By Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
When she was still a small child Akodo Kurako’s grandfather had impressed upon her the importance of eating breakfast. A soldier’s life was an uncertain one, he had patiently explained, and one could never know when one’s next meal would be. She was the Empress now, and it was fairly certain that her next meal would appear, perfectly prepared and exquisitely presented, at the exact time she specified, but Toturi Kurako did not consider this sufficient reason to abandon a good habit. She knelt before the tray bearing rice, miso soup and tea and ate quickly.
When she finished she signaled one servant to take away the tray and another to help her dress. After the woman had helped her into the multiple layers of kimono and tied off the obi in an elaborate knot Kurako took the Empress’s seal from its box and slipped it into her obi, arranging it so that its outline could be just seen against the heavy brocade fabric. She had grown up slightly contemptuous of the elaborate clothing of courtiers, but she had been in the Imperial Court for exactly one week before she realized its true nature. Behind the apparent frippery was a language as expressive as the motions of a general’s tessen, and with much the same purpose. She chose a fan of gilded paper that had been painted with a spray of red maple leaves and left her room, armed to face the day.
Kurako walked calmly and with purpose down the hall that led to the Emperor’s private receiving room. She had used it frequently in the time that her husband was on his journey, but she had not been in it since news of his death had reached Toshi Ranbo. Kurako paused just slightly on the threshold of the room and then went in, blinking a little more rapidly than normal. A few minutes later the arrival of the Imperial Advisor was announced, and Kurako ordered that he be sent in. Tanitsu entered the room and knelt before her, touching his head to the floor. “You may sit at ease, Tanitsu-san,” Kurako said. “You have a report on the matter we spoke of?”
Tanitsu rose and settled himself, his elegant kimono falling into precise folds as he did so. “I do, my Empress. The office of Protector of the Imperial City was indeed never formally abolished, and the document that created the office always uses the phrase ‘Imperial City’, not ‘Otosan Uchi’. There are no legal bars to your appointment of a new Protector.”
“Good,” Kurako said. “Draft the necessary papers–we will begin the process immediately.”
Tanitsu frowned. “Kurako-sama, I said there are no legal bars to this–that does not mean that I think it is a wise course of action.”
“Are you questioning me, samurai?” Kurako’s tone was sharp.
Tanitsu didn’t flinch. Empress she was, but Kurako was a Lion still and needed to be handled appropriately. “My Empress, this court has any number of sycophants who will happily tell you what you want to hear. But while I am your Imperial Advisor I will give you the best counsel I have. If you do not wish to hear it I am easily replaced.”
There was a moment of tense silence, and then Kurako flipped her fan in an implicit apology. “Continue, Tanitsu-san.”
“Kurako-sama, the Protector’s duties are essentially those that the Shogun and his forces are performing now. At best, this action will be seen as an unnecessary duplication of forces, at worst it will be considered a move against the Shogun.”
“It is a move against the Shogun,” Kurako said. “With the Protector and his men securing the city Kaneka will no longer have the excuse to keep his forces here. Let him go back to the Phoenix lands and protect the Masters for awhile.”
Tanitsu suppressed a sigh. “My lady, we do not know how long it will take to determine who Naseru intended to be his heir, so we do not know how long you will reign as Empress. The resources you spend on fighting the Shogun would be better used enhancing your ability to govern.”
“And what would you have me direct my attention to, if not the man who has a small, independent army camped around my city?”
“Kurako-sama, I am concerned about the Khan.”
“The Khan?” Kurako seemed genuinely confused. “Moto Chagatai?”
“He twisted a minor oversight in an ancient law into permission to begin a war with the Lion. I cannot imagine what possibilities he sees in the current situation.”
“He cannot do anything of note until spring,” Kurako said, “by which time we may have determined who Naseru wanted to succeed him. And it does not matter what he does; the Lion will deal with him. Finally, the Khan is on the other side of the Empire, not here in Toshi Ranbo.”
“My Empress, if you seek an adversary in this city you need look no farther than Bayushi Kaukatsu.”
“Impossible. Kaukatsu is completely loyal to the throne.”
“Loyal to the throne, Kurako-sama, but not necessarily to you. He has been a power in the Imperial Court since the reign of the Splendid Emperor, and he understands as few others do what it takes to run the Empire. He will obey you as long as you are Empress, it is true, but if you wish him to serve you then you must cultivate his respect.”
“Naseru had his respect, it is said–where was Kaukatsu when Akiko and her cronies were nibbling away at his authority?” Kurako made a dismissive motion. “I have left him the Chancellorship, so he is free to wander the halls and scare children with that mask of his. I am not afraid of imaginary threats. I want the documents for the Protectorship drafted. Today.”
“Your will, my Empress,” Tanitsu said quietly.
