The Truest Test, Part 1

By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan

Toshi Ranbo, the Imperial City
Doji Ichita stared to the north, his features devoid of all expression. For the past half of an hour, a dust cloud had been visible to the north despite the still cool weather. The snows had melted days ago, and the few flurries that persisted melted as soon as they touched the ground. It seemed that the winter was finally over. Less than a week, Ichita thought bitterly, and already an army moved on the city.

The clattering of hooves caused Ichita to glance over his shoulder. The Miya courier he had dispatched upon seeing the cloud had returned, the young Imperial’s face still pale from the excitement of it all. “Did you find him?” Ichita demanded sharply.

“Hai,” the courier said, bowing sharply in deference to the jade seal upon Ichita’s kimono. “He comes.”

Ichita nodded. He waited only a few more minutes, and then the sound of more horses rose to a near deafening volume. He turned to greet the men arriving, bowing as he did so. “Greetings, Norachai-sama.”

Bayushi Norachai nodded in return, his eyes never leaving the northern horizon. His kimono bore a symbol still unfamiliar to most, but Ichita had seen it often in recent months: it was the symbol that marked the Protector of the Imperial City, a position that had been defunct for centuries until the past Winter Court, when the Empress had bestowed the title upon Norachai. “What have you seen?” the Scorpion samurai demanded.

“Only the dust cloud,” Ichita answered. “It appeared a short time ago. I dispatched a sentry to investigate. He has not returned.”

Norachai frowned. He glanced at the Crane as if seeing him for the first time. “Who are you?”

Ichita bowed again, deeper this time. “I am Doji Ichita, gunso of the Jade Legion,” he said. “It was not my intent to usurp authority in this matter, Norachai-sama. I apologize if I have offered insult.”

“No insult has been offered,” Norachai answered. “I was not aware that there were any Jade Legionnaires within the city. When I conducted an assessment of available forces upon my arrival, you and your men were not listed.”

“There are but twelve of us, my lord,” Ichita said. “We are charged with the protection of Sekawa-sama’s estate and the Brotherhood temples within the city, until such time as we are reassigned by the Jade Champion or one of his Keepers.”

Norachai nodded. “Our purposes are much the same, then.”

“Agreed,” Ichita added. “My men and I are yours to command.” He frowned and looked back to the north. “I do not understand how the Khan could have gotten north of the city. It seems almost more difficult than simply attacking from the west.”

The Protector shook his head. “No, they move too slowly. Were it the Khan, he would have been upon us already.”

Ichita furrowed his brow and stared intently to the north. “The Dragon?”

“Unlikely,” Norachai replied. “Regardless, we will know soon enough.” He turned to his subordinates. “Three archer divisions at the city line. Seven infantry ready to engage the front line. Now.” The men scattered like the wind, rushing to marshal the troops Norachai commanded before the advancing army reached the city. “Most of the city’s defenses are centered on the western border.”

“Will they be able to maneuver into place in time?” Ichita asked.

“No,” Norachai answered flatly. “They will enter the city, but they will not hold it. This, I swear.”

Ichita could think of nothing to say, so he simply stared at the horizon. After a moment, he frowned and squinted. “A rider approaches!” he said. “No, wait… more than one!”

“Shiotome,” Norachai cursed. “The battle maidens.”

“No,” Ichita corrected. “The formations are wrong.” The legionnaire stepped out from the city’s protective perimeter and walked forward a few steps, holding his hand up to shield him from the sunlight. He stepped a bit farther forward, and then finally began to trot toward those riding toward the city. He heard Norachai following behind him.

“Ichita!” the rider in front shouted. “Ichita! All is well!”

“Moromao?” Ichita said. He turned back to Norachai. “The sentry I sent. An Akodo.”

The Lion leapt down from his horse before it even came to a stop, sliding to his knees in a deep bow before the two men. “Norachai-sama, Ichita-san, it is my great honor to announce the arrival of my lord.”

“What?” Norachai said sharply.

The other riders caught up to Moromao, and the one in the lead quickly dismounted. “Who is in command here?”

Norachai stepped forward at once, his hand on his blade. “I am Bayushi Norachai, Protector of the Imperial City.”

