopped, bowed deeply, held the bow until she saw it returned, then knelt on the mat. The sudden intake of breath behind her indicated that she had committed a faux pas, but Theodore only smiled. "Good afternoon, Lieutenant Commander Arla-Vlata." To Sheila's relief, Theodore spoke in English: her Japanese was fair, but she didn't trust it here. He also didn't stumble over her last name, which was guaranteed to give headaches to a native Japanese speaker, as that language lacked 'l' and 'r' sounds. The chamberlain had made a pot mess of it.

"You remember my daughter Omi-san," Theodore said, and Sheila saw Omi bow deeply and respectfully. Sheila pivoted and returned the bow with equal importance. Omi smiled as she straightened, and Sheila felt herself smile back. Her kimono was a soft blue trimmed in white, its pattern accenuated with cranes. The pattern was distinctly similar to her own uniform, and Sheila wondered if that was deliberate.

"Of course," Sheila replied. "How are you, Omi-san?"

"I am well," she said, very formally. "Would you like some tea?"

"Yes, please." Sheila hated tea, but to refuse the request would be a mortal insult, and Theodore had all the legal right in the world to kill her for doing so. As friendly as everyone was, Sheila had to remind herself that the Combine was still very much a closed society, where MechWarriors could slay a peasant with no legal repercussions and a fine warrior like Kahvi Falx could be discriminated against for the crime of her gender.

Omi poured the tea into a tiny cup, every move carefully planned to be as quiet and polite as possible. She offered the cup to Sheila, who did respectfully refuse this time, insisting that it should be given instead to Theodore. This was part of the ritual, which Sheila had been coached on by Kahvi. Theodore also refused the cup, and eventually Sheila accepted as the guest. It was a tradition that dated back a millenia, each side assuring the other than no insult was intended. She sipped the tea. It wasn't bad, but she would've preferred coffee.

To Sheila's surprise, Theodore did not engage in another Japanese tradition—making light, meaningless conversation before getting to the subject at hand. In his culture, that was done as an icebreaker. Instead, he came to the point, once he had his own tea. "Commander, I find myself in quite an unenviable position with you." Sheila wasn't sure what to say to that, so she stayed silent. "We were able to repulse the invaders here on Luthien only with the help of the Kell Hounds and Wolf's Dragoons—mercenaries. As you know, we would have not accepted such help had it not been absolutely necessary."

Sheila didn't wonder at that. Both the Kell Hounds and the Dragoons had considerable bad blood with House Kurita, and both commanders of those units had essentially a blood vendetta with Coordinator Takashi, though not with his son. Once more, it had taken the legendary cunning of Hanse Davion, who had responded to Theodore's indirect request for help by sending the two units. A cynic would say that Davion had done it solely to irk Takashi, but Sheila believed it was because Hanse knew that the Hounds and the Dragoons were the best regiments he had in reserve. Davion had been able to set aside 300 years of enmity to help Kurita; Sheila wondered if the reverse was true.

"Not long after we repulsed the Nova Cats and the Smoke Jaguars here," Theodore continued, "I learn that Kagoshima was saved from being overrun, also by mercenaries. It puts me in a bit of a position, Commander."

Sheila tried to read Theodore's face, but it was blank. She wet suddenly dry lips. "Sir," she said carefully, "it wouldn't be right to give all the credit to the Snowbirds. The Sun Zhang Cadre was there too. And Toriiyama would've fallen had it not been for your diversion of a battalion of Ryuken-ni to relieve us."

"You are far too modest, Commander." Theodore sipped his tea. "I hate to speak ill of the dead, especially of such an august personality as Hector Satoridon, but the fact remains that he marched his battalion into a trap. You recognized that, found good ground, and held against repeated attacks. Yes, Ryuken-ni arrived in the nick of time, but from what Tai-sa Kittakyushu tells me, the Smoke Jaguars were already decimated, their commander dead at your hands, and your lines still holding fast."

"The Tai-sa is too kind." Sheila meant that, too.

"Then what would you attribute Toriiyama's final defense to, Commander?" Theodore's eyes were piercing.

"Four factors, sir. One, the stand of Felisanna in the defile on the northeast corner. Two, the heroic defense of Toriiyama village by David Moore's tanks and Peter Nicholas. Three, air support from the Kagoshima militia. And four…" Sheila shook her head "…four, the definite partiality of Almighty God." She wondered if that might offend the Kanrei and Omi, who were both Buddhists, but it was nothing less than the truth as far as she was concerned.

"You left out your own leadership." Theodore stabbed the teacup at her. "No false modesty, Commander. Gaul was conquered not by Rome's legions, but by Caesar. You provided the leadership. You planned the defense. And you held, at great sacrifice, a place you didn't have to."

"It was my duty."

Theodore paused at that. He sat back on his haunches, and the room was silent for a moment. "That's the answer I would expect from a samurai."

