By Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
The City of the Lost, the Shadowlands; Month of the Rooster, Year 1169
Pokku eased around the corner, dropped to his hands and knees and scrambled rapidly across the ruined plaza. There was a gang of Omoni’s abandoned goblins roaming in the area and he didn’t want to meet them. The young goblin had come to this place for a reason, and getting eaten was certainly not it. With a last burst of speed he slithered up the stairs to the main Bloodspeaker Temple and darted into the gaping doorway.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s how to do it,” Pokku encouraged himself. He pulled a wad of hardened tree sap out of a pouch in his clothing, popped it into his mouth and chewed noisily. After a moment he walked deeper into the Temple, following the hallway to the main chamber.
Once inside the chamber he moved slowly along the left wall. When he reached a side altar made of reddish stone with a large lidded jar made of fine white porcelain sitting on it he stopped and stared. Slowly he pulled out a long stick from out of the back neck of his tunic. Standing as far back as he could, he used the stick to shove the lid off the jar and then jumped back. Out of the jar fountained a small pillar of inky black smoke that twisted itself into multiple waving tentacles, each tipped with a lamprey-like mouth. They swirled around the altar, seeking prey, and then seemed to slowly evaporate into the air.
“Stupid ‘speakers,” Pokku muttered to himself. “Everyone traps the lid.” He dashed to the altar and pulled himself on to it. Taking the wad of sap out of his mouth he stuck it to the end of the stick and quickly used it to fish a small scroll out of the bottom of the jar. Everyone trapped the lid, but you never knew when someone would be bright enough to trap the jar, too. When he had the scroll in hand he shoved it into his shirt for safekeeping and hopped off the altar. He had gotten two steps away when something hard and cold brushed his ankle and attempted to wrap itself around his leg.
“Aaiieee!” Pokku shrieked. “Get it off, get it off, get it off!” Frantically he tried beating the thing with the stick he held. One end of the tentacle continued to assault his leg while the other rose up and confronted him with a mouth and throat full of teeth. Pokku shoved the sap-covered end of the stick into the mouth with all of his strength. The creature first tried to swallow, and then tried to spit it out. Neither worked. Then it started to twist and shake, trying to dislodge the stick. It relaxed its grip on the goblin’s leg as it started to beat itself on the floor, and Pokku almost fell over himself in trying to run.
He sprinted out of the chamber, through the temple and out the doorway into the plaza. There was a large goblin in the center, looking around curiously, and Pokku did the only thing he could–he ran right past the stranger and out to the road that led to the city gates. At first he thought he would get away without pursuit, but then he heard a long, undulating roar. The rest of the pack was being alerted, and soon he would have all of them on his trail. He ran faster.
Pokku was outside the city and running through the overgrown fields that surrounded it when the pack started to catch up with him. Over his panting breath he could hear their shouts of glee over the excitement of the chase and the prospect of fresh meat and he wracked his brain for a way to deal with them. Though he knew that was a peerless warrior, the terror of samurai everywhere, a fight might damage the scroll he carried and that would ruin everything. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a flash of distant movement, and he realized that there was a party of Lost on the highway that led back to the city. He altered his course towards them.
Gathering the last of his strength he ran up the embankment to the highway and dashed through the group of red-robed humans, managing to trip one in the process, then plunged down the embankment on the other side. Behind him he heard shouts and curses which quickly turned into an assortment of yells, screams and roars as the goblin pack made their appearance. Pokku grinned and settled down into an easy lope. He loved it when a plan came together.
Toshi Ranbo, the Imperial City
Isawa Takesi walked through the Phoenix Embassy, trying very hard to keep his temper. The marriage of Master Ochiai to Mirumoto Tsuge was a very important event, with dignitaries of many clans attending the festivities, and to give in to an emotional display would shame himself, his family, and his clan. But it was difficult.
