By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The Crab provinces, year 1169, Month of the Rat
Togashi Miyoko shuddered at the bitter winter wind and drew her cloak more tightly around her. Not for the first time, she considered using one of the sacred tattoos that the cloak concealed in an attempt to dispel what seemed like the touch of the Frost Dragon itself. The thought caused her to wonder idly if Togashi Matsuo, one of the most venerated of her order and the only known ise zumi to bear a tattoo in the image of the Frost Dragon, would be immune to the ravages of winter such as this. Ultimately she decided that he probably was not, as the Fortunes were rarely so forgiving. In any event, she steeled her will against the temptation and forged ahead. The tattoos of the ise zumi order were gifts, inked into their skin using the blood of their Champion, who bore the power of the Dragon Clan’s founder. To use such a thing for something so trivial as personal comfort… it seemed almost obscene, and certainly blasphemous.
Fortunately, it seemed, there would be no need to suffer the whims of the weather much longer, as Miyoko could make out the outline of a temple in the distance. The thought of visiting a temple in the Crab lands was even more welcome than the promise of respite from the cold, as there was precious little that Miyoko enjoyed more than discovering the customs and traditions of new temples. She hastened her step, relishing the thought of arrival as well as the flush of heat that her renewed efforts provided her.
Only moments later, Miyoko stepped across the threshold of the temple, inwardly grateful for the light breeze of warmer air from within and for sanctuary from the winter wind. One of the brother monks stepped forward and bowed, which she returned. “Greetings, sister,” the man said. “Welcome.”
“Thank you, brother,” she said. “I am Togashi Miyoko, from the ise zumi order.”
“Welcome, Miyoko-san,” the man said. “Welcome to the Temple of Resolution.”
“The Temple of Resolution?” Miyoko said. “I am not familiar with your order, brother. Have you any monasteries near the Dragon lands that might go under a different name?”
“We do not,” the monk answered. “The Order of Resolution is predominantly found in the Crab lands, although there are a handful of temples in the Mantis and Matsu lands as well.” He smiled. “I am Atsuru. It is my pleasure to welcome you.”
“Thank you again,” the young monk said with a smile. “Your hospitality is refreshing. It has been a long, difficult journey from the Dragon lands.”
Atsuru smiled, then frowned. He gestured to a symbol on the young woman’s kimono. “That symbol seems familiar. Are you…?”
“I am a temple guardian,” Miyoko answered. “A sect of my order devoted to protecting the temples of the Dragon lands.”
Atsuru nodded. “It is unfortunate that such a task is necessary, but it is not uncommon in the years since the Clan War.”
“I do not wish to impose,” Miyoko said, unslinging her travel bag, “but have you room for a visitor to stay the night? Of course if you have other guests I understand…”
“There is but one other guest,” Atsuru said. “A fellow traveler, and a monk as well.”
She broke into a wide smile. “Wonderful! I love studying the tenets of other orders! I hope perhaps I can learn of your order as well as the other guest’s. May I ask his order?”
“We… do not know.” Atsuru seemed mildly uncomfortable.
“Oh,” she replied. “Of course. Not everyone is as inappropriately forward as I am. That is what my sensei said, at least. Perhaps the matter has not come up.”
“No,” Atsuru corrected her. “We have asked. Our guest is not particularly forthcoming.” The monk’s features grew stony. “Nor does he have your sense of courtesy or respect, for that matter.”
“I see,” Miyoko said. “That is quite curious. Might I speak to him?”
“It would be impolite for us as his hosts to interrupt his reverie,” Atsuru said. “However, this is not a particularly large temple. I believe it cannot be helped, but your guest chambers will have to be located next to his.”
* * *
The robed man glanced up irritably, his bo staff and traveling sack prepared for what looked to be an imminent departure. “What do you want, girl?”
Miyoko raised one eyebrow. “Perhaps under different circumstances I might say, common courtesy. However, since I am in the Crab lands, perhaps that is not the way things are done around here.”
The man’s face was obscured with cloth wraps, but his eyes clearly indicated he was sneering at her. “I have no time for such trivialities.”
“So you say,” Miyoko answered. “I merely wished to ask the name of your order. I am a student of the many orders within the Brotherhood.”
“My order has no name,” the man answered. “And we are not affiliated with the Brotherhood.”
“Interesting,” she said. She pointed to his clothing. “It would appear that your clothing once bore a mon, but it no longer does. What mon might a humble monk such as yourself bear?”
“That is none of your concern,” he said irritably. “I am Katashi, student of the great master Michio, and that is all you need know.”
“Excellent!” She smiled broadly. “I am Togashi Miyoko, of the ise zumi, traveling to the Great Wall to work alongside several of my brothers already aiding the Crab in their valiant struggle.”
“I do not care,” he said curtly.
“What is the purpose of your travels?” Miyoko said, pressing for information.
“None of your concern,” Katashi answered.