“A Protector with precious few troops, from what I understand,” the rider said. “Fortunately, I have brought my forces to ensure that your charge is well-protected.”

Norachai offered a thin smile. It was the sort of expression that Ichita had learned was dangerous from a Scorpion. “And who might you be, my presumptuous friend?”

“I am Akodo Shigetoshi, lord of the Akodo family,” the man answered, “formerly tasked with maintaining the Lion front against the Dragon. And now, with ensuring that the Khan does not reach the Imperial City.”

Ichita looked back at the horizon. He could now make out the distant forms of men marching in formation, banners unfurled in the wind. “Then those men are…”

“Akodo,” Shigetoshi said, a merciless gleam of victory in his eyes. “Thousands of them.”

The Lion provinces, near Tonfajutsen
A battle horn sounded somewhere in the distance. To the average samurai, it would be little more than some strange battlefield sound, perhaps the braying of a hound or cattle. To the trained ear of a Unicorn warrior, however, the gaijin symbol conveyed tremendous information depending upon its pitch, length, and intensity. Others condemned the Unicorn for the incorporation of such distasteful elements into the “pure” art of warfare, but this was simply one more way that the followers of Lady Shinjo turned a disadvantage into strength.

Utaku Tama smiled as she heard the dropping pitch of the horn blow. She held her tessen aloft in the crisp air and waved it twice in a quick circle. As one, the troops in her personal command dispersed to signal the troops assigned to them, and the great field of Unicorn warriors began to turn slightly to the west, somewhat away from the Lion troops marching in their direction from the east. The Lion were not in sight yet, but Tama knew that they were there. Just as they approached from the north and south as well, moving to contain the Khan’s forces. Her smile widened at the thought.

Confirming that the officers under her command were enacting her orders satisfactorily, Tama raced across the field to join the Khan’s command group. Other warriors parted before her, allowing her easy access to the large cluster of samurai around the Unicorn war banner that denoted their leader. “My lord Khan!” she called out as she rode into their midst. “The order has been given!”

Moto Chagatai nodded and turned to the young man that had become his personal scout. “Where are the Lion?”

“An hour’s ride east, my Khan,” Shinjo Saihan reported.

“Are we close enough to the Imperial City?” he demanded.

A woman bearing the chop of a general and the trappings of a shugenja nodded. Tama could see that she was exhausted, but she did not hesitate with her response. “Yes, my lord,” she said. “We have some leeway, but very little.”

“An hour more?” Chagatai asked.

“Hai,” Iuchi Lixue nodded.

“Signal the troops,” Chagatai commanded Tama. “We ride one hour to the west, then take up formations and await the Lion. The Baraunghar will congregate in the center, with the White Guard and my personal command. Lixue, begin the ritual as soon as we arrive.”

“As you command,” the priest replied. She hesitated for a moment, clearly performing some calculation. “We will not complete the ritual before the Lion arrive, but we cannot move farther away and still guarantee success.”

“No matter,” the Khan said. “The Khol will hold until it is completed. Tama, you will see to that.”

“Hai, my Khan,” she said with a wild grin. “It will be my great honor!”

“The end stage begins!” the Khan bellowed across the plain. “To war!”

The roar from the Unicorn troops was deafening.

The Imperial Palace, Toshi Ranbo
The Empress Toturi Kurako strode through the Imperial Palace with a troubled expression. She was not truly listening as her advisor detailed the matters of concern that she would be faced with today, but Tanitsu was a wise man, and he knew as much. He was merely going over the minor points for now, things that did not truly warrant her full attention, and would doubtless press the major issues when he knew that she was more alert. It was a little routine that the two had slipped easily into, one of many that now dominated Kurako’s life. Not a day went by that she did not long to return to life on the battlefield, but that era of her life was sadly over. Her thoughts were still elsewhere as she swept through a wide, arching doorway into one of many audience chambers, and then suddenly realized that Tanitsu had stopped speaking.

Kurako glanced over her shoulder at her advisor, then followed his gaze to a lone man standing near the front of the chamber, next to the dais. The room seemed so vast when it was empty, and he somehow seemed smaller for it, despite that he was of considerable size and clad in heavy armor. Seeing that she had noticed him, he bowed deeply from the waist. “Greetings, Empress. Greetings, Tanitsu-san.”