He had been sitting in one of the gardens, listening to a group of older samurai talk about the wedding, and one had said that the Phoenix had rushed the wedding to distract attention away from their eviction of the Lion and Mantis Clans from the capital city. Takesi had nodded wisely to himself; such an action showed great intelligence on the part of his clan’s leaders. Then one of the other samurai had laughed and said it had been rushed because Tsuge could no longer bear to be apart from Ochiai, and his blood had surged in anger. The idea that the man Master Ochiai was to marry considered his own desires to be more important than his duty to his clan was a slur of the highest order against her character–and one that he could do nothing about. The speaker had been a high-ranking member of the Crane Clan, and no matter how correct Takesi was, challenging the man would have created embarrassment for all concerned. As discreetly as he could he had withdrawn from the group and headed for someplace quiet to center himself.
Finding someplace quiet was proving to be something of a challenge, though. All of the places one could normally sit at peace now held courtiers intent on having private conversations–the problem with inviting all of the Empire’s important people to the wedding, Takesi concluded, was that they all regarded the wedding as an opportunity to talk to each other. Finally he headed to the Embassy’s library. The small room normally had a Shiba or two keeping up on their study of Shinsei, but with almost all of the Embassy’s staff busy dealing with visitors it should be empty now.
He slid open the door and looked in, wary of visiting dignitaries, and discovered that it was empty except for a young Dragon samurai who was sitting where he could look out at the gardens. Takesi brightened at the sight. Speaking with someone his own age would be a pleasant distraction. He entered the room and when the Dragon looked up he smiled and bowed. “Good afternoon, Dragon-san. I am Isawa Takesi. Have you found the hospitality of my clan adequate? Is there anything I can assist you with?”
“Isawa-san, I am Mirumoto Ichizo,” the Dragon said, bowing from where he sat. “And thank you for your offer, but I am fine. Your clan’s hospitality lacks nothing.”
“I am pleased to hear it,” Takesi said. “Do you wish silence for meditation? I can leave if my presence would distract you.”
Ichizo hesitated for a fraction of a second. “There is no need for you to leave, Isawa-san,” he said. “Please, be seated.”
“Have you been in Toshi Ranbo long?” Takesi asked as he sat down.
Ichizo shook his head. “No, I arrived with Tsuge-sama’s party.” He hesitated again and then went on. “My father thought I needed a broader perspective of the world, so he arranged a minor position in the Dragon embassy for me.”
Takesi sat up a little straighter. He had been in the capital since the beginning of the Phoenix guardianship, and so felt worldly in comparison. “Your father’s choice of cities shows that he is very wise. Scholars, artists and courtiers from all over the Empire come here. And it is especially exciting now, with everyone debating who should be the next emperor.”
Ichizo frowned slightly. “Surely that is for the Heavens to decide, yes?”
“Of course,” Takesi said airily. “But there is no harm in discussing who Heaven might smile upon. You cannot say that in the Dragon Clan people have no opinion on it. Who would your clan like to see as Emperor?”
“Well, Lord Satsu, of course,” Ichizo said. “He is very wise, and is the grandson of the Kami Togashi–no one else can claim such a close link to the Empire’s founders.”
Takesi didn’t think a hermit Emperor, no matter how wise, would do the Empire much good, but he refrained from saying so. “Among the Phoenix I have heard some say that Shiba Yoma would be a fine Emperor.”
“I am sorry, Isawa-san,” Ichizo said, “but I do not know who that is.”
“He is the Voice of the Masters, and has served the Council for many years. He is a man of dignity and honor, and has shown courage in the trials our clan has faced over the years.”
“He sounds like a very great man. If the Fortunes are kind, perhaps I will be able to meet him someday.” Ichizo thought for a moment. “I have also heard some of my kin consider Kitsuki Iweko for Empress. Without denying Lord Satsu’s claim, of course.”
Takesi blinked at the idea of a Kitsuki, with that family’s peculiar notion of ‘evidence’, being put in charge of the Empire. “I am sure she would be a very,” he thought fast, “intelligent Empress.” He quickly changed the subject, before Ichizo could suggest someone even more inappropriate. “Mirumoto-san, though I am a priest of the kami I have studied iaijustu for many years. Why don’t we go to the dojo here and have some matches? The swordsmanship of Dragon samurai is well known.”