“I imagine that makes it difficult to acquire travel papers,” she remarked.
He sneered again. “I have no need of travel papers.”
Miyoko frowned. “Even monks are required to present papers when crossing the border of clan lands.”
“Fortunate, then, that I have never been in a situation where I was required to do so.”
“That seems unlikely,” Miyoko muttered. “I take it you are leaving the temple, then?”
“Temple?” Katashi’s tone was rife with disdain. “This crude structure barely qualifies.”
A shadow seemed to fall over the ise zumi’s features. “Disrespect toward a temple is an unacceptable trait for anyone, much less a monk,” she said quietly. “I encourage you to withdraw your comment, out of respect for our hosts.”
Katashi stared at her blankly for several moments, then took his bo and slowly tipped over a bowl of incense, scattering ash and embers across the floor. “That is what I think of this hovel, and those who dwell within it.”
Miyoko’s glare was full of steel. “You disgrace the robes of whatever order you wear,” she said. “You should leave.”
“I am leaving,” Katashi replied. “Mind your tongue, girl, or I will teach you the manners your fool of a sensei neglected in his lessons.”
“Enough,” Miyoko said. She assumed a defensive stance. “I am a monk, but I am of samurai birth, and I will not suffer insults toward the noble family I serve.”
Katashi moved so quickly that Miyoko could barely follow him. She dropped to the stone floor just in time, as the bo staff he carried struck the stone column behind her with a resounding crack. She noticed from her unique perspective that it was shod on both ends with steel sheathing. She rolled away as the monk followed his first strike with a stomp attack that narrowly missed her head. “Submit to me, girl,” Katashi said. “There is no need for you to be crippled today.”
Miyoko answered with a surge of movement as the tattoo of the Air Dragon that covered her back filled her limbs with supernatural speed. She kicked Katashi’s left leg out from under him, then landed a second kick squarely in his chest. Katashi flew a short distance across the room and rolled several times, impacting against the temple’s primary altar. He rose quickly enough, and regarded the young woman with new interest. “Impressive,” he admitted. “It will not be enough.”
“That remains to be seen,” Miyoko answered.
Katashi dropped his bo and dropped into a low fighting stance. He held both arms crossed against his chest for a moment, then turned them palms out. His palms, which had been clean only a moment before, were now strangely ashen. “You cannot defeat my Fallen Phoenix style, girl.”
“Try me,” she said.
He came at her with the same blinding speed, but her Air Dragon tattoo allowed her to match him. It was fortunate, as the next strike cracked the stone behind her, and then again when he redoubled his attack to follow with another. She dodged again and again, but was unable to land many of her own blows.
Finally, one of her palm strikes impacted the man’s chest, but he was only driven back a foot or so. “Pathetic,” he remarked. “Your technique is strong, but you lack the power necessary to face a true warrior.”
“Perhaps I do not need to,” Miyoko answered. “Perhaps I only needed to buy time.”
“What?” Katashi demanded. He glanced around the larger chamber they had fought their way into, and for the first time noticed the dozen monks who were moving to surround them. Their stances made it clear that they were no strangers to unarmed combat, just as their physiques made it clear that many were former Crab warriors. “I see,” he said. He turned back to the Dragon. “This is not over between us, little girl.”
“I sincerely hope not,” she answered. “I suspect you have much to answer for.”
With a final, baleful glare, Katashi somersaulted over an advancing monk, giving him a sharp blow to the head in the process, and disappeared into the fading light beyond the temple’s threshold. Miyoko stared into the increasing snowfall, considering for a moment giving chase. Ultimately, she stood her ground.
It was as he said: the matter between them was not concluded.
* * *
Kuni Bachida licked his lips nervously and tried not to fidget unnecessarily. He had been standing outside the chamber to which he had been summoned for nearly an hour, and the anxiety he felt was interminable, primarily because anxiety was almost completely alien to him. He had studied under the most unforgiving sensei the Kuni family could boast, and had ventured into the Shadowlands alongside his fellow novices, and yet this was by far the most alarming thing that had ever happened to him.
The door to the chamber slid open suddenly, the wooden frame rapping sharply against the stone abutment in the hallway. A pair of Kuni emerged, each carrying an assortment of scrolls, and both looking somewhat bewildered. As they disappeared into the passageway beyond, Bachida straightened his kimono and tilted his head slightly to get a better look.
“Enter!” a thunderous voice shouted, causing the young man to startle slightly. He frowned, cursing himself for his weakness, and stepped into the chamber. Had he not known better, Bachida might have thought he was in a Lion’s castle rather than that of the Crab. There were scrolls unfurled all across the room, covering virtually every surface and pinned to the walls in many places. At first he thought they were maps, but after a curious glance he realized that they were in fact lists of various resources, including troops, equipment, and supplies, all marked in various locations throughout the Empire.
An imposing figure stood in the room’s center, scanning from one scroll to the next. He did this for several moments before his already severe features twisted in something of a scowl, and he turned his gaze on the young man. “You are Kuni Bachida?”
