By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Two days ride south of Toshi Ranbo
The fields were still golden despite the lateness of the season, but the chilling breeze that blew through the tall grass told the truth. Winter was coming, and soon. The men and women who sat atop their horses overlooking the field grimaced at the sudden chill, but none spoke, for fear of disturbing the two samurai standing apart from them. If they could not glean what was needed from this place, then the entire group would fail, and bring terrible news back to the capital. None of them wished to be party to such a thing.
A lean, athletic woman clad in armor bearing the Lion mon shifted in her saddle. Her expression was one of frustration and anger. She glanced around, then leaned over to speak in hushed tones to the man riding beside her. “Will they find anything?” she asked.
The tall, bald man beside her said nothing for a moment, carefully scrutinizing the two samurai in the field. “If they cannot, then no one can,” he finally answered. “They are among the finest we have.”
The woman nodded, although her expression did not change. She glanced to the south suddenly, her eyes narrowing. “Someone approaches,” she said in the same low voice. “Riders. Half a dozen, perhaps.”
The man stared at the horizon intently. “I see nothing.”
“They are coming all the same,” she insisted. She gestured over her shoulder to the waiting soldiers, all of whom nodded and positioned themselves for easy access to their weapons. “It is him.”
“No,” the man shook his head. “It cannot be him. Not so soon.”
“He always finds a way,” she responded. “We must meet him.”
The old monk nodded and nudged his horse forward, holding one hand up to signal the men behind them to wait. The two rode in a wide circle around the center of the field, where their two colleagues were carefully inspecting something they had discovered in the tall grass. As the two rode, they gradually saw six riders appear on the horizon, riding at incredible speed toward the field. The two positioned themselves between the field and the newcomers, and waited.
The lead rider came upon them in only a few moments. He swiftly dismounted and strode before the two who stood guard. His face was partially concealed by a mask of silk cloth, and his black and crimson armor gleamed in the mid-day sun. “Tell me what happened here,” he said in a low, ominous voice.
Both man and woman bowed low from the saddle. “Greetings, Paneki-sama,” the old monk said. “Our magistrates are investigating the attack as we speak.”
Bayushi Paneki, Champion of the Scorpion Clan, seemed comforted very little by the news. He peered up at the two with thinly veiled hostility. “Hitomi Suguhara and Kitsu Deijiko,” he said flatly. “Is the perpetrator of this heinous act so dangerous that two Imperial Legions must be deployed? Or is one merely incapable of handling the matter properly?”
Deijiko bristled, but maintained a proper tone. “The Empress considers this matter an affront to her husband’s reign, and has ordered two Legions to investigate,” she said. “One of the Emerald Magistrates is investigating now, along with a specially appointed representative from the Dragon.”
Paneki shifted his gaze to Suguhara. “I appreciate the assistance of my oldest allies in this, but I wish to deal with it personally.”
“That is your right,” Suguhara said, “but it will not prevent us from investigating the matter. This is the order of the Empress. We will fulfill our duty.”
“That this has occurred within the Lion borders is a disgrace,” Deijiko said quietly. “I will deal with this matter personally if that is your wish, Paneki-sama.”
Paneki sneered. “I think not. I know of your reputation, Kitsu. You would leave a path of dead bodies and cold vengeance, but that would not be enough. Justice is not sufficient. I will have vengeance.”
“Hold,” Suguhara said, cutting off Deijiko’s rebuttal. “They have finished.”
The two samurai from the field approached the gathered samurai. The woman was short and slender, and moved with the grace of a dancer. Her companion was taller and broader of shoulder, with his blade worn in the style of a seasoned duelist. They bowed when the reached their commanders. “What have you found?” Deijiko asked.
“Bodies,” the woman answered. “And a great deal of blood. Little else remains in the way of evidence. Whoever committed this attack was extremely cautious to leave nothing behind.”
“No survivors?” Paneki asked, his tone dark.
“No,” the man answered. “The entire party was killed, most from archery fire, the last few by blade. Commander Miyako-sama is not among the slain, however.”
Suguhara and Deijiko glanced at one another. “This was no random attack,” the old monk said. “They took her.”
The magistrate nodded. “So it would seem,” she answered. “There is a great deal of blood among the grass. Some of the assailants must have been killed, but they did not leave the bodies behind.” She glanced at the Scorpion Champion. “I have no choice but to assume that this was an attack in response to the announcement of your betrothal to Lady Miyako, Paneki-sama. Are there any who would wish you ill?”