"I'm no samurai, Kanrei."

"True. You're a mercenary. Nowhere in your contract does it state you had to defend Kagoshima. The Snowbirds were already battered from New Caledonia. You could have simply loaded up your DropShips at any time and abandoned Kagoshima. You would have spared many lives. Yes, Kagoshima would've fallen—to a vainglorious fool of a Smoke Jaguar who didn't have the forces or the skills to hold the planet against a counterattack I would've launched the moment Luthien was declared secure. You could be on your way back to Federated Commonwealth space. I would not have criticized such a decision. Nor would your own superiors. You had no orders, and it made no military sense to fortify Toriiyama after the Sun Zhang was destroyed in Greenfields. Yet you did so, and when I ask why, you claim it was your duty?"

Sheila was confused. She hadn't expected the Kuritans to be exactly pleased with the fact that one of their planets still belonged to them because of a lowly mercenary commander, but she had expected at the least a pat on the back, a bow or two, and a polite invitation to get the hell out of the Combine. The invitation to Luthien for the survivors of Toriiyama had come as a bit of a surprise, and her own personal invitation to the Imperial Palace a very big one. Now it sounded as if Theodore was criticizing her. A glance at Omi showed that her expression was still placid, though Sheila thought she detected a bit of shock there, too. "I don't know what to say," Sheila finally said.

"It's a simple question, Commander. Why?"

"Because I'm here to fight the Clans, sir." Sheila kept her voice even with every ounce of her self-control. Theodore disparaging her good sense she could handle: she had asked herself the same questions several times over the course of the siege and on the trip to Luthien. But to make a mockery of all those dead bodies that littered the slopes of Toriiyama was almost more than she could stand. "It doesn't matter where, or how, or when. I wasn't leaving the people of Kagoshima to the tender mercies of the Jaguars. I've been the Clans' prisoner, sir. It wasn't a pleasant experience." She saw his eyes involuntarily flick down to her artificial arm.

Theodore gave the slightest of nods. "Perhaps. Nonetheless, you had given a full measure before the final attack. From what I understand from your after-action report, Star Colonel Furey gave you the opportunity to retreat and even killed a Snowbird prisoner when you refused."

Sheila didn't know what to say to that, but then suddenly remembered an old saying of her father's. "Sir, with respect. No one throws me my own guns and tells me to run. Nobody."

Theodore's eyes widened at that, then suddenly he smiled. Then he began to laugh. Uproariously. He slapped his thigh with mirth. Omi looked from Sheila to her father, a smile on her lips, unsure if she should join in the laughter or not. Sheila, for her part, struggled to keep her composure. Half my battalion is dead, you son of a bitch, she thought, and nearly all the Sun Zhang Cadre. The Kagoshima militia took nearly sixty percent losses. These people would kill each other for a smile from you or your bastard of a father, and you're laughing at them. Involuntarily, her steel hand clenched with an audible groan of servomotors and myomer muscles, and Sheila blanched, once more quite aware that if Theodore was offended by that, he could have her easily killed.

She still wanted to punch him in the face.

Theodore noticed the movement and the darkening of Sheila's expression. He ceased laughing, and became somber. He then bowed to Sheila, much deeper than a man of his rank had any reason to. "Forgive me, Commander. I had forgotten you are unfamiliar with our customs. I laugh not to make light of what happened on Kagoshima. I know of your losses. In a unit of the Snowbirds' size, such losses are like those of a family.

"Here, in the Draconis Combine, however, we laugh in the face of tragedy, to defy it, to empty ourselves of the hate, sorrow, and anger over so many good men and women dying. I laugh because in the past three weeks, mercenaries have shown the people of the Combine the meaning of honor and duty. The Kell Hounds and the Wolf's Dragoons had no reason to come to Luthien. They too risked being wiped out. The victory was far from guaranteed. You saw the damage on the way in?"

"Yes, sir." The Kadoguchi Valley, a long, wide glacial valley that formed a natural highway to Imperial City, had been literally filled with destroyed 'Mechs. The battle had ended four days before, but the valley was still covered in smoke. The wreckage of war stretched from the dropzones of the Clans to the very gates of the city. Sheila didn't have to see any after-action reports to know that the deaths had to number in the thousands. But they had held, and won.

