By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Not so terribly long ago, the Imperial City would have been a much different place. But then, supposedly that was always so. It was ever-changing, always shifting to adopt the mood of those within it. During the reign of the Emperor Toturi III it had been a center of progress and cooperation between the clans, for the most part. After his disappearance and death it had become a hotbed of political manipulation and quiet animosity. Now that the Phoenix Clan had assumed stewardship over the city, in the aftermath of what was being called the Battle of Toshi Ranbo, there was a quiet tension to the place, laced with an undercurrent of resentment.
Komori Shikawa had never been to the city before, of course, so he could not say for certain if the tales of its previous atmospheres was true or not; he was simply remembering the tales he had been told by others. In truth, while he could understand why others made the claims they did about the city’s current status, he could not help but be fascinated by everything around him. He had experienced his gempukku ceremony only a few short months previously, and prior to that, he had never been off of the Islands of Silk & Spice. Until his journey to the mainland, he had never been in a city larger than the moderately sized port town from which he had sailed. Toshi Ranbo, then, was unlike anything he had ever seen or even imagined, and it was hard to feel uncomfortable here.
The serving girl arrived and freshened Shikawa’s cup of tea. He smiled at her, but of course she did not make eye contact. Ever since the battle, he had been told, the lesser classes had been careful not to do anything that might anger any of their samurai masters. So much death and destruction had left then with a fear of more, it seemed. It was unfortunate, really. The Phoenix were doing an excellent job of repairing the city and policing it from any lingering violence, at least as near as Shikawa could see.
Still, there were challenges. So many Phoenix samurai dwelling within the city, as well as the other clans bringing in additional people to help ensure their influence there was not diminished, made for a very crowded environment. The deaths that had occurred were more than made up for by the influx of new visitors, so much so that the city could be uncomfortably crowded at times. Under different circumstances, Shikawa would be lodged at the embassy of the Minor Clan Alliance, given his status as a delegate of the tiny Bat Clan. Unfortunately, even the Alliance was taxed for room, and Shikawa, as a secondary attendant to the court, had been relegated to this dingy inn and tea house deep within the remains of the merchant quarter.
Shikawa was not the only displaced samurai, either. As he looked around, he noticed a number of others among the normal patrons, most of whom appeared to be merchants or craftsmen. There was a Crab in one corner, drinking what appeared to be a prodigious amount of sake. A Crane sat near the door, smiling radiantly at the serving girl who poured him more tea. She must be a more attentive servant than Shikawa had realized, because despite that she did not appear to be looking at the Crane directly, she blushed furiously at his smile. And earlier in the evening he had even seen a Phoenix, a shugenja no less, heading upstairs to the rooms.
As Shikawa mused about the notion of another shugenja staying in the same inn, two tables of merchants rose and left for the evening. Shikawa was surprised to see that a Scorpion samurai was sitting along the eastern wall. He had been completely concealed by the merchants, and Shikawa had not noticed him enter, though he was certain that the man had not been there when he had entered more than an hour ago. Odd, but then that was the way of the Scorpion Clan, he supposed. One of the serving girls approached the masked Scorpion, but he sent her away with a glance and the movement of his hand to cover his tea cup. His gaze flickered toward the young Bat shugenja, and Shikawa smiled nervously and averted his eyes. He had had little interaction with the Scorpion Clan in general, and found that they made him somewhat uncomfortable.
“Is there anything else, Komori-sama?”
Shikawa smiled again at the serving girl, although again he noted she did not react in quite the same way as she had to the Crane. “No,” he said. “Thank you for the excellent service, but I am quite tired. I think I will retire for the evening.”
“As you wish, my lord,” the woman said, bowing so deeply that it seemed she would topple over. As she turned away, Shikawa thought for a moment that she seemed troubled by something, but the expression was gone as quickly as it had appeared.
The young priest shook his head. He must be more tired than he had realized, and hurried quickly up the steps to complete his evening prayer to the kami before collapsing into an exhausted heap upon the threadbare tatami mat that he would call home for the duration of his stay in the city.
There was a faint rustling sound, and the hint of metal sliding ever so quietly against metal. Shikawa recognized the sounds, but it was as if they were from a great distance. He struggled to return from sleep and see what it could be, but it was difficult. The darkness did not want to recede, but he pressed forward, and in a moment, shapes swam into being around the edges of his vision.
Someone was in his room. They were standing over the rack where his sword rested. “Wh… whatryo doon?’ he slurred.
The figure wheeled suddenly, clearly surprised. There was a glint of steel and the figure lunged forward. Shikawa recognized the danger he was in and attempted to leap to his feet, but he just slumped off of his mat and rolled into the floor, his limbs refusing to obey his commands. The figure overshot him by a small margin, and he heard a blade tearing at the tatami mat.
