By Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
Note to Readers: This entire story is based on the actions of real players in our online Winter Court PBEM event. http://www.l5r.com/wintercourt – Also, months in Rokugan are named after the Kami, hence why they read “Day Fifteen of Hida.”
Kyuden Otomo, Day One of Hida
“And so it begins,” Seppun Kiharu said as he settled down on the cushion. “The kyuden has been prepared, snow has begun to fall, the guests begin to gather.”
“Indeed,” Otomo Hoketuhime said. She waited until her servant had poured them both tea and withdrawn. “Scandals, feuds, marriages, amusements–possibly a duel or two.” She picked up her tea and sipped it delicately. “And occasionally, perhaps, our guests will find a little time to attend to the management of the Empire.”
Kiharu smiled at the archness in his cousin’s voice. “I have faith that more than a little time will be spent on that. The reputations of many will rise by the efforts they make to serve their clan and emperor here.”
Hoketuhime smiled back. “Rise, and fall,” she said.
Day Fifteen of Hida
“I thank you for your insight on this matter, Moyotoshi-san,” Bayushi Kaukatsu said, hoping that this would speed the other man’s departure. Bayushi Moyotoshi had come with an invitation approved by Paneki himself, and Kaukatsu had no desire to offend someone with that kind of backing. At least, not without reason. But the older Bayushi carried with him a faint air of…knowing…that the Chancellor found tiresome.
“I’m sure you do,” Moyotoshi said. The black demon-mask he wore completely covered his face, so one could not be certain if his eyes narrowed slightly in irritation. “Unless you have further questions, I shall leave.”
Kaukatsu said something polite and meaningless to send his guest off. As the door slid shut he searched through the papers on his desk until he found a netsuke of smooth black stone that had been carved into a stylized bat. He ran his fingers over the little creature while he thought about his next visitor.
There was a scratching at the door and then the clear voice of one his servants. “Bayushi-sama, Ide Jiao is here to see you.”
“Send him in,” Kaukatsu said, putting the netsuke aside.
The Unicorn courtier entered and bowed deeply. Kaukatsu accepted his greetings and waved him towards a cushion to kneel on. “Ide-san,” he said, “you have put yourself forward as a possible Court Assistant.”
Jiao reached up and carefully adjusted the small mountain of fur that was his hat. Kaukatsu suppressed a small shudder at the creepiness of wearing the mortal remains of an animal on one’s head. “I have, Chancellor-sama.”
“And you have made some interesting promises in the letter you sent to me about it,” Kaukatsu said, indicating the scroll on his desk.
Jiao shrugged. “Chancellor-sama, a man in your position naturally has persons he wishes to help along and persons he wishes to impede, and I would be of no use to you if I was too ignorant to see who in court falls into which category. And I would be equally useless if I was going to work at cross-purposes to you. I do not wish to be useless to you.”
“See that you are not,” Kaukatsu said. “I will have the papers authorizing your position drawn up and presented to court shortly.”
Day Two of Togashi
Kan’ok’ticheck didn’t understand the situation at all. Empress-chieftain was here at kyudenotomo, and so the court room was crowded with humans who wanted to meet with her, in hopes that she would Remember them. That was clear enough. But kyudenotomo was supposed to be her winter warren, and yet she was only here for today before she went back to her warren at toshiranbo. So why wasn’t toshiranbo considered her winter warren? It made no sense to him, but none of the humans he had spoken with seemed confused by it.
The nezumi’s eye settled on Bayushi Norachai. That was another thing the Chief of the One Tribe didn’t understand. When Empress-chieftain had been here yesterday she had Named Norachai as the warrior in charge of defending her warren at toshiranbo. That hadn’t surprised him; Norachai’s Name seemed to be known and respected by many here. But Norachai hadn’t gone back to the toshiranbo warren with her afterwards. Instead, he had stayed here at the winter warren and talked a lot. None of the other humans found this strange, either. Kan’ok’ticheck couldn’t make the slightest sense of it. How did one defend a warren by talking?
Of course, none of the Scorpion tribe made sense, really. A member of their tribe, Moyotoshi, had been found murdered yesterday, and now they never talked about him. Did they want him to be forgotten? Sometimes a tribe did want to forget someone, but K’Mee had said that the Scorpions were very upset and angry over the death so that didn’t seem right. She also said that Moyotoshi wasn’t his real Name, but that his real Name was very big and was hidden by other smaller Names. Kan’ok’ticheck’s tail twitched with his frustration. That made less sense than all the other mysteries combined.
There was a break in the noise of whispering of the crowd around him and Kitsu Katsuko approached the Empress-chieftain and laid down to show her the back of her head. Kan’ok’ticheck relaxed at the sight. This was one human gesture he understood–they were almost totally dependent on their eyes for information, so showing the back of their head meant the same as a nezumi showing their stomach. Also, though Katsuko was the scariest Rememberer he had ever met she was a Rememberer and a member of a tribe dedicated to Remembering the dead of their tribe. Kan’ok’ticheck could understand that just fine.