Ichizo’s face went blank. “Iai is a Crane art,” he said flatly.
Takesi blushed slightly at his gaffe. “Of course,” he said, “please forgive me. Kenjutsu then.”
Ichizo rose to his feet, “I am sorry, Isawa-san, but I am afraid I should seek out my master and see if he has any duties for me. Carry the Fortunes.” He bowed curtly and left.
Takesi watched him go, confused. Had he really been that offensive? Or was Ichizo just the touchy type? He looked back towards the garden, hoping it would soothe him, and noticed that there was a scroll laying next to where Ichizo had been sitting. It was a scroll he recognized, for he had read it many times: Shiba Rokkujo’s “Way of the Peaceful Sword”, a commentary on Kakita’s “The Sword”.
He picked it up and automatically rose to put it away. Why had Ichizo been reading it? And why had be been so offended? Takesi dropped the scroll in the correct basket and stared down unseeing at it. Then he headed towards the garden. With so many Dragon visitors circulating around the Embassy, it would not be too difficult to find one who knew something about Mirumoto Ichizo.
Toshi Ranbo, the Imperial City
Bayushi Eisaku strolled through the garden surrounding the Temple of the Seven Fortunes with a pleasant look on his face. He bowed respectfully to all that he met and hid his amusement at their uncomfortable responses. Jimen-sama’s peculiar victory at the Emerald Championship was still the talk of Toshi Ranbo, and the uncertainty it created filled him with glee.
The clear tones of a biwa played by practiced hands floated through a hedge and Eisaku headed in the direction of its source. Forcing a Phoenix shugenja to cooperate normally was quite difficult, but Isawa Kyoko was a young, sheltered woman thrust alone into the ruthless political scene of Toshi Ranbo–were he capable of it, Eisaku would have felt sorry her. But her sensei had been a renowned expert on using the kami to enhance the growth and productivity of crops, and she was said to be among the most talented of his students. Eisaku was determined to bring her skills to the aid of his clan.
He rounded the hedge and there she was, sitting by a small rock garden and strumming her biwa. “Good afternoon, Isawa-san,” he said, smiling as he walked towards her. He would start politely, he thought, and become menacing as needed. “It is a beautiful garden, is it not?”
“Indeed it is, Bayushi-san,” Kyoko replied. “One cannot help but feel refreshed by looking at it.”
“Many things can refresh a person,” Eisaku said. “A beautiful garden, a pretty girl, a song played on a biwa, a poem. But to the man who has no food, all of them are worthless.”
“You speak wisely,” Kyoko said. “To those not trained to withstand it, hunger is an unstoppable force.”
“One that will never bother you. With your knowledge, famine will never visit a region you live in.” He moved closer to her, so that he loomed above her. “It is knowledge that my master is very interested in.”
Kyoko looked up towards him, and for a moment she seemed alarmed. Then a flash of understanding lit her eyes. “Oh,” she said, “you must be the person Ayano told me about.”
Eisaku felt his smile freeze on his face. “Ayano?”
Kyoko nodded. “Doji Ayano, a courtier. She told me to be expecting a representative of the Emerald Champion’s office. “
“And I suppose she offered advice on how to deal with me,” Eisaku said. Cranes, he sneered to himself. As if their little tricks could stop him from accomplishing his mission.
“Oh, yes.” Kyoko laughed. “It was a little silly, really. She was trying so hard to convince me to help you. But really, why would I not help? My skills are meant to help others, and the Emerald Champion acts to promote the welfare of all the Empire.”
Eisaku covered his surprise by stepping back and bowing slightly. “Thank you, Isawa-san,” he said. “In these troubled times, it is refreshing to meet someone truly dedicated to the Empire’s well-being.”
Kyoko smiled and rose from her seat. “I must attend to my duties in the temple soon,” she said. “If you return here tomorrow at the third hour we can speak more on how I can help you.”
