By Rusty Priske
Edited by Fred Wan
Doji Jun’ai pulled her cloak tighter around herself to stave off the cold winter night. She offered no word of complaint, but Kakita Tsuken saw her discomfort and added more wood to their small campfire. The flames jumped and danced as he coaxed more heat from the embers.
Jun’ai shook her head. “Do you think that wise? Cold is just cold, but we are far too close to the path of the Unicorn armies. I would rather they did not see our fire.”
Tsuken smirked, mirthlessly. “Not even Chagatai himself would harm two of the Keepers. We do have some notoriety, you know.”
“That may be so, but war leads to death, and death is rarely restricted solely to those targeted by war.”
Tsuken nodded. Much had happened since he became the Keeper of Fire, but he could never forget his master, Doji Jurian, and how he fell victim to a war between two clans that were not his own. “Your point is taken, Jun’ai-chan, but if we don’t stay warm, Chagatai will not have to concern himself with our deaths. The harsh teeth of winter will leave Rokugan short two Keepers.”
Jun’ai’s eyebrow shot up at Tsuken’s familiarity. “You presume much, Kakita-san.” She put heavy emphasis on the last syllable.
Tsuken shrugged. “I presume nothing. I merely express how I feel. If a mere mortal man cannot fall under the spell of the most enchanting samurai-ko in Rokugan, I fear for us all.”
Jun’ai rolled her eyes. “How many have fallen for that line, Tsuken? Your charms are the envy of courtiers and poets the length of the land, I’m sure.”
Tsuken laughed. “If that is how you feel, I can do not but respect it, but it is not true. I am not some gifted poet, spinning words to win trophies. My feelings for you are true, Jun’ai-chan, and I would have you believe in them and me.”
Tsuken bowed deeply to his companion. She watched him with a thoughtful expression. It seemed so long ago that she had first witnessed Tsuken’s flirtatious nature, and she had dismissed him as a lecher for it. And yet, over the years she had rarely seen him act so with other women. His charms, it seemed, were reserved exclusively for her, which was merely one of the reasons that she had found them so difficult to resist. Under such conditions, even a candle could seem like an inferno. Tonight, under these conditions, was not the time to long for warmth. The cold was not the only danger with which Jun’ai would have to deal.
“I thank you for your kind words, Tsuken-san, but we have a task before us and we should not be distracted from our goal.”
Tsuken’s smile masked a sadness in his eyes. “As you say, Jun’ai-san. Rokugan is large and we are seeking something very small.”
“Anything that can be lost can be found. Look at the items found at the Tomb of the Seven Thunders. Some of these items were thought lost, yet they have returned to us. We seek something that was taken from the Empire. The scrolls that the Emperor gave to Asahina Sekawa-sama have shown that lost does not mean destroyed. The past does not always dictate the future.”
Tsuken nodded. “And when it does dictate the future, we are not always able to understand what it is telling us. Still, the odds of us finding what we are looking for…”
Jun’ai interrupted. “Are certain. If not us, then Masae and Sugimoto, or Sekawa-sama and Hira. The universe is a strange place, Tsuken-san, but it is a very orderly one. Would Shinsei’s message to the Emperor have turned up if we were not meant to follow it? Would the secrets of the tomb have been revealed if there was no deeper meaning to its creation? Shinsei’s letter led to the Tomb, which led to the scrolls that the Emperor entrusted to Sekawa. Those scrolls have sent us on this quest. Would those scrolls have been revealed if we could not find what we are seeking?”
Tsuken smiled. “You have great faith, Jun’ai-san.”
“As do you, Tsuken-san. But you also have great doubt.”
He shook his head. “I do not doubt, I question. Shinsei did not tell us to take everything as it is presented. I question, but I do not let those questions keep me from my duties. If the treasure we seek exists as we have been led to believe, then we shall find it.”
Kaiu Sugimoto and Mirumoto Masae looked down the hill at the village below. The scene was idyllic, with the snowbound region nestled into the foothills of the Dragon mountains. Lazy plumes of smoke rose from the cooking and heating fires throughout the village. The occasional person moved from building to building, but for the most part, it was a typical winter evening.
Sugimoto leaned heavily on his staff. “Well, even if the rumors are not true, at least we will be able to sleep indoors tonight. That is something anyway. These old bones could do with a bit less cold, I think.”
Masae grimaced. “Finding that which we seek so close to my home would be fortunate, but the rumors are unsettling all the same. I am not certain if I wish them to be true, even if it does make our quest simpler.”
Sugimoto nodded wordlessly, and the two of them started down the hill.
The sake house was not substantially different than any other across Rokugan. The village was nominally in Dragon lands, but in the foothills the people did not live under the same layer of inscrutability as those deeper in the mountains. Two strangers entering the village were quite unusual, considering the time of year and the conditions outside, but they were still welcomed and served.
Masae waited until their cups were brought before broaching the reason for their visit. “There have been stories of a boy in this village. Do you know what I am speaking of?”
The proprietor of the sake house stiffened, slightly. “A boy, Mirumoto-sama? There are children in this village, but I don’t know of any that would stand out.”