* * * * *
Doji Nagori wandered through the gardens that surrounded the Imperial Palace, stopping to exchange bows with other courtiers out enjoying the late fall sunshine. The bows he received, the poet noted, were a little deeper than they were before he received Kakita’s sword. Domotai’s gift had indeed raised his status at court, and the question of what he would use that status for weighed on him. Kakita had been a great man, and Nagori doubted that he could be even half as great–but having Kakita’s sword left him with no choice but to strive for it. His mind flitted back to the memory of the day that Hachi had first put on the armor of the Emerald Champion, and the odd look in his friend’s eyes. Nagori understood that look now.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sight of Shosuro Higatsuku walking towards him, and Nagori hid a grimace behind his fixed, pleasant expression. The Scorpion had a reputation as a competent courtier, but there was something about the man what always made him wary.
“Good afternoon, Nagori-san,” Higatsuku said, bowing. “I wish to offer you my congratulations on your recent acquisition. It is a momentous thing, to hold something once held by a revered ancestor.”
“Thank you, Shosuro-san,” Nagori said calmly. “It is indeed momentous.” He wondered how long Higatsuku intended to talk, whether the other courtier actually wanted something or just wanted to be seen in Nagori’s company, and how quickly he could end the conversation without being noticeably rude.
“You are, I am sure, intending to make yourself a worthy holder of this gift. Kakita’s skill in his art is well known to all.”
“Oh, without question,” Nagori said. “In fact, I am in the process of drafting a letter to Kakita Noritoshi right now.”
“You are?” Higatsuku seemed taken aback.
“Indeed,” Nagori said blandly. “Not many people know this, but Noritoshi is quite the talented musician. I have no doubt that he will be able to recommend a good biwa teacher.”
Higatsuku frowned. “Kakita’s interest in the biwa is well-known, but I hope you do not intend to overlook his greatest achievement.”
“Not at all. After I hone my biwa skills I plan to woo the most beautiful woman I can find.” There was a subdued murmur of voices from somewhere behind him, and Nagori realized that their conversation had drawn an audience.
“Nagori-san, I am astounded by your lack of respect for your great ancestor.”
“You think I lack respect for Kakita?” Nagori said, sounding amazed. “Well, when you do something worthy of your clan’s respect we can revisit this topic.” The murmur behind him turned into the twitter of suppressed laughter. Nagori smiled, bowed, and walked off, wondering.
* * * * *
There were moments when even a Crane could tire of the endless glitter of court, and since the Topaz Championship Kakita Munemori had found those moments coming more and more often. The evening festivities at the Doji estate in Toshi Ranbo had begun, but as he sat in the dark peace of a garden pavilion he swirled the liquid in his sake cup and wondered if it was time for him to shave his head and retire.
The crunch of feet on the garden path drew him from his thoughts, and the old courtier looked up to see a woman in a dark red robe approach, followed by a servant carrying a tray with a bottle and cup. A few yards from the pavilion the woman stopped as if startled and bowed slightly. “Excuse me, Crane-sama,” she said politely. “I had meant to spend some time enjoying the beauty of your garden. Please do not let me disturb you.” She turned as if to go.
Munemori raised a mental eyebrow. The voice was that of Bayushi Adachi, a lusciously beautiful woman. She had come to his attention as someone who was connected in ways no one could quite explain with the deaths of several people who had made themselves inconvenient to the Scorpion Clan. She had been appointed one of her clan’s magistrates, which simply underlined her dangerousness in Munemori’s eyes. In his experience, Scorpions who abandoned the shadows were either incredibly good, incredibly confident, or both. “There is no need for you to leave, Bayushi-san,” he said, and waved casually at the servant’s tray. “The Daidoji say it’s unlucky to drink alone, so we can share the garden and drink together.”
Adachi murmured her thanks and knelt beside him. The servant set the tray down and then withdrew. The Scorpion woman picked up the bottle and poured herself a cup. “Your health, Kakita-sama,” she said, raising it to her lips.
“And yours, Bayushi-san,” Munemori said, taking a drink of his cup. “But you do me too much honor.”
“If you insist, Kakita-san. But I am moved by your welcome–many would fear to come so close to a Scorpion, for fear that we would guess their secret vices.”
“Ah,” Munemori said, “but I have no secret vices.” He smiled and ran an appreciative eye over her.
Adachi tossed her head back and laughed, causing her robe to tighten around her form. Munemori’s smile became a fraction wider; he had always enjoyed watching an expert at work. “So it seems,” she said finally. “But perhaps you have some secret virtues?”
“Surely not. I am a man of modest talents, serving my clan in minor ways.”
Adachi looked skeptical. “And yet, a number of your assignments were given to you personally by your late champion and his wife, who were not known for their low standards.”
“That is an astonishing claim,” Munemori said. He let his face fall into a look of concern. Scorpions hated it when you didn’t react to their provocations.
“I do not mean to alarm you with it,” Adachi replied. “But my lord Paneki has some information he wishes to give to your lady, and he wishes it to be done quietly. Your mask of cultivated obscurity would be useful in carrying out this task.”
“I see. And yet, the Scorpion are not in the habit of giving away information.”