She said nothing for a moment, but heard Tanitsu’s kimono rustle as he returned the bow behind her. “Greetings, Kaneka-sama.”

The Shogun waited, but when the Empress said nothing, he smiled wanly. “I do not wish to be presumptuous,” he said carefully, “but if I might have a moment to speak with you privately, Empress, I believe it may be of interest to you.”

Kurako nodded slowly, then glanced at her advisor. “I require a few moments to confer with the Shogun, Tantisu. Please make the necessary arrangements for my meeting with Norachai later this morning.”

“Of course, Kurako-sama,” Tanitsu said with a quick bow. He retreated from the chamber and closed the doors, stealing one last look at Kaneka before he disappeared.

Kurako turned to the Shogun with a neutral expression. “What is it you wish to speak of?” she asked.

“If you are meeting with your Protector later, then you will hear this again soon enough,” Kaneka said, “but only a matter of minutes ago, an army of Akodo arrived from the northern front to help defend the city against potential attack by the Khan.”

“The Akodo?” Kurako could not help but smile at the mention of her former brothers-in-arms. “How did they come to be here?”

“Shigetoshi,” Kaneka said, as if the name explained everything. “He made arrangements with the Crane to disengage from the Dragon conflict to help secure the city in the event that any of the Khan’s forces manage to slip through the Matsu’s snare.”

“That seems unlikely,” the Empress observed, “but they are welcome all the same. What is the current status of your forces?”

Kaneka frowned as if he had tasted something sour. “I have less than five hundred men within the city. Your orders to reduce my forces have been carried out in phases until there are few left.”

“Very well,” she said. “With the Akodo’s arrival, your men do seem somewhat redundant.” Kurako fanned herself lazily. “The Seppun, the Protector’s forces, and now the Akodo. I feel confident that the Shogun’s might could be better used elsewhere.”

Kaneka’s frown grew more severe. “I would prefer to remain in the event that the Khan arrives.”

“The Lion will stop the Khan’s march,” Kurako insisted. “That is certain. And I have doubts regarding the relationship you share with the Khan. If you will not remove your forces from the city, I will have them removed. I will not risk having co-conspirators within the city.”

“The loss of even five hundred men, five hundred trained soldiers, will dramatically reduce the defenses of this city,” Kaneka insisted. “It could make all the difference with the Khan arrives.”

“As I said,” she deferred, “the Khan will never reach the city.”

Kaneka hesitated. “You do not know Chagatai,” he said. “He is a brilliant tactician, and utterly ruthless. He can conceive of strategies that no one in the Empire has ever seen, and he believes that destiny is on his side.” He shook his head. “Who among us can say that he is wrong? I am not certain that he can be stopped, but if anyone is capable of such a thing, then it is the Lion.”

Kurako’s glare was unforgiving. “I find your lack of confidence alarming for a man of your rank,” she admonished. “You are the Shogun of Rokugan, and you speak in such a manner? How can you be expected to inspire your troops?”

“Fortunately, that is a question that will trouble you no longer,” Kaneka answered. “I wish you good fortune, Empress. May you never set eyes upon the Khan’s forces.” He bowed sharply and turned to go, tucking his helm under his arm as he did so. He stopped for a moment at the doorway, looking back over his shoulder. “I would never have tried to take the throne from you,” he said in a quiet voice. “Surely you know that.”

The Empress said nothing for a heartbeat, then looked away. “I cannot risk my husband’s legacy when I have even the slightest uncertainty. Surely you know that.”

Kaneka turned back to the corridor beyond and placed his helm atop his head. “Hai,” he answered, and then he left.

Command tent of the Lion Champion, east of Tonfajutsen
Matsu Yoshino, Lion Clan Champion, looked at the maps again, poring over them for some missed detail or potential maneuver he had not calculated. He shook his head and struck the table lightly with one tightly clenched fist, causing several stone unit markers to jump slightly.

“My lord?” one of his officers asked.

“Nothing, Yokuya,” Yoshino said. “I am merely… frustrated.”

“The Khan is retreating,” Matsu Yokuya said. “He knows he cannot withstand the forces being arrayed against him. He has failed to reach the city, and now that the snow has thawed, the Lion’s fury is upon him.”