“This boy was taken from his parents, as the story goes, and is being held captive. Does this story mean anything to you?”
He shook his head. “No Mirumoto-sama. No child that I know of has been taken from his parents in this village. Things are simple here and such things are not common.”
Masae appeared ready to speak again but Sugimoto interjected. “Thank you for your time.” Masae looked at her fellow Keeper as the man shuffled quickly away.
“Why did you do that? He was clearly lying.”
“Of course he was, but there was nothing further you were going to get out of him, without resorting to coercion. He is afraid, and I do no think it is of us.”
Masae glanced at the doorway where the man had disappeared. “Do you think he will notify others of our questions?”
“If he does, I am sure we can handle it. I do not think so, however. I did not get a feeling of complicity from him. Just fear. Whomever he is afraid of does not inspire loyalty.”
Masae watched as Sugimoto finished his sake. “I believe we should speak to this village’s magistrate.”
The magistrate was a samurai, of course, but he had the look of a bureaucrat rather than a warrior. His fingers were ink stained and a further smudge adorned his forehead. He was thin and his kimono was not particularity clean, though it gave the image of one who simply forgot to clean it rather than one who was truly slovenly.
He looked up from a scattered pile of papers to see the two Keepers. “Ah, visitors! At this time of year, I must say that is unusual.” He stood and bowed. “I am always happy to be of service. I am Mirumoto Naoki, and I am the magistrate here.”
“I am Mirumoto Masae and this is Kaiu Sugimoto.”
Naoki’s face blanched for a moment before the expression was replaced with one of happiness. “Two of the Keepers, here? It is a great honor you do this small village, Keeper-samas. We must undertake a celebration on your honor. Food is short this year but we can still have a modest gathering.”
Masae shook her head. “There is no need. We are here for a singular purpose and there is no time for frivolities.”
Naoki’s tone became both serious and hesitant. “Oh, my. Whatever I can do to help you, I will.”
“Yes, you will.”
Sugimoto stepped forward. “There are stories of a boy from this village, who the locals believe has some sort of special powers. The stories also say that he has been taken from his parents. What can you tell us about this?”
Naoki sniffed. “Superstitious nonsense. I have heard these stories, but it did not happen in this village, you can be certain of that.”
Masae glanced at Sugimoto. The Keeper of Earth responded to Naoki with a long stare. Then, “You dismiss any possibility of things you cannot understand, magistrate-san? Have there not been a number of recorded instances of the elements speaking to those untrained? Could that not account for the stories?”
Naoki shook his head. “Only if we are speaking of different stories. The ones I have heard say that the child is a prophet. Peasants aren’t prophets. The stories are just the ramblings of someone who wishes to rise above his station. It is nothing that the Keepers need to concern themselves with.”
Masae’s face was hard and her voice stern. “We will decide what we need concern ourselves with. You sound like you know the source of these stories.”
Naoki looked startled. “What? No. It is just peasant ramblings. Nothing to take note of.”
Sugimoto stepped towards Naoki. “Where is the boy, magistrate?”
“What? No, I said…”
The Crab stepped even closer, his eyes dark. Looking into them was like staring into the heart of a mountain. Few men could stand in the presence of such certainty, such inevitability, and not turn away. “Where is the boy?”
Naoki lunged suddenly toward the sword rack standing against the wall, but his speed and reflexes were no match for Masae’s. He found himself with the point of the Keeper of Air’s katana just under his chin. He began to shake uncontrollably. “Please, do not kill me,” he whispered.
“I would hold still if I were you,” said Sugimoto. “We don’t want any accidents. Now, where is the boy?”
Naoki led them to a small outbuilding, no more than a shed. As they approached, the magistrate tried to espouse justifications for his actions. His words tripped over themselves in a torrent, as he tried to find some way out. “They said he could predict the future. He could see the path forward, and I thought I can use it. Not for myself, no, but for the Dragon and the Empire! I would never use such a thing selfishly. No! He is just a peasant! He needs to be used properly!”
Naoki unlatched the door, at the Keepers’ direction. He was nearly sobbing at this point. Inside there was a boy, nearing the age where a samurai would achieve his gempukku. As a peasant, he would likely have been considered a man for at least a year, and given the same duties as others. He was fastened to a post by a stout chain, with only bare scraps of clothes to keep him warm.
“Tell the future? Never. The stories were lies, as I said. He can no more tell the future than you or I can.”
Masae looked from the prisoner to Naoki. “I can tell the future, Naoki. I can see some things quite clearly.” The magistrate looked at Masae, his fear written on every inch of his face. “When I look at someone who treats an innocent man this way, I see a coward. When I see someone who lies to us and stands in the way of a mission to save the empire, I see a traitor. Oh, I can see the future, and you have none.”
Masae drew her blades, but Sugimoto held out a hand. “Wait.”
“He is a traitor, and a disgrace,” Masae said. “He has shamed my whole family. I am a Keeper, but I am still a Dragon. I am still a samurai.”