“That would be excellent,” Eisaku said. It left him with plenty of time to figure out what game the Crane were trying to play.
Somewhere near the Shinomen Forest
Chuda Hiroe rolled up the scroll she was studying and sighed. It was really too early to start feeling impatient or worried, but sometimes waiting was the most difficult part of a plan to carry out. But her plan was a good one, so all she had to do was wait and things would work out.
The young shugenja stood up and walked across the clearing towards a tree that had a young peasant man tied to it. Her sensei had taught his senior students the first half of a spell, and then informed them that the directions for the other half had been left in the old Temple in the City of the Lost. If they wanted to know it all, they would have to recover it themselves. Hiroe’s lips curled in disdain. The other students had immediately made plans to go into the Shadowlands together to retrieve it and share the knowledge among them. She had devised a much better plan, one that would leave her in sole possession of the spell and which would demonstrate to her sensei the full range of her intelligence and subtlety. Perhaps even Lord Daigotsu would hear of it, and call her into his service. His campaign against the Empire was one of misdirection and manipulation, and she was sure that it would be her path to power.
In the meantime, she would try to figure out as much of the spell as she could on her own. Hiroe drew forth her bone-handled knife and made a long cut down the terrified peasant’s arm. He jerked against the pain of it and then went into a frenzy of writhing as she gathered power from his shed blood and used it to create even more pain. The muffled screams didn’t bother her concentration at all as she searched for a way to focus the pain into one particular limb. When her sensei had demonstrated the spell for the class the subject had attempted to gnaw off her own hand to be free of the resulting agony, and Hiroe saw real possibilities in that.
An hour later she was so absorbed in her work she was taken by surprise then Pokku crashed through the bushes and slid to a stop in the middle of the clearing.
“Pretty-sama! Pretty-sama! I’ve got it!” he yelled, waving the scroll.
“Be quiet,” Hiroe said. She stuck the bloody knife into her obi and started over to him. “And give it to me.”
“Deal, Pretty-sama,” Pokku said, dancing backwards. “We have a deal.”
Hiroe walked over to her satchel and pulled out a s small sack of coins. “Here,” she said, throwing it on the ground between them. “Now, my scroll.”
Pokku rushed over to her and laid the scroll in her hand with a surprising amount of dignity. Then he turned and fell on the bag, ripping it open.
Hiroe looked the scroll over, making sure it was safe to open. Satisfied, she was just about to break the seal when a scream of rage distracted her.
“You fail!” Pokku yelled at her, shaking his fists. “This isn’t food!” He stuffed one of the coins into his mouth in demonstration, tried to chew, and spit it out.
Hiroe rolled her eyes. “Stupid goblin. Did you think that I was going to carry that much food around on my back?” She gestured at the coins scattered about the grass. “If you take those to the new city you can exchange them for food.”
“Oh, really?” Pokku looked down at the coins with new interest. He had seen them before, but it had never occurred to him that they represented food.
He began searching the ground for coins and stuffing them back in the bag. As he worked he cast a sidelong glance at Hiroe, who had opened the scroll and sat down to read it. The Chuda woman was brighter than most humans and she practically glowed with ambition, which made her perfect for his plan. Walking in her shadow would give him a chance to be seen by the important people. He would show them all, even Daigotsu himself, that his tribe, and not Omoni’s hulking brutes, were the better goblins.
Pokku finished tying the bag back together and got up. He was hungry, and since the Chuda hadn’t given him real food he’d have to go hunting. He was about to tell her that he was leaving when he caught sight of the blood-soaked peasant. “Hey,” he said instead, “who’s that?”
Hiroe looked up from her scroll and glanced over. She would need a new subject to practice on, she decided. She dug a coin out of her obi and tossed it to the goblin. “Kill him and dispose of the body,” she said. “Make sure he is never found.”
Pokku caught the coin and dropped it on to his bag. Then he walked towards the peasant with a wide smile on his face. Life just kept getting better and better.
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