“The Khan is not a fool,” Yoshino said, his jaw set. “This makes little sense. If the city was all he wished, he could have reached it weeks ago. Instead he has moved from target to target, seemingly at random, and now makes as if to retreat. I suspect treachery.”

“Treachery will avail him nothing,” Yokuya insisted. “Korin-sama’s forces descend upon him from the north. Takenao’s forces rise from the south, and we press form the east. He cannot escape the snare. He can but retreat.”

Yoshino considered the officer’s words for several moments, wishing idly that Otemi could be there. But his chief advisor was still recovering from his considerable wounds at Shiro Matsu, and remained there only because Yoshino had commanded it. “No,” he finally repeated. “No, something is wrong. The Khan’s plans have not been made fully known to us.” He stared at the maps for one minute longer, then took up his blade and placed it in his obi. “Where is Kitsu Katsuko?” he demanded.

“Rengai Mura,” the officer replied at once. “She is coordinating the re-supplying of our forces from the Akodo provinces.”

“Make my horse ready,” Yoshino ordered. “I must speak with her.”

For a brief moment, the shock on Yokuya’s face was obvious. “You… you will not face the Khan?”

Yoshino clapped the taller man on the shoulder. “If I believed that the man who killed my father would be on the field of battle when we arrived,” he said quietly, “nothing could keep me from him. But, as I said, he is treacherous by nature, and my instincts demand that I go elsewhere. You have command, Yokuya. Do not disappoint me.”

“Never!” Yokuya swore with a deep bow. “I will spill the blood of one hundred Unicorn in your name, my lord!”

“May the ancestors grant you strength,” Yoshino said as he left the tent. Silently, he prayed for them to grant him wisdom as well, but the distant doubts that plagued him would not grow quiet.

The Mantis Estate in Toshi Ranbo
Yoritomo Yoyonagi sighed in annoyance and waved for the servant to return to his post. The wiry little man had just informed her of a rather troubling guest awaiting her convenience. She would like to put him off indefinitely, of course, but to do so would damage her reputation, due in no small part to the man’s newfound importance in the city. As her visitor entered, she forced one of the brilliant smiles for which she had become so well known within the Imperial Court. “Norachai-sama,” she said merrily. “What a pleasure to have you in our humble estate.”

“A pleasure for me as well,” the Protector said with no apparent pleasure whatsoever. “I need to speak with your ranking military officers as soon as possible.”

Yoyonagi opened her fan as if to hide a hurt expression. “And I thought that you came simply to enjoy my company.”

“Perhaps next time,” the Scorpion said. “Your officers, please.”

“As you like,” Yoyonagi answered, waving negligently to the adjoining chamber. They are having a discourse on strategy and tactics, or something equally forgettable. By all means, feel free to join them. The Protector of the Imperial City is always welcome.”

“Thank you.” Norachai turned and strode into the adjoining chamber without preamble.

Conversation in the room stopped at once as the assembled Mantis looked at the Scorpion quietly for a moment. “Norachai-sama,” one finally spoke, rolling up a scroll that seemed to indicate a map of the city. “To what do we owe this honor?”

“Forgive my intrusion, Utemaro-san,” Norachai said with a quick and respectful bow. “I needed to speak with you regarding the assignment of your men in defending the city.”

“Of course,” the Yoritomo said. “May I introduce my officers?” he turned to two of the men standing around the table with him. “I believe you may have met my chui, Yoritomo Isoshi. And this is Yoritomo Bakishi, recently arrived from the islands.”

Norachai nodded to the two men. Isoshi bowed in a rigid manner, but Bakishi only nodded. The lower half of the man’s face was covered in a cloth mask, and an elaborate helm was set on the table before him. Under different circumstances, such disrespectful behavior might warrant an example, but Norachai required every able-bodied soldier he could find, so he simply moved on. “Utemaro-san, when we spoke previously, we discussed the use of your men to defend the city’s western edge.”

“Hai,” Utemaro replied. “I have finished a duty roster. I have one prepared for you as well, if you like.”

Norachai held up a hand. “Thank you, but unfortunately the situation has changed.”

“The Lion,” Utemaro grunted. “We heard that a large force had arrived from the north. I assume they will be joining us.”