The Scorpion Champion looked at her for a moment. “Are you completely mad?” he finally asked. “Are you asking me if I have enemies? Have you no notion to whom you speak? Who is this fool, Suguhara?”
“Mirumoto Narumi,” Suguhara replied. “She leaves no question unasked, even if it seems an obvious one. That is what makes her one of our finest Imperial magistrates. And Kitsuki Nagiken, a justicar from the Dragon sent to assist Narumi-san in matters such as these. It is an unfortunate convenience that the attack happened so soon after his arrival in the Imperial City.”
Paneki looked at the magistrates, his expression conflicted. “Can you discover the truth behind this?” he finally asked. “Can you find out why this was done?”
“I can,” Narumi replied. “I will find the answers you seek, Paneki-sama. And if Miyako-sama is alive, I will find her.”
“And then?” Paneki demanded.
“When Narumi has the answers she requires,” Nagiken said flatly, “then I will see to it that it is ended.”
“See that you do,” Paneki said quietly. “Or I shall tear the Empire apart until I find what I want to know.”
The village of Beiden, two weeks later
Beiden might once have better been described as a city. It had been a major hub of commerce as countless caravans traveled through toward all ports of call in both northern and southern Rokugan. Then the War of Spirits had come, and Beiden Pass had been destroyed. The so-called Crossroads of the Empire simply ceased to exist, and in a very real manner, so did the city of Beiden. It was clogged with dilapidated, empty buildings. Some were used for storage, and some were simply abandoned. There was virtually no reason to come to Beiden, and if not for the tiny Shamate Pass that had been discovered nearby only a few years previously, the village might well no longer exist.
Nagiken and Narumi stood outside what appeared to be an empty building for a moment, taking in every aspect of its crumbling faÃ§ade. “You remember what we discussed?” Narumi asked quietly. Hearing Nagiken’s grunt of assent, she nodded. “Let me handle everything. You will know when to intervene.” The young magistrate stretched her neck and grimaced at the pop it produced. “Let’s go.”
Narumi strode up to the house’s door and struck it forcefully with the heel of her hand. The door rattled but only came ajar rather than opening completely. It was obviously stronger than it appeared. With a smirk, Narumi stepped back and kicked it violently, sending it flying open with a loud crash. “Taki!” she shouted into the shadowed interior. “I thought you were a better listener than this!”
There was the sound of movement all throughout the expansive building. It was a scurrying sound, the sort of sound made when men dropped everything they were doing and ran for their lives. Nagiken grimaced at the stench, but Narumi seemed unconcerned. “Taki!” she repeated. “Where are you?”
A group of men appeared in the corridor, blocking the two Dragon from proceeding further into the house. The man in the lead, a short, relatively squat man, glanced among the two magistrates with obvious concern. “Where…”
“Yaruko is not with me just now,” Narumi said.
The man visibly relaxed. “Do you think it was wise to come without her?” he asked, arching one eyebrow curiously.
Narumi laughed. “While I did enjoy watching her reduce you to tears, I did not have time to summon her this time. Perhaps you can work up a good lather with a bit less prompting this time?”
Taki scowled. “You should be careful with your tongue, magistrate! You are outnumbered.”
“Are you threatening her?” Nagiken said quietly. Narumi stepped to the side, and let the group of ronin take in the duelist’s size and the fluid movement of his hands as he gripped his blades in the Mirumoto style. Most importantly, they saw his badge of office and the cold, dead look of his eyes.
Taki licked his lips nervously. One of the men behind him whispered the word “justicar,” dropped his weapons and fled. Two others followed suit. Taki smiled, but the panic that had disappeared only moments before was back and far more pronounced “No,” he stammered. “No, of course not. I… I am a law-abiding citizen!”
“Do not be a fool,” Narumi admonished. “You are a simpleton who excels at only two things: maintaining a successful gambling house and providing services that are otherwise difficult to obtain for people traveling through this miserable village. I allowed you to survive last time only because you were able to provide me with information I needed to punish crimes far greater than yours. Now, can you help me again or shall I allow Nagiken to pass judgment on this shoddy hovel of iniquity?”
Another of Taki’s men ran, leaving only two, and they looked as though they might bolt at any moment. The ronin leader seemed conflicted for a moment, then his face fell utterly. “What do you need?” he asked in a resigned tone. “I will tell you all that I know.”
