Lord Noriyuki had sent his fastest messenger to Lord Hiroto in the Kazusa Provence. Four days later Lord Hiroto arrived with a large accompaniment of guards. Leonardo and Usagi stood with Tomoe Ame, Nalani, and Lord Noriyuki as they received them.
Though Nalani was a panda, Lord Hiroto was a large black bear. Nalani’s panda heritage must have come from her late mother. He rushed past his guards to get to his daughter, tears of joy in his eyes. “I will hunt down those who are responsible for trying to capture you.”
“Oh father it was awful,” Nalani said as she raced towards her father. They met in the middle, colliding into each other’s arms. It was a tearful reunion between father and daughter. It relieved Leo’s heart to see that Lord Hiroto loved his daughter so much. He was sure that Lord Hiroto wouldn’t simply have given her away to just anyone.
“Come, father,” Nalani said as she pulled on her father’s hand. “Come meet the ones who saved me.” She led him to where Leonardo and Usagi were standing. “They brought me here safely. This is Miyamoto Usagi and his student, Hamato Leonardo.”
Lord Hiroto bowed his head to them. “Thank you for protecting my daughter.” He turned his attention to Leonardo. “Your name is unlike any from around here. I am told that you are some kind of demon, Leonardo-san.”
Leonardo thought quickly on how to respond. He wanted to be completely truthful but he also didn’t want to say too much. “I have traveled here from a distant land and I have had such extensive training in the use of my ki that it can at times be visible but, Lord Hiroto, I assure you, in no way am I demonic,” Leonardo answered.
“Pity,” Lord Hiroto said. “Ever since I was a boy I have heard stories of friendly demons that come to help. I have always wanted to meet one. I got close, once, when I was a boy. The rain fell on a sunny day so I went out to search for the wedding procession.”
Leonardo recalled a legend in Japan that said if it rained when the sun was out that it meant that fox spirits were getting married.
“My mother stopped me before I made it out of the gates,” Lord Hiroto continued. “She told me that if I had succeeded then I would have made them angry. It is not good for the lord of the land to make the fox spirits mad at him. Still, I would have loved to have seen them.”
“I’m sorry to once again disappoint you,” Leonardo replied.
“Not at all,” Lord Hiroto said with a smile. “There is nothing disappointing about a noble warrior like yourself.” He turned to Usagi. “I have also heard about you, Usagi-san. Lord Mifune was a friend of mine. I was there at the tournament you won when he decided to take you on as a retainer. You are an impressive fighter. I am glad my daughter ended up in your care. If you are looking for another lord to serve, I am always in need of men I can trust.”
“I thank you for the offer,” Usagi said, bowing deeply. “But I have not yet finished my musha shugyo and I do not wish to serve another lord at this time.”
“Besides,” Lord Noriyuki said with a wide smile. “If Usagi is going to pledge himself to a lord, it will be me.”
Lord Hiroto let out a hearty laugh. “I can accept that. At least I will know that my daughter will be protected.” He then looked again at Leonardo. “What about you? Once your training is complete, would you like to become a retainer of mine?”
“I am honored by the offer,” Leo replied. “However, I am not staying in this land for much longer. I will be returning to my home soon.”
“That’s usually how the stories about the good demons go,” Lord Hiroto said with a knowing smile. “Though I would have preferred it to happen another way, I am grateful that the gods saw fit that we meet.” He then turned to address Lord Noriyuki. “When will I get a chance to question your prisoner?”
“Soon,” Lord Noriyuki answered. “He should be ready to talk by now.”
After giving Lord Hiroto a chance to rest, he was given the chance to interrogate the prisoner. The captive man didn’t know much. He admitted to being hired by someone to kill Nalani and to make it look like Lord Noriyuki had sent men to do it but he didn’t know who the mastermind behind it was. Whoever it was didn’t want the two clans to unite and tried to get them to feud instead.
Fortunately the plan did not succeed. They were going through with the wedding.
The wedding took place three days later. Though Leonardo could not attend the private tea ceremony, he was in the procession. Lord Noriyuki and Nalani were dressed in traditional kimonos. They were beautiful but they also looked incredibly cumbersome, which was probably why they were carried on open litters in the procession.
The celebration that followed was immaculate and samurai competed in several events that ranged from weapon usage to horseback riding. Leonardo had been persuaded to compete in a few on behalf of Lord Hiroto while Usagi competed on behalf of Lord Noriyuki. They each won a few events, earning ryō for their victories.
The children also enjoyed their time. They got to participate in demonstrations and play games. The food served was better than anything they had eaten in their short lives and Kuroko over indulged himself a little and ended up with a sore stomach.
After the celebrations they headed back inside the estate for a good night’s sleep. They were all too exhausted for much of anything else. It had been an experience Leonardo would never forget.
A few days after the wedding, much to Lord Noriyuki’s disappointment, Usagi decided that it was time to continue on their way.
As they traveled down the path, Leonardo calculated how much longer he had in Usagi’s world. Time had seemed to fly by. His three months were quickly coming to an end. In fact he only had a little over a week remaining. This realization gave him mixed emotions.
On one hand, he was going home soon. He missed his family and longed to get back to them. On the other hand, he was going to have to leave Usagi. He knew he shouldn’t have, but he had grown attached to his friend.
He reached down to picked up Umō and nuzzled her soft fur, taking comfort in knowing that he was going to take the sweet little muffin with him. She giggled, wrapping her tiny arms around his neck. It amazed Leonardo how much love he felt for her.
“You are going to spoil her,” Usagi stated with a chuckle.
Leonardo smiled in response and was about to protest but then confessed, “Maybe a little.”