“True, true. But my lord treasures the beauty of his Kakita sword, and wishes to honor the graciousness of the Crane. Our artisans are not the equal of yours, so he offers a gift of our specialty.”
“Truly the Kakita sword smiths are sublime, if they can induce Lord Paneki to aid a clan at war with his clan’s oldest ally.”
Adachi gave him a considering look over the rim of her sake cup. “Many would argue that when Akodo Kaneka interfered in the Yasuki War neither Crane nor Crab benefited. That being so, one could imagine ways in which one could help the Crane without harming the Dragon.”
“An interesting choice of example,” Munemori said. “Given the high esteem he has for his wife, one finds it difficult to imagine the Shogun acting against the clan of her birth.”
“No doubt his future actions will reflect that. But will he consult Lady Domotai before acting? One could also imagine him acting independently of her.”
One could indeed, Munemori thought, and Domotai’s reaction to that would be all too predictable. Adachi smiled and opened her outer robe to bring out a scroll case. Munemori was slightly disappointed, though not surprised, to see that she was wearing a kimono and not her scandalously stylized ceremonial armor. “A complete listing of all the forces the Shogun has at his command, including those who do not normally appear in the reports of his quartermasters.” She handed the case to him. “I trust your lady will find this useful in planning for certain contingencies.”
Munemori accepted the scroll and slipped it inside his own robe, his mind racing through possibilities. He didn’t doubt at all that Paneki truly meant for the Crane to benefit from this action. He also didn’t doubt that Paneki meant for his own clan to benefit even more by it. The monastery would have to wait, he decided. “Bayushi-san, do you play go?”
Adachi quirked an eyebrow at the change of topic. “I am not an expert, but yes, I do play.”
Munemori smiled. “Then perhaps you would like to play a game?”
“I do not see a go board here in the pavilion,” she said.
“Sadly, no. But I have a very nice go set in my room.”
Adachi laughed. “No doubt. Sometime later, perhaps–I have a few more responsibilities to deal with this evening.” She rose and began walking down the steps of the pavilion.
“Good hunting, Bayushi-san,” Munemori said dryly.
The Scorpion woman paused on the bottom step and looked back at him, the glint of amusement in her eyes. “And to you also, Munemori-san.”
* * * * *
“Bayushi-sama, Nagori made a fool of Higatsuku this afternoon. The story is being told all over the city.”
Bayushi Kaukatsu looked up from the scroll he was reading and studied the young man kneeling before him. Shosuro Jimen had done a credible job of keeping his voice neutral, but Kaukatsu wasn’t fooled–Jimen was clearly unhappy at delivering bad news to the Chancellor. “Splendid,” he said, and watched as the younger courtier’s eyes widened in surprise. “Samurai, I can see your face,” Kaukatsu said, and Jimen’s eyes quickly returned to normal. “Better. Remember, your mask is a symbol–unless you have a sack over your head, your opponents will always be able to see something. Make sure it is only what you want them to see.”
“Thank you, Bayushi-sama,” Jimen said meekly. “I will remember it always.”
Kaukatsu listened carefully and heard only gratitude in the voice. Either Jimen was genuinely glad for the reminder or he was seething at being treated like a first-year student. Either was acceptable, so long as no one could figure out which. “Now, tell me why this is splendid news.”
“Because…” Jimen started out slowly, “because you told Higatsuku you wanted Nagori embarrassed in public, but what you really wanted was an incident between the two men.”
“Very good. Why?”
Jimen thought for a long time. “Because Higatsuku once served the Shogun, and Nagori is the brother of his wife. By sunrise tomorrow half the court will be obsessed with trying to figure out why the two of them are at odds.”
“Exactly,” Kaukatsu said.
“Kaneka made few friends and many enemies when he and his siblings were fighting over the throne. Once we lay the groundwork his detractors will take over, and the court will be buzzing with rumors of his attempts to capitalize on Naseru’s death.”
“I am sorry, but I do not understand. How do we gain by acting against the Shogun?”
“We are not acting against the Shogun. We are acting against the Empress.” This time, Kaukatsu was pleased to note, there was no change in Jimen’s eyes. Paneki’s protÃ©gÃ© was clearly a fast learner.
“Kurako is an intelligent, honorable and courageous samurai. She would be a notable warrior on the battlefield, or a great general, or a perfectly competent Lion Champion, if it came to that. But as a ruling Empress?” He made a dismissive gesture with hand. “She is a hazard to the Empire, but we are forced to deal with her until we discover who Toturi IV is. But she is a Lion, so all we need is to give her an enemy. Kurako can spend her time maneuvering against Kaneka, while those of us who actually know what they are doing can attend to Imperial affairs.”
“I understand now,” Jimen said. “What do you wish me to do?”
“You already have your instructions,” Kaukatsu said. “You are here as the Scorpion Champion’s personal representative, sent to oversee his interests in this city. That this action gives the impression that Paneki does not trust the Shogun is, of course, most unfortunate.”
“I understand,” Jimen said, and bowed. One could not see it on his face, but Kaukatsu was certain that the young man was smiling.
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