A hand slaps a note with burned edges on the table, and Yosoku Kenzou looks up to see his cousin’s scowling face. A supply cart leaving the Imperial Panda reserve was attacked, and once the bandits saw that there was nothing valuable, they burned it. The letter was found among the wreckage. Yosoku Ling demands an explanation, seeing Kenzou’s name on it, after the letter was returned to him, the first clan member the messenger saw. Kenzou looks quickly to see how much sensitive information remains, sees little, and only responds that he was simply sharing news with the other provinces. Before Ling can press too much, the tavern door bursts open, letting in the frigid winter air, and the renowned Nezumi warrior, Tsu’No Tashi of Nihomboshiya. He sits at their table noting Kenzou’s good health, and inquiring as to why he had not heard from him. Kenzou introduces his cousin, and Tashi almost immediately demands the letter. After some initial reluctance, Tashi buys him a drink and asks for the letter in exchange. Bound by custom to acquiesce, Ling hands over the letter, takes the drink, and storms out.
Flashback: Tashi and Vlint, his son, are sitting in a tea room, shortly after the Celestial Emperor has taken over their city. Tashi receives a draft letter from the delegate of the emperor. Vlint is distraught and upset, and this only gets worse when Tashi admits that he suspects the Emperor is hoping he will die. Vlint suggests killing the Emperor instead, but Tashi insists that he stay safe and keep training. Two armed guards come and take Tashi away, tossing his weapons and his son to the floor. He bows to his son, but Vlint tries to fight the guards, it becomes a scuffle, Tashi is knocked unconscious and Vlint is left on the floor.
Vlint and Ling have been sparring in a clearing in the forest. They try to master Desert Wind by practicing the moves they have been taught, but first wrapping and lighting their hands on fire. They are competitive in all things, so they fight hard and wait too long to put out their hands. Vlint is winning today because Ling is distracted by the letter and his meeting with Tashi. He asks what Vlint knows about the Emperor’s Delegate, Vlint says not much, except that he is part of the reason his father left. He inquires as to what is vexing Ling, and Ling explains that he had a strange meeting with his cousin and a man named Tashi. Vlint presses him for information, and once he gets the whole story, he runs off.
Vlint returns home to find his father waiting. He is excited and surprised, but something is different. Tashi seems broken, and he doesn’t help around the house. He is not the same. He has spent their family’s money, and has nothing to show for it.
Ling is constantly in Kenzou’s shadow for the next week, trying to figure out what his cousin is up to.
Kenzou and Tashi work together at the panda reserve, they share their information about the delegate’s upcoming visit, where he is staying, etc. Their plan has always been to capture the delegate and ransom him back, but Kenzou is concerned that Tashi may just kill him. Tashi explains that is it not about money and never has been, and reveals that he has already filled the forest with a small resistance, and is ready to act at any time. Kenzou realizes that the plan is not going his way, but he is in too deep to do anything but move forward.
Vlint, for the first time in their history, shows up at Ling’s door, to ask him what he knows about the situation. He believes his father is working for the delegate, and has been trying to drink away his guilt, but is concerned about his name being on the note with Kenzou’s and the delegate’s. Ling immediately spills the whole story from his side, including all of his opinions and assumptions. He convinces Vlint that the only way to stop this and protect BOTH of their families is to kidnap his father, secretly plotting to hold him ransom. They set up an ambush to keep Tashi from meeting with Kenzou. They underestimated Tashi’s skill, and though they fail in their attempt, Vlint successfully executes Desert Wind maneuvers against his father, succeeding where Ling has not and deepening their rivalry.
Standing over his son, Tashi explained that he has tried to keep him out of it, Vlint protests, but his father finally tells him the whole story with the delegate. He now recognizes his son’s skill and brings him on as part of the plot. Ling skulks off into the forest, burning with jealousy. He heads straight to the delegate and explains every plot to him, leaving himself out of it.
Kenzou goes looking for Tashi, finds the clearing with signs of battle, asks what happened and who Vlint is. Tashi introduces his son, who explains Ling’s ideas and schemes. Kenzou’s fears about his personal risk are realized, and he begins to panic. Tashi decides to take time to train his son, first by pitting him against Kenzou, and then taking him on himself, with no time to rest. Tashi uses Setting Sun maneuvers and relentlessly pushes Vlint to defend himself with Desert Wind. Kenzou, Tashi, and Vlint train in multiple styles and end up with headbands with Tashi and Vlint’s family symbol on it.
They return home to find the bodies of the mother and sibling swinging from the ceiling beams, and assassins waiting for them. Tashi finally breaks and unleashes all of his skill on them, while Vlint defends himself and watches his father’s full power.
Kenzou sneaks his way into Ling’s earshot and tries to convince him that the plan can still work, especially now that he is so close to the delegate. But Ling feels betrayed by everyone except the delegate, so he immediately sells his cousin out, pointing to him and proclaiming aloud that he is the man behind the whole plot. Kenzou runs away and is pursued by the delegate’s envoy of guards. He leads them into the forest, hoping that the plan can still work. Even though the delegate is not among them, Kenzou uses the ambush plan to save his own life. The assassins don the imperial guards’ armor and lead Kenzou back, leading to an epic showdown with the remaining guards and the death of the delegate by Tashi’s hand!
In the end, the regime begins to fall apart over the next 15-20 years. Ling goes right back to being a Phoenix Clan nobody, dusting antiques and trying to master Desert Wind. Tashi retires, celebrated as a folk hero and martial arts legend. Vlint travels to the coast and soon has a child named Tsu-No Mari. Kenzou is cast out by the still-in-power empire, stripped of name and ties to the (Imperial) Phoenix Clan. He heads out into the desert, filled with the spirit of vengeance, and eventually rages his way to becoming a warlord, and heads on to the Garden City to take it from the new Emperor, shortly after he is crowned, when the new regime is at its weakest.