“I know that a group of men came through Shamate Pass some weeks ago,” Narumi said. “They were using forged travel papers. They had perhaps a lone wagon with them. They would have required lodging and supplies.”
Taki nodded. “Yes,” he admitted. “How did you know they came through Beiden?”
“We investigated every city within riding distance of an incident we are investigating,” Narumi said. “We discovered the man who provided the forged papers. He gave us a rough description, and we searched the cities again for any sign that they had traveled through. They appeared nowhere in Lion lands. They did not enter Crane lands. That leaves only Beiden.”
Taki scowled. “I hate magistrates,” he muttered under his breath. “They came through,” he admitted. “There were more than two dozen at first. Less than ten returned. I provided lodging and supplies.”
“Where did they go?” Narumi asked.
Taki shook his head. “I do not know.”
“Nagiken,” the magistrate said. The justicar stepped forward and drew his blade, sending the last of Taki’s supporters running into the shadows.
“Wait!” Taki screeched, backpedaling. “I know! I know!”
Narumi held up a hand and looked at the ronin expectantly. “I will not ask again.”
“I can show you,” Taki said. “There is an old mine deep in the mountains. The Scorpion used to mine jade there, but the vein ran out decades ago. It is completely abandoned. They are hiding there until they decide what to do next. I can draw you a map!”
Narumi’s eyes narrowed. “I cannot say that I trust you, Taki. But I believe you will provide an accurate map. Do you know why?”
“No,” he admitted. “Why?”
“Because if you provide us a map, I will leave a sealed letter for the magistrate. When he returns from Kyuden Bayushi in two days, he will find an order for your execution. You and I will never see each other again, or at least if we do it will be only for a moment.”
Taki stared at her incredulously. “This is what you will do if I cooperate? Why should I, then?”
Narumi smiled and glanced over her shoulder at Nagiken. “Use your imagination. After all, if you provide us with faulty information, then we shall have absolutely nothing else to do save hunt you.”
The trip through the mountains would surely have been an arduous one if both Dragon had not been used to living among such peaks from their childhood. Indeed, the Spine of the World Mountains were more jagged and dangerous, but not so high and frigid as the Northern Wall Mountains to which they were accustomed. It was on the second day of climbing that Nagiken finally broke the silence.
“I was mistaken about you,” he said flatly.
Narumi risked a glance over her shoulder. “How so?” she asked.
“I had heard many things about you,” Nagiken continued. “That you were an exceptional magistrate. That you were a skilled swordswoman. That you were a paragon of honor.” He shook his head and wiped his brow with his sleeve. “You are indeed an exceptional magistrate, perhaps the finest I have ever known. But how could you let that wretch Taki survive?”
Narumi frowned. “It is a bit difficult to reconcile, isn’t it?”
“Very,” he agreed.
“And yet,” Narumi continued, “if I had slain Taki after our first meeting, would we know where to seek the men who attacked Miyako-sama?”
Nagiken frowned. “I suppose not,” he said reluctantly.
“Taki and those like him are a blight on the Empire, of that there is no doubt.” Narumi stopped to take a quick drink of water. “But they are like the scratch from a thorn when others, such as those we seek now, are like a knife wound in the back. We must choose what can be treated first. When the knife wound is healed, then the thorn will be pulled out.”
“I find this line of thinking dangerous,” Nagiken growled.
“Very much so,” Narumi said. “And yet priorities must be maintained. I do not particularly enjoy it, but I have come to accept that certain sacrifices must be made. Pragmatism is greatly undervalued in the Dragon mountains, I fear.”
Nagiken lapsed into silence after that conversation, and said little for two more days as the two magistrates plumbed deeper into the heart of the Spine of the World Mountains. There were chasms within their depths that appeared for all in the world to extend down into the darkness forever, and peaks so sheer that there was no hope of possibly climbing them. Each of these obstacles the two Dragon wordlessly went around, persevering without complaint until, finally, they reached their destination on the fifth day within the mountains.
The mine they sought sat against a cliff face, and opened up onto a large plateau that was shielded on most sides by more cliffs. It was a difficult position to approach, but Narumi saw only a single sentry standing at the cave’s mouth. The way the man was slumped against the rock for support indicated strongly that he had been drinking and was only semi-conscious. Narumi silently thanked Lady Moon for her blessings.