It took them two days to get to the edge of Noriyuki’s province where they came upon a farming village. Rice fields spread out over the horizon. “The best sake comes from this village,” Usagi stated as they walked along the path through the fields. He pointed to a large structure on the edge of one of the fields. “That building and others like it are guard posts. They are stationed here to protect the village and the guards travel with the shipments during distribution.”
“Why would Lord Noriyuki send guards to protect the village and guard their wares?” Kuroko asked.
Leonardo looked down at Kuroko, getting his attention by putting his hand on the young turtle’s shoulder. “This village would not be able to prosper without protection. Bandits would raid often for their wealth, making it a dangerous place to work. The skilled craftsmen would be forced to relocate to a safer area. So it benefits Lord Noriyuki to send guards to protect them so that they remain here.”
“The Shogun will only drink the sake from here,” Usagi said as a matter of fact. “Some say it is the reason Lord Noriyuki is so loyal to the Shogun. As a result, this village is one of the richest in the lands. The taxes collected from this village alone, makes up the majority of Lord Noriyuki’s wealth.”
“Oh,” Kuroko said. “I think I understand. Lord Noriyuki invests in the protection of the village by sending guards and the village in turn willingly pays taxes to the lord for keeping them safe. They both benefit from their success.”
Leonardo patted Kuroko’s carapace. “Understanding this concept is the sign of a good leader. A leader who treats his people well will always benefit in the long run. There is a balance to it.”
It was only midafternoon so they stayed in the village long enough to eat. They bought a bottle of sake with their meal and Leonardo was impressed with the quality of it. So much so that he purchased a bottle to take home with him as a gift for Master Splinter. It should last the week he had left.
As they exited the village they passed a young panda woman who looked distraught. Her eyes were swollen as if she had been crying. She had an equally distraught looking man walking beside her, possibly her husband, supporting her as they made their way into the village. They looked as if they had just lost a loved one. Leo assumed that they had just received the devastating news.
The path led into another wooded area that looked to be dense, which was understandable since it was the border between two provinces. They didn’t go far when they heard the sound of a crying baby. Without hesitation, Leonardo headed off the path, towards the sound. Usagi and the children had no choice but to follow.
It didn’t take Leonardo long to find the source of the cries. Someone had abandoned a baby in the forest. Rocks were placed around it as if in an offering.
“They are offerings,” Usagi said as if he had read Leonardo’s mind. “The hope is that the rocks will be used to help the child pass into the spirit world. Much like with the statue we saw along the road a few months ago.”
“But why abandon the baby in the first place?” Leo asked, kneeling down to inspect the child. As soon as he unwrapped the swaddle, his question was answered. The newborn panda baby had no arms and her legs were twisted.
The sound of Usagi drawing his sword had Leonardo turning to look at him. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to do what the parents could not,” Usagi answered. “She is deformed and probably in pain. I am doing her a favor. A quick death is better than slowly starving to death. Take the children away so they don’t have to watch.”
Leo gingerly collected the baby from the ground. “She doesn’t have to die.”
“What kind of life will she have?” Usagi argued. “I know it’s hard but it’s best to end it now. It is the kindest thing to do for her.”
“I can help her,” Leo pleaded. “On my world, we have ways to give her a full life. Your world is a wondrous place where is seems that fate plays a big part in your lives. I found her for a reason. We are here at this moment for a reason. I am meant to save her.”
“What if the reason was for me to end her suffering?” Usagi asked.
Leonardo nodded. “Both options are mercy for this child. If this world was the only option for her, I would agree that ending her life is the better option. But it isn’t. I’m only here for another week. If she takes a turn for the worse before I go home, I will let you put an end to her. I just want to give her a chance at life…. Please. Donny can help her.”
Usagi slid his sword back into its sheath. “Very well. We will see if we can find supplies for her in the next village. It would not be wise to turn around and go back into the village we just left. We passed her parents when we left.”
“I noticed that.” Leonardo nodded. “And, I agree. I just hope that the next village isn’t too far off.”
“It isn’t,” Usagi said. “We should get there by night fall.”
Leonardo took a moment to make a diaper out of scraps of cloth. It was a good thing he kept the pieces he had cut from the bottom of Nalani’s under kimonos. He then swaddled the baby tight. Once she was secure in his arms, the baby settled down and slept.
“What are you going to name her?” Kuroko asked as they got back on the path.
“I don’t know,” Leo answered. He looked down at the small face that poked out of the blankets. It was the first time he had ever held a baby. How could anyone abandon something so precious to die? “I’ve always liked the name Hana.”
Umō tugged on Leo’s kimono. “I wanna be carried.”
Usagi chucked and glanced back at Leo. “I think someone is getting a little jealous.”
Leonardo turned to Kuroko. “Here. You carry your little sister and I’ll carry Umō for a bit. If Hana gets to be too much for you, let me know.” He used the title of little sister intentionally. He hoped it would give Kuroko a sense of family and responsibility.
The look on the young turtle’s face was a mixture of shock and fear but he held his arms out to accept the little bundle. Leonardo knelt down and made a sling to help support most of the weight. Hana grunted in response to all the shifting but quickly settled once it was done. Leo lifted Umō as he stood and the small fox curled contently up in his arms.
Three kids, Leonardo thought to himself. He has got his work cut out for him. He just hoped that he hadn’t bitten off more than he could chew. He was starting to understand what Splinter must have gone through when he took on four baby turtles all at once. The love he felt mixed with an overwhelming sense of fear was unlike anything he had ever experienced before.
He looked down at the tree of them and couldn’t help but smile. It would be worth it.