"No one, not I, not my father, not even Hanse Davion would have held it against Morgan Kell or Jaime Wolf if they had told Davion to take his orders and go to hell. Yet, despite all that exists between us in death and revenge, Kell and Wolf came here and sacrificed hundreds of good men and women to save the capital of a House that for twenty years they have called enemy—because it was their duty and they believed that the threat of the Clans far outweighs the petty differences of Successor States over a long-empty throne." Theodore sighed; Sheila had a feeling he had been wanting to say those words for some time. His eyes had grown distant, but now they focused on her. "And a nineteen year old woman decides that she will not run, that she will destroy an enemy because that is her duty, no matter what a piece of paper says, and that if necessary she will die with her teeth in an arrogant murderer's throat. That is the soul of a samurai, Arla-Vlata Sheila-san, and I laugh because you do not or will not realize it." He turned to Omi and spoke in rapid-fire Japanese. She bowed with military precision, stood, walked to a side door, knelt, opened the door, then disappeared through it, sliding the door shut. Sheila sneaked a look behind her: at some point, the chamberlain had left as well. She was alone with the commander of House Kurita's armies, and Sheila didn't need Kahvi Falx or Miroku Usagi there to tell her what an honor that was.

They sat in silence, drinking their tea, for only a minute or two, then Omi returned. Once more going through the cycle of kneeling and opening/closing the door, she walked with little, silent steps to her father, holding something wrapped in heavy silk. She knelt, and carefully unwrapped the silks to expose two swords. Reverently, she offered them to Theodore, who took both. Setting down the short wakazashi, he inspected the katana. The sheath shone in the light, in lacquered black. Omi went around him to kneel at his left, taking hold of the sheath. The sword's blade came free with a pop, and its steel gleamed. Theodore was careful never to breathe directly on the sword, nor to let his fingers touch it, resting it instead on the sleeve of his kimono.

"When a student graduates from Sun Zhang Academy," he spoke, "he or she is presented with a katana and a wakizashi. The katana is to affirm that the student is no longer a child, but an adult, a samurai. The wakazashi is there to remind the samurai of the price he or she may one day be called upon to pay. These swords are specially forged on Kagoshima at the Kurita family's personal forge by our personal swordsmiths. The swords I wear—" he nodded at the twin blades that had been at his side the entire time "—are no different than the lowliest Tai-i." He inspected the blade professionally. "There was no time to forge a sword for you, Arla-Vlata Sheila-san. Chu-sa Usagi Miroku hoped that these blades might prove adequate."

Sheila barely held in a gasp. Miroku Usagi had carried his swords into battle during the entire campaign, and rarely was he without them. During one of the lulls, Sheila had overheard him telling Marion Rhialla that the swords had been in his family for fifteen generations. "But what about Usagi?" she blurted. She hoped that the old man had not decided to kill himself. He and the six other Sun Zhang survivors had proudly marched their colors off the Minerva when they arrived on Luthien, but Usagi might have felt shamed that there were only seven left out of what had nearly been forty.

Theodore smiled. "I have presented Tai-sa Usagi—" he emphasized the new rank "—with a pair of my family's own swords when he gave up his own. He felt that was good enough." Theodore slid the blade into its scabbard, still held reverently by Omi. Taking the katana in both hands, he leaned forward, offering it to Sheila. Her fingers trembling, Sheila reached out and gently took it, returning the bow she was given. It was repeated with the wakizashi. "Remember this, Arla-Vlata Sheila-san," Theodore intoned, "the sword is the soul of a samurai. If she forgets or loses it, she shall never be excused."

Sheila bowed again. "Thank you very much, Tono." She used the word for liege lord, though she herself acknowledged none; the moment seemed to call for it.

"It is merely the first of many. In gratitude to the Snowbirds for their actions on Kagoshima, every member of the unit will also receive swords, specially made. After all, one could say that they have indeed graduated from the Sun Zhang Academy's hardest course." He laughed at that, and this time Sheila joined in, able to see the humor in it. "Moreover, any son or daughter of the Snowbirds, living or dead, shall be allowed to attend Sun Zhang on a scholarship, should they wish to—and should they decide not to, House Kurita will nevertheless pay their tuition at a school of their choice."

Sheila tried to find the words and failed. "We don't—sir, this is incredible—"

"No," Theodore corrected her. "It's a very small installment on the debt of blood this nation owes the Snowbirds, Commander." He stood, and thrust the swords into his sash expertly. Sheila copied the movement, and knew she had gotten it right by Theodore's nod. "A samurai should never expect anything in return for doing his or her duty, Commander. That said, it does rather please this liege lord to give such recognition." He led her to the door; the chamberlain appeared as if by magic. "There will be a formal dinner tonight at 1600. You will be escorted there."

Sheila knew she was being dismissed. Everything seemed like a dream, now. She bowed deeply, and had it returned. She was just about to leave when Theodore spoke again. "By the way, Commander, that saying—about the guns?"

"Yes sir. My father said that."

"I know. He said it at the siege of Ziegenhain on Morningside, where he faced a battlion of the Legion of Vega that was raiding the planet. As I recall, he was offered safe passage if his two companies of Sentinels would only leave the repair facility."

"Yes, sir. That's true."

"Do you know the name of the Kurita commander he said it to? The commander was a headstrong young man who thought he knew everything."

Sheila shook her head. "No, sir."

The Kanrei's smile was huge. "Theodore Kurita."