Signaling for the larger Nagiken to wait, Narumi took several moments to find her center, then drew her blades. At the proper moment, she darted from the rocks where the two stood concealed and crossed the plateau in a flash. She deftly leapt over the rocks and depressions that blocked her path, and reached the sentry in only a moment. The drunken man had just enough time to look up at her with a quizzical expression before she cut him down without a sound. Nagiken quickly crossed the plateau to join her, and together, the two cautiously entered the cave.
The tunnel was dark, of course, but there was dim light from farther down the corridor. The two moved slowly to avoid making any sound, and in a moment they could hear the murmuring of voices. The strained to hear, but the echo distorted it too badly to be understood. Narumi advanced farther, moving with almost preternatural grace as she crept down the passageway like a great cat.
“As long as I say!” a loud voice roared. “We have enough to last for weeks, and we don’t leave until I decide he’s been made into fool!”
“Let’s just kill her and go!” another said. “This is too dangerous! We should split up. They will never find us all.”
“They aren’t even looking!” the first voice insisted. “That fool has no idea who we are! We’re beneath his notice, remember?”
“You aren’t paying us well enough to stay in this miserable hole,” a third voice insisted. “I won’t stay here any longer. Not for your personal crusade of vengeance.”
“Try to leave and I’ll kill you myself,” the first voice growled.
Narumi frowned, trying to judge how many might be in the chamber. Three, at least, possibly more. Eight at the most, assuming Taki had been telling the truth. There was no way for her to fight so many at once, but if she stood in the passageway entrance, they could not attack her more than two at a time. If she could kill the first two or three, she and Nagiken could deal with the rest easily. It was dangerous, but there were few other options, and none were was reasonable.
The magistrate stepped to where the passageway opened up into the chamber. She took it all in instantly. There were six men, two of whom were asleep. There was but a single other exit, and it appeared to have been blocked with stacked crates of rations and sake. If what the men had said was true, and Miyako still lived, she would be on the other side. “In the Emperor’s name,” she commanded, “throw down your blades and submit to my authority.”
The men froze, but only for a moment. A variety of weapons appeared in their hands in a second. From their tattered kimonos and the nature of their weapons, it seemed they were former Mantis. Why would the Mantis kidnap Toturi Miyako? It made little sense. “Explain,” she commanded.
“I owe you nothing,” a man with twin kama said. She recognized his voice as the first speaker. “I do not recognize your authority.”
Despite the circumstances, Narumi felt a shock at his words. “I am an Imperial Magistrate. I speak with the Emperor’s authority!”
“The Emperor?” the man snorted. “The Emperor whose father heaped accolades upon the butcher called Paneki. ‘Defender of the Empire,’ indeed! He is a murderer and an assassin, and I will destroy him!”
Narumi tightened up her stance. It was obvious the man was a zealot of some sort, and that made him dramatically more dangerous. “What crimes has Paneki committed against you?” she demanded.
“Kill her!” the man screamed. Two of his companions darted in, weapons drawn. Narumi blocked a sai attack from the left and feinted high with her katana on the right side. The man brought his parangu up to block her attack, and was fatally surprised when she instead cut his midsection open from hip to hip. She turned back to the man with the sai and parried a second strike only to have her wakizashi caught in the prongs of his weapon. She saw the leader coming forward, and tried to screen herself with her blade but remained at a disadvantage.
Nagiken exploded into the chamber like a winter storm. His first strike nearly took the leader’s head, but the former Mantis hurled himself backward at the last moment to avoid instant death. One of his other men attempted to flank Nagiken, but the justicar hefted a lantern in his free hand, as he had not yet drawn his wakizashi, and crushed the man’s skull with it. The cracking sound it made was sickening.
Narumi finally wrenched her blade free and cut down her opponent, turning to see how many were left. Nagiken had pressed his opponent into an alcove and stood in the dueling position, waiting for him to step forward. “Come,” he said quietly. “Prove your guilt.”
Narumi crossed the chamber and blocked the last two men from approaching Nagiken. One tried to run around her to flee but she lashed out with a kick that connected soundly with his head, knocking it against the cave wall with considerable force. He crumpled to the ground even as the other assailant rushed in to take advantage of her distraction. She dropped her shoulder so that he ran directly into her, and the force of the impact jarred her through and through. The ronin was knocked to the ground, however, the breath driven from his lungs. He flailed about with his tonfa, and so she cut his head from his body rather than risk trying to take him alive.
There was a tearing sound from behind her. Narumi turned to see the former Mantis crumple to the ground in a messy heap. Nagiken casually flicked the blood from his blade and sheathed it. “Guilty,” he said quietly.