Shikawa attempted to call out, but what came out was not much more than a groan. He staggered to his feet, knowing that it was too late, knowing that the knife would cut him down… but nothing happened. He shook his head to clear it, and realized that the man who had attacked him was lying on the floor, unmoving. The young Bat looked around in confusion, and realized that the Scorpion he had seen earlier was standing in the room. Had he been there the whole time? “What…” he started to ask.
The Scorpion took one step forward and struck him sharply across the face with an open palm. The force of it snapped Shikawa’s head back, and the fog lifted from his mind instantly. “What are you doing?” he demanded.
“Is your head clear?” the Scorpion asked. “There may be more of them.”
Shikawa stared blankly at him, then down at the man on the ground. “You… you are not with him?”
The Scorpion carried no weapons that Shikawa could see. “What did you do to him?” he asked.
The masked man tilted his head to the side slightly and raised an eyebrow. “Do you truly want to know?” he asked. “The nightmares would be… unpleasant.”
The young priest looked down at his assailant’s dead, unseeing eyes and hesitated, but the need for an answer was removed by a bellowing sound from several rooms away, followed by a thunderous crash from the corridor outside. “What is happening?”
“As I said,” the Scorpion replied. “There may be more of them.”
With a nod, the two men stepped quickly out into the hallway, both ready for whatever might await them. Shikawa was uncertain as to what he might see, but he was not prepared for the spectacle of violence that lay before him.
“Where is my blade?” the Crab he had seen earlier was roaring. He had an assailant by the throat, both of his massive hands curling around man’s neck so much that much of his body above his shoulders was enveloped by the Crab. “Where is it?”
The object of the Crab’s wrath was flailing about, pummeling the larger man with blow after blow to the head and torso. None of them had any noticeable effect, and indeed the Crab hardly seemed to notice. “He cannot speak if you crush his throat,” the Scorpion observed casually.
The Crab turned, but did not release his opponent. “Filthy Scorpion!” he snarled. “You’re a part of this, aren’t you?”
“No,” Shikawa said suddenly, surprising even himself. “One of these men attacked me in my room as well. He saved my life.”
“Your reassurances mean nothing!” the Crab shouted. He moved slightly, as if to drop the man he held and attack the two of them. Shikawa took an involuntary step backwards, but the confrontation was prevented by the sudden arrival of more assailants. Two doors opened on the left side of the corridor, and another on the right. From each, another of the men clad in dingy, stained kimono emerged. Two held blades still wrapped in their saya. One held only a large, bloodied knife. Upon seeing the samurai assembled in the hallway, the one holding two blades turned and disappeared back into the room from which he came. The one holding only a wakizashi drew it, and he and the knife-wielder both advanced toward their enemies.
Shikawa took another step back and reached out to the air kami surrounding him. They answered his prayer and leapt to his defense. The corridor was suddenly filled with wind, and the knife-wielding assailant was brought to a complete halt by the force of it as it buffeted against his chest. He was held immobile for only a moment, but it was long enough for the Scorpion samurai to step in and deliver a swift, brutal kick to the man’s throat. He collapsed instantly.
Further down the hall, the Crab dropped his unconscious opponent and adopted a defensive stance against the attacker with the stolen wakizashi. The man lunged twice, but he was clumsy and it was obvious even to Shikawa that he did not know how to use the weapon correctly. His pitiful assault was interrupted by a quick and decisive series of strikes by the Crab; one to the stomach, then two to the head.
The hallway was silent for a moment. The Crab placed a hand on his head and wavered ever so slightly. Two more men emerged from the rooms, but they were not among the bandits. One was a Crane, the other a Phoenix. Both had the look of men who had drunk too much the night before, but Shikawa had seen neither do any such thing.
“What… what is happening?” the Phoenix muttered.
“Your blades have been stolen,” the Scorpion said. “These men attempted to take them. Others escaped.”
“My blade is gone,” the Crab growled. “That one was coming back for my tetsubo.” He gestured over his shoulder toward the first one.
“My daisho,” the Crane said. “I must recover it.”
“A difficult proposition,” the Scorpion said.
“Something is wrong,” the Phoenix said. “Something… I feel ill.”
“Night silk,” the Scorpion said matter of factly. “I detected the scent from the teapot the first time a cup was poured for me. I poured it out and accepted no further offers.”
“Night silk?” Shikawa asked. “Is that poison? Were we poisoned?”
“Yes,” the Scorpion answered flatly. “I am Bayushi Shizume, by the way. Forgive me for not introducing myself earlier.”
“Hida Chimoto,” the Crab replied, introducing himself as well. “Poisoned, eh? I feel a bit sluggish, but I have felt far worse.”
“Frankly, the amount of night silk they would have had to feed a man of your size would never have been hidden by the taste of sake,” Shizume said. “You will probably live.”