“In a manner of speaking,” Norachai said. “The Lion have greater numbers and more experience in this manner of conflict. I am dispersing them to defend the northern, western, and southern borders. I require the Mantis to defend the eastern border.”

“The eastern edge?” Utemaro demanded loudly. “There is virtually no chance of an attack from that quarter!”

“That would be the general consensus, yes,” Norachai agreed. “However, that does not mean that…”

“The Mantis were first to answer your call to arms!” Utemaro said, striking the table with his open palm. “We are the only clan to provide the full number of troops you requested! And we are thanked by being dismissed so casually by the Lion, when they finally deign to answer you at all? This is an outrage!”

“Enough,” Norachai said with a near snarl. “Do not think me a fool. I have no delusions regarding your offended sensibilities. You know as well as I do what will be expected of you on the eastern detail.”

Utemaro’s wrath seemed to dissipate all at once, and a curious expression overtook him. “What do you mean?”

“If the Khan gets past the Lion, then there will be fighting in the streets,” Norachai said in a low voice. “Experienced as they may be in siege warfare, the Lion do not have the proper philosophy to succeed at an engagement of that nature. That will be your duty.”

The Mantis officer rubbed his chin. “You are suggesting, then, that if the Lion fail to hold, that the Mantis must step in and perform the unsavory duty of dispatching the Unicorn by whatever means possible?”

“That is exactly what I am saying,” Norachai said.

Utemaro grunted. “Perhaps you are better suited to your new position than I imagined,” he admitted.

“Thank you,” Norachai said with a smirk. “Please see to it that your men have adequate equipment for the task before they are given their assignments. I feel certain you will have no difficulty in that regard.”

The Mantis officers did not speak for several moments after the Protector left, waiting until a servant gave them a discreet nod from the door, ensuring that the Scorpion samurai had left. “Interesting,” Utemaro mused, tapping the rolled up map against the table. “An unexpected development.”

“Not wholly unexpected,” Bakishi said, removing the cloth mask from his face and tossing it aside. “Norachai has something of a reputation for unconventional thinking.”

“Why did you conceal your identify from him, Naizen-sama?” Utemaro asked. “Would the Protector not wish to have you advise him?”

The Mantis Clan Champion shook his head. “There are too many men and women of rank in this city already,” he observed. “Adding another only complicates the matter further. I will remain discreet until my appearance will benefit the clan. And by then, it will be too late for the other clans to manipulate my presence to their advantage.”

The outer edge of Toshi Ranbo
Akodo Shinichi resisted the urge to pace atop the watchtower where he had stood for the past four hours. Despite the rapidly warming season, the winds were still quite cool, and the samurai had ceased being able to feel his face over an hour ago. Any movement would be a welcome change, and warming his hands and placing them over his face would be a relief the likes of which he had perhaps never known. Still, the Seppun shugenja standing atop the tower alongside him did not move or speak, and had not done so for hours. Shinichi would not be the first to admit weakness.

When the shugenja finally made some sound, Shinichi very nearly sighed with relief. He glanced sideways for a moment to see what the shugenja was doing, already bringing his hands to his chest and rubbing them together vigorously, but he stopped almost at once upon seeing the Seppun.

The priest had placed one hand to his head and was baring tightly-clenched teeth. He groaned again, this time obviously in pain. “What is it?” Shinichi demanded. “What is happening?”

“Too many,” the shugenja managed. “Too many air kami, all rushing in at once… so loud!”

Shinichi stared in mute horror at the man, wondering what to do, when he realized that the wind had suddenly and very dramatically changed direction. He looked across the plains before the city, searching for anything that could be the cause of something so odd. At first, there was nothing. Then, suddenly, there was a single rider in the field where nothing had been only a moment before. Shinichi squinted to try and see the rider better, then recoiled as ten more appeared beside him. There were a dozen, then two dozen, then a hundred, and in a matter of moments, there were thousands of them. Even as they appeared, Shinichi could see a handful of them around the perimeter slump over in their saddles and slip to the ground with bone-rattling force. Confused, the Lion scoured the horizon for any sign of normalcy.

Then he saw it.

The war banner of the Khan, and of the Baraunghar army.

The Unicorn had arrived.

*

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Author: Joe Fulgham View all posts by