Katsuko sat up and began to tell Empress-chieftain and the other humans how Kan’ok’ticheck had led the warriors of the One Tribe into battle against the Tsuno, and how the shaman Te’tik’kir had sacrificed himself to restore the Name of the kitsu Nintai. This was important to Katsuko and her tribe, because the kitsu were the Transcendents of her family. Kan’ok’ticheck didn’t understand how that was possible, but that was shaman business and he was used to not understanding that. The Lion Rememberer went on to tell about the shrine they wanted to build in the toshiranbo warren, so that everyone in the empire would know Te’tik’kir’s Name. A wave of happiness swept through Kan’ok’ticheck. He looked over at the cluster of humans dressed in purple and gave them a savage grin.
Day Eight of Togashi
“Kyuden Ikoma has been overrun and sacked due to the Khan shipping rice to the Protector’s forces at Toshi Ranbo?” Doji Seishiro looked up from the scroll he was reading and gave his niece a cool look.
Jorihime nodded. “So Jiao claims,” she said.
Seishiro looked back at the scroll, considering the information first as a courtier and then as a soldier. “Kaukatsu is in a bad place,” he said, sounding almost amused. “Two samurai with messages from their Champions, with completely contradictory stories. Minako’s information is more reliable, as she came straight from the battlefield…but Jiao has rice.”
“No samurai should put food above honor,” Jorihime said, looking slightly indignant.
“True,” Seishiro said. “But currently the Unicorn delegation is not a threat to the Empress, and they aren’t going anywhere soon. Kaukatsu’s proclamation keeps the harmony of Hoketuhime-sama’s home intact, and that at least the Crane should support.” He pushed the scroll with Jorihime’s report aside and reached for a clean sheet of paper. “In the meantime, we shall prepare for the battles to come.”
Day Twenty-one of Togashi
Kasuga Taman rolled on the floor, trying desperately to breathe. From the corner of his eye he could see the looming form of his opponent as he raised his weapon.
“Taman-san,” Toritaka Tatsune said, “what is the purpose of pain?”
“Pain is a sign that you are still alive,” the Tortoise samurai croaked.
“Very good,” Tatsune said. “And what is the proper response to pain?”
“Analyze the injury,” Taman gasped, “adjust your stance,” another gasp, “deal with threat.”
“Excellent,” Tatsune said. “Now get up and pick up your bokken.”
Taman’s first impulse was to curl up tighter and concentrate on his efforts to breathe, but he knew exactly what his sensei’s response to that would be. Instead he compromised by rolling over slightly and started crawling to where his bokken lay on the floor. Asking a Crab for kenjutsu training, he reflected, might not have been his most brilliant idea.
“Why, Shikenji?” Jiao asked. “Why did you do this thing?”
“Moyotoshi killed my cousin,” Moto Shikenji said. He looked at his clan mates calmly, unashamed to look them in the eye. “Ogedai was a good man who gloried in the service he did for his Khan, and I never believed the story we were told of his death. Then the Fortunes granted me a scrap of the truth and I clung to it until I had the whole of it, and the name of my cousin’s killer. When I arrived here with my message for Rumiko-sama and learned that Bayushi Moyotoshi was also here I knew that the Lords of Death had blessed my vengeance.”
“Moyotoshi,” Jiao said. He reached up and straightened his hat. “You wanted to kill Moyotoshi? And no one else?”
Shikenji gave him an angry look. “Are you suggesting that I am a liar?”
Jiao glanced over to his lady. “Rumiko-sama,” he said, gesturing towards the door, “if I may speak with you for a moment?”
“Of course,” Rumiko said. “Watch him,” she told the rest of her retainers, and then swept out of the room with Jiao in her wake.
“Rumiko-sama,” Jiao said, “we have a problem here.”
“How so?” Rumiko asked. “We hand Shikenji over to the magistrates, they execute him for murder, and the affair is settled.”
“But what if they torture him? If certain information comes out, some of our plans may be compromised.”
“They won’t need to torture him. You heard him; he is proud of killing Moyotoshi.”
“My lady, that is the problem. He didn’t kill Moyotoshi. He killed someone else who was posing as Moyotoshi, and if the Scorpion believe the someone else was the real target they will want to know why.”
“Someone was posing as Moyotoshi?” Rumiko looked confused. “I have heard nothing of this. How do you know?”
“I learned it from Kaukatsu.”
“When he was telling you this, did you ask him why?”
“Rumiko-sama, Bayushi Kaukatsu does not ‘tell’ people things. He says things, and you understand him or not.”
“I see,” Rumiko said. She thought for the span of eight heartbeats, then took a heavy knife from her belt and handed it to Jiao. “Tell Shikenji he has one more service to perform for his Khan.”
Day Twenty-five of Togashi
“The Crane and the Crab delegations continue to hold talks,” Jiao said. “It seems that Hida Shara and Yasuki Miliko may both return from Winter Court with good little wives.”