Shikawa felt his heart sink. “There is nothing that will cure it?”
“Of course there is,” the Scorpion answered. “The antidote is made from a simple plant common in the islands. Your people eat a great deal of it, actually. They wrap their sushi in it. You will be fine as well.”
Shikawa looked to the Phoenix and the Crane. “And them?”
The Scorpion shook his head. “There is a second, somewhat less effective antidote, but it cannot be created without an ample supply of night silk.”
“Then perhaps we should consider acquiring some,” the Phoenix said.
The Scorpion spread his hands. “It is a difficult substance to acquire, what with its obvious illegality. Where do you propose to find it?”
“Them,” Chimoto grunted, pointing to the fallen men. “They will have more of it.”
“I do not care about any antidote,” the Crane said. “I must recover my blades. History will not remember Doji Bushori as the man who lost his grandfather’s blades to this filth.”
The Phoenix knelt and took the wakizashi one of the assailants had been using. “Mine has been tarnished by the touch of a lesser class,” he said solemnly. “I will need to spent much time blessing it to absolve it of such dishonor.” He turned to the others. “I will of course assist you in doing the same.”
“How do we find them?” Bushori said.
The Scorpion gestured to Shikawa. “The Bat did not kill his opponent.”
“Will he confess?” the Phoenix asked.
“Oh, he will,” the Crab rumbled.
Shikawa paled in spite of himself. The Crab exuded an aura of violence the likes of which he had never experienced. In fact, he found both the Crab and the Scorpion perhaps the two most frightening individuals he had ever encountered in his short life, although he had never met men of their clans before today. The Crane and Phoenix, at least, had some air of civility and honor about them.
The Scorpion shook his head at the Crab. “I am certain you are accustomed to getting that which you desire, Chimoto-san, but pain is a poor motivator. Fear works far better. If you will give me a moment with the man?”
The Crab grunted, but did not object. Shizume drug the man into one of the rooms and closed the door. “What is he doing?” Shikawa asked in a whisper.
“Doubtless something we need not see,” Bushori said. He turned to the Phoenix. “If we accept his aid, the price will be high indeed.”
Seeing the Phoenix nod, Shikawa was incredulous. “Payment?” he demanded. “He wants money to assist us?” It was a disgrace for samurai to seek material gain, for they received all that they required from their lord in exchange for their loyalty and service.
“Of course not,” the Crane answered. “There will be a cost, though. No Scorpion gives away favors for free.”
Regardless of what Bayushi Shizume had done or not done within the room, the man he had taken with him had apparently confessed all his sins. Two hours later, the group of them had reached what appeared to be a deserted and partially collapsed storage building near the meager river that wound its way through the city. Shikawa recognized the building, for he had seen a hundred others exactly like it in his homeland; it was where goods from boats were removed and sorted before being taken to their final destination. The battle that had ravaged the city’s merchant quarter had collapsed a portion of the building, and so it had been abandoned.
Or so it appeared.
Once the samurai had gained entrance, it rapidly became apparent that the interior was still relatively stable. All openings to the outside had been painted or covered so that no light from within could escape. There were, as near as Shikawa was able to tell, roughly a dozen men within. If the man who had escaped from the inn was present, he could not tell. Regardless, the men were hurrying in their attempt to pack a large number of weapons, all of them legal only for samurai to bear, into dingy, drab crates. It appeared as though they were preparing to ship them elsewhere. Shikawa looked to Bushori knelt next to him. “Where did all those weapons come from?” he whispered.
The Crane glanced at him with an irritated expression. “The war, most likely. Other people like us, poisoned in the night and disposed of. They likely are in a hurry, or else they would have waited until morning to take our blades.”
“A dozen… seems like too many,” Shikawa muttered.
Bushori looked at him pointedly. “The Crab I know I can count on,” he said quietly. “Isawa Jira is unlikely to kill anyone, but should be able to incapacitate at least a few. The Scorpion… is undependable. I need to know if I can count on you to watch my back when we attack.”
Shikawa grimaced, but nodded. He knew, too, that the Phoenix were generally a clan of pacifists, as bizarre as the notion of a samurai who did not wish to wage war sounded. “Twelve men, all armed. It will be difficult.”
“They are bandits,” Bushori said flatly. “We are samurai. The outcome is not in question.” He paused for a moment. “We may die, perhaps,” he admitted, “but we will not be defeated. If I die, it will be with my grandfather’s blade in my hand.”
Shikawa nodded. “I will stand with you.” Bushori was everything he had been told to dislike about the Crane: certain, confident, and unable to allow for any outcome other than that he had determined was appropriate. And yet, he did not dislike the man for it.
“Very well,” the Crane warrior said. “Then let us begin, else the Crab will grow impatient and avenge my dishonor without me.”
Shikawa whispered a prayer to the kami, then rose and followed the Crane into battle.
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