Narumi quickly began to hurl the crates aside in hopes of reaching the chamber beyond. “Help me!” she ordered, and Nagiken joined her. Together, they cleared the passageway in a few moments, and stepped inside.
“Ancestors protect us,” Nagiken said quietly.
Narumi exited the dark confines of the bandits’ stronghold, squinting at the bright afternoon sun. In the moment it took her eyes to adjust, she suddenly realized there were men waiting on them to exit. She shoved her bound captive, the one she had kicked into the wall, to the side and gripped the hilt of her blade, but a voice stayed her hand. “Who is this, magistrate Narumi?”
Narumi blinked for a moment. “Paneki-sama?” she said incredulously. “What… how is it you are here? How did you find us?”
“Who is this man?” Paneki asked again.
The magistrate hesitated for a moment. “The architect of the plot has been dealt with, Paneki-sama. Nagiken has judged him. His co-conspirators,” she nodded at the man standing next to her, who was clearly terrified of Paneki, “must be transported to Toshi Ranbo and questioned by their superiors before they can be executed. It is necessary. It is procedure.”
Paneki showed no signs of having heard her. “You were among those who attacked Miyako?” he asked the man quietly.
The Mantis ground his teeth and stared at the Scorpion Champion defiantly, his terror momentarily forgotten. “Yes,” he said. “I would do anything to hurt you.”
Paneki moved so quickly that Narumi did not even see him draw his blade. In the span of a heartbeat, he crossed the distance between the two and cut the bound Mantis down with a single strike. A ribbon of blood streaked across the sky, splattering Narumi on the right cheek. The magistrate recoiled involuntarily and wiped furiously at her face, paling and struggling to keep from wretching. Only her sense of duty forced her to her feet to follow the Scorpion Champion as he stalked into the miserable cave.
Paneki knelt down to the form curled on the mat. “Miyako,” he said softly, just above a whisper. “Miyako, can you hear me?”
The woman on the mat twisted toward him. Her hair was matted with filth and hung down into her face. Crude bandages covered the left side of her face and her throat, stained through with blood in several places. She nodded slowly, painfully.
“Let me see you,” he whispered.
She shook her head violently, and it was obvious from the look in her eyes that doing so caused her terrible pain. She covered her face with her hands. “No,” she rasped. It was a wretched sound, like gravel tumbling together in a pail.
“Let me see,” he repeated softly, pulling her hands away gently. There was no reaction as he saw the terrible damage across her left cheek and down to her throat. It had been bandaged, but not properly. It was a miracle that she had lived at all, much less that she could speak, even in such a torn, ragged manner. “Praise the Fortunes you are alive,” Paneki said, breathing a sigh of relief. “I feared you were lost.”
“My voice,” she said, the effort clearing paining her. “I will never command a legion again.”
“We shall see,” Paneki said. “That will come, in time.”
Miyako’s hand strayed to the bloodied bandages on her cheek. “I am a monster,” she whispered, a single tear streaming from her eye.
Paneki brushed the hair from her eyes with a single finger. “Never to me.”
Miyako looked up at him with wide, adoring eyes, and in that moment, Narumi sensed the shift between them. Once there had been mutual respect and admiration. Now, there was something else. She struggled to look away, as if it was obscene for her to look upon them in this moment, but she could not. She was transfixed.
“My face,” whispered Miyako.
“Nothing has changed,” Paneki said, but removed the mask from his face and gently attached it to Miyako’s. “If it is your wish, however, no one shall look upon it until the moment of your choosing.”
And at that, Narumi turned and left the chamber. What was taking place between the two was not for the eyes of another, and despite the raging curiosity in her spirit to see the unmasked visage of Bayushi Paneki, Narumi could not bear to remain a moment longer.
Nagiken glanced up at her. “The wounds have not closed properly,” he observed. “There will be little that anyone can do to treat them.”
“I know,” Narumi said.
“What is happening in there?” Nagiken asked. “What did he say?”
Narumi shook her head. “Our job is done,” she said quietly. “The Scorpion have control here. It is time we rode for the capital and offered our report.”
“What?” Nagiken demanded. “Where is the captive?”
“Dead,” Narumi said. She glanced back at the chamber where Paneki was doubtless helping his intended bride gather her strength for the ride home. “Any secrets he may have possessed died with him.”
“Outrageous!” Nagiken insisted. “There is no one left that can explain this heinous act!”
“There is one,” Narumi said quietly. “I suggest, however, that you do not ask him.”