“There are ridiculous numbers of wedding arrangements going on in this court,” Kaukatsu said. He watched the Ide carefully, waiting for the moment the other man would reach up and adjust his hat. Tsuruchi Kaya had mentioned in passing that in other lands there were squirrels with bat wings, and since then the Chancellor had started to wonder if the hat was made of fur, or if it was a furry creature that looked like a hat. The Unicorn would have had plenty of time on their travels to domesticate such a thing, and given how cold deserts could get in the winter having something warm to sit on your head would be highly desirable. And if they had claws, or teeth, they could be trained to spring into action to defend their wearer. Somewhat like Kwanchai.
“Kaukatsu-sama?” Jiao said. He looked concerned. “Are you well, Kaukatsu-sama?”
Kaukatsu abruptly realized that he had been staring at the hat. “I’m thinking,” he said. “You may go.”
“Of course, Chancellor,” Jiao said. He bowed, adjusted his hat and left.
Isawa Ochiai wandered restlessly through the garden. Angai’s news had brought a pall of mourning over the Phoenix embassy, and the young woman found that being there simply sharpened her own grief. The serene beauty of the winter garden, she was finding, wasn’t helping either. She rounded the corner of the path and found Mirumoto Tsuge. He was standing a short distance away, looking at a patch of winter-blooming lotus.
The Dragon samurai heard her footsteps and looked up. “Ochiai-san,” he said, bowing deeply. “How are you today?”
“I am,” Ochiai paused a moment, “well enough.” She bowed in return.
“I am sorry to hear of your clan’s loss,” Tsuge said, walking towards her. “He was a good man.”
“Thank you,” Ochiai said, pleased at how steady she was keeping her voice.
“Ochiai-san, I–” Tsuge broke off, started again. “Ochiai-san, would you like to walk in the garden? Together, I mean.”
“I–I would like that, Tsuge-san. Very much.” From somewhere within Ochiai found a small smile. Tsuge stepped beside her on the path and very gently held her hand. They stood for a moment like that, not speaking, and then they slowly began to walk.
Day Twenty-six of Togashi
“Kaya is demanding that you be turned over to the Emerald Magistrates,” Kaukatsu said. “What possessed you to speak in front of him?”
“Imperial law is only as strong as the Emperor who enforces those laws,” Jiao said quietly. “Kaya, of all people, should understand that.”
“Unfortunately for you, he seems not to. And he has testimony from three samurai–one of them the Moshi daimyo–that you stated that the Khan’s intent was to take the throne by force. This is both treasonous, and a direct contradiction of your testimony in court.”
“I lied to Moshi Amika and the others, seeking to make my offer for a marriage more attractive. The words I spoke in open court were the truth.”
“And you think that anyone will believe you?”
Jiao straightened slightly. “My seppuku should be convincing.”
Kaukatsu raised an eyebrow slightly. “Yes, that should work.” And then, a moment later in a very different tone, “Yes. That would work.”
Day Two of Fu Leng
A light snow fell on the crowd gathered in front of the Unicorn Embassy and was ignored. The center of everyone’s attention was a white-robed man with a furry hat who knelt in the center of the courtyard. He looked around calmly, acknowledging their presence, and then picked up a sheet of paper and read from it.
“Winter of Red Snow…
Even the wisest say that
He laid down the paper and picked up the wakizashi beside it. He made the first cut, then the second, then the third. There was no hesitation in his actions, no sound came from his lips. After a moment his second ended the agony with a perfect swing of his sword.
“Well done,” Kaukatsu commented. He stood watching the proceedings from inside the Unicorn embassy. “That man is a credit to his family.” The Shosuro standing beside him merely nodded. Kaukatsu turned and started walking towards the back exit of the mansion. “Detail someone to find where the hat gets taken. I’d like to have it as a memento,” he said.
Day Fourteen of Fu Leng
Hoketuhime looked out at her garden, a somber look on her face. This room was quiet, but she knew all throughout the kyuden courtiers were frantically scurrying to finish negotiations, write treaties, say goodbye. The goodbyes would be the hardest, she mused; there was no telling who would be alive at the next winter court.
“A winter of turmoil, a spring of strife,” Kiharu said. “And yet your plum trees bloom, and are beautiful.”
Hoketuhime smiled at her cousin. “Thank you. And thank you again, for your words. You always know what to say to lift my spirits.”
“It has been an unusually exciting Winter Court this year,” he said. “Though I suspect I say that every year.”
“This year it might be true. No one has ever started a war in the middle of winter before.”
“Heaven’s willing, no one will again.” The old priest shook his head. “But destiny comes whatever we will–how we meet it is our choice. Do we rise above, or fall before it?”
Hoketuhime nodded. “I plan to rise above. And that being so, I suppose I should be on time for the start of court this morning.” She turned and headed towards the door. Kiharu smiled, pleased that his cousin’s mood had lifted. He spent a moment regarding the plums blooming amid the melting snow and then followed her out of the room.
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