“As are we all,” Sugimoto said. “If you do this, if I stand aside, you will regret it deeply. I cannot let you sacrifice what you have gained in a moment of passion. That is not our way, not any longer. Find a new path, Masae.”
The Keeper of Air frowned, but her blade slowly lowered. “Get out,” she finally said. “I will send word of your crimes to Shiro Kitsuki. They will know what you have done, and they will feel the same outrage I do. I will instruct the people of this village to kill you if you return. Go now.”
“It is winter!” Naoki exclaimed. “I will die!”
“You will die if you remain,” Sugimoto said gruffly. “Accept her mercy. You might live. Even if you die, you have a chance to reflect on your failures first. Few men have that chance. Be grateful.”
The magistrate glanced from one to the other, lingering on Masae’s blade, then turned and ran from the village toward the snow-covered mountains. He did not look back.
Masae returned her katana to her saya . “This was a failure.”
Sugimoto cocked his head. “I disagree.”
Masae turned to him. “What do you mean? The stories were not true. This peasant obviously has nothing to do with our quest. How can this be anything but a failure?”
Sugimoto nodded towards the man, prostrating himself after the Keeper had released him from his bonds. “Ask him.”
Asahina Hira stood on a dock, facing the great sea. His head was tipped back slightly and he wore the hint of a smile. Asahina Sekawa trod the long planks towards him. “Hello, Hira-san. I did not expect to find you out here.”
Hira did not turn. “I could not visit the Mantis Islands without coming down here. Despite it not being my home, in is my favorite spot in all of Rokugan.”
Sekawa stood next to the Keeper of the Void and looked out across the waves. “Yes? What about it do you cherish so much? One dock seems very much like another to me.”
Hira shook his head. “Not so. Most of the docks on the islands face the other direction. If you were able to walk upon the water and you strode off them, you would eventually reach the Rokugani mainland. Here is different. This dock points away. All that is out there is ocean. If you could walk on the water from here, there is no knowing where you would end up.”
Sekawa smiled. “I never saw you as a great explorer, Hira-san. Do you wish to walk on gaijin soil?”
“Not at all. This place just reminds me that no matter what we think we know, there is more that we do not. We must never confuse extensive knowledge with ultimate knowledge, no matter how tempting it might seem.”
Sekawa laughed. “Now, that is the Asahina Hira I know. Thank you for that, Hira-san. Life is always a lesson.”
“When we stop learning, we stop growing. When we stop growing, we are dead.”
Sekawa’s smile grew grim. “I can only agree. We accept what we believe are truths, only to discover that we have accepted a lie, and we must begin again. The only certainty in this world is that there is no certainty.”
Hira tilted his head toward his lord. “You speak of the scrolls? I would have thought they would offer you hope.”
“They should have. They do. But my first reaction was that it was not possible, and of course that was false.” The younger man shook his head. “I believed that I knew Rosoku, but now I know that I did not. It is… difficult. What at first seemed impossible, now is of course obvious. I should have known.”
“You could not have.”
“I am the Keeper of the Five Elements, Jade Champion of the Empire, and the daimyo of the Asahina family,” Sekawa said. “Yet all I feel I accomplish is to chase after mistakes.”
“You are just a man, my lord,” Hira said. “If we have learned anything, it is that there are only men and what they can understand.”
Sekawa nodded. “The scrolls must have been placed within the Tomb before Rosoku’s return to the Empire. Do you think that he knew he would die? Did he foresee it, and choose to return regardless?”
“He knew the risk he took was great,” Hira said. “He left the scrolls behind for a reason, and he would have taken great care to ensure that even his death would not doom the Empire. What would he have accomplished otherwise? To save the Empire from one threat only to guarantee its destruction at a later date? No, I think Rosoku was not so foolish as that.”
“‘The principle duty of each generation is to ensure that a future generation exists, that our sacred tasks might be performed,’” Sekawa quoted. “It seems so unlike the other writings of Shinsei. So forthright.”
Hira chuckled. “That is not the sort of thing that can be obscured with riddles. And we cannot say for certain that it was Shinsei who wrote it. Perhaps his son, or his grandson, or any of a score of descendants before Rosoku. All we know is that the prophet understood the importance of his line continuing, else all would be lost when the Day of Thunder comes again, centuries from now.”
“We must find Rosoku’s heir,” Sekawa said. “It falls to us to ensure the line of Shinsei lives on.”
“But how can we teach them what they must know?” Hira wondered aloud. “How can we be certain, when our own paths are still being forged?”
“The scrolls,” Sekawa said. “They have the answers. With them, we can accomplish what seems impossible. The Emperor knew this. He died so that the line of Shinsei might live again. We must ensure that his death was not in vain.”
“It will not be,” Hira agreed, “so long as the scrolls are true.”
“I have to believe that the scrolls were accurate. Without that, I left my Emperor to die when I could have stayed by his side. Besides that, I have read them â€“ I have felt them â€“ I know they are real. The heir of Rosoku, and of Shinsei, is out there. We must find him or her, or the Empire may not survive.”
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