“Hai, my lord.” He knelt, recognizing the green mantle that covered the man’s traditional Kuni robes. “It is a great honor.”
“Spare me,” Kuni Daigo said. “If I hear one more person tell me what an honor it is to meet me, I think I may kill him.”
Bachida paled slightly but said nothing.
“Do you know why you are here?” Daigo demanded.
Bachida considered his response, and ultimately decided that he would reply to this man as he would any other. “I have thought about that,” he admitted. “I can think of absolutely no reason why I would be summoned into your presence.”
Daigo raised one eyebrow, and almost smiled. Almost. “You are here because I desperately need a personal assistant to aid me in managing my affairs.”
Bachida stared blankly at him. “Did you want me to offer suggestions?”
“They did not tell me you were a simpleton,” Daigo cursed. “They told me you were one of the finest students of your class. They told me that you completed all the requirements for a Kuni’s gempukku, and then insisted on accompanying the Hida and Hiruma students on their sojourn into the Shadowlands as part of theirs as well. Is this correct?”
“It is,” Bachida answered. “I wanted to experience all that might be asked of me. I wanted to experience the Shadowlands if I am to fight against it for the whole of my life.”
“And what did you discover?” Daigo asked “Do you fear it?”
“No,” Bachida answered at once. “I respect it. I respect its power and the threat it poses, but I do not fear it. To do so would give it power over me, and I will never allow that.”
“Good,” Daigo said. “Very good. But I warn you, there will be little glory in this task. You will gain prestige, surely, but you will be a messenger, an assistant…” he frowned before continuing. “…perhaps even a representative in court as the occasion arises. If you longed for the true life of the Crab, you will be surrendering it if you accept this duty. Think carefully.”
“I do not need to,” Bachida said. “You are Kuni Daigo. You will become the Jade Champion that all since Utagu have failed to be. I am yours, if you wish me to be.”
“Very good,” Daigo repeated. “Your first command, then, is to stand aside and observe. I have an important guest who should be arriving any moment.”
Bachida bowed and stepped back against the wall, willing himself to fade into the stonework. He considered asking the kami to allow him to do exactly that, but quickly dismissed the notion. He doubted that was the manner of servant that Daigo required.
A Hiruma sentry stepped into the chamber and bowed sharply. “Your guest has arrived, Daigo-sama.” He stepped aside and, to Bachida’s surprise, one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen stepped into the room. She was small, unlike the muscular and athletic women of the other Crab families, and beautifully delicate unlike the starkly practical women of the Kuni. She had an air of self-assuredness, but Bachida thought he detected the faintest hint of uncertainty in the way she carried herself.
“Greetings, Jade Champion,” the woman said with a bow. “It was my great pleasure to receive your invitation.”
Daigo’s smile was forced, and Bachida wondered if he considered ‘great pleasure’ close enough to ‘great honor’ to consider killing the woman. “Thank you, Minami-san. I appreciate your prompt response. I know that winter is a difficult time to travel.”
“We Moshi are quite experienced in traveling under difficult conditions,” she replied. “It is but one of many benefits of our service to the Mantis Clan.”
“Of course,” Daigo said. “I see no reason to waste either of our time. You were a shugenja at one point, were you not?”
Minami frowned slightly, but only for a moment. “That is correct.”
“You are no longer a shugenja,” Daigo said. “That is an exceptionally rare occurrence. How did it happen?”
Bachida struggled to contain his surprise. He had never heard of anyone putting aside the duty of a priest, unless they were joining a monastery. This woman had the look of a courtier. “I do not consider that matter any of your business,” Minami said flatly.
Daigo chuckled, then picked up a scroll. “According to this you were one of two Mantis who discovered the means by which your clan bound the massive orochi to your will. You used them as weapons against the Phoenix, I believe. Very curious.”
“Almost as curious as a Crab who asks questions to which he already knows the answers,” Minami said.
“And the pact you made with these creatures eventually resulted in the loss of your ability to speak to the kami,” Daigo said. His expression had grown serious. “That is a fate I cannot even imagine.”
“Feel fortunate for that,” Minami said quietly.
“You are a woman with a unique set of skills,” Daigo said. “You know more about the kami and the use of magic than perhaps any non-shugenja in the Empire. However, after your… unfortunate occurrence… you began training as a courtier.”
“Yes,” Minami said. “I have attended both Yoritomo Yoyonagi and Yoritomo Sachina.”
“Both important figures in the Imperial Court, and one now appointed the Amethyst Champion.” Daigo rolled the scroll back up. “An incredible pedigree, even if you had trained for the duty since childhood, but of course you did not.”
“Is there something you wish of me, Daigo-sama?” Minami asked.
“Most importantly,” Daigo continued, as if he had not heard her, “my cousin Kuni Umibe spoke with you at length at the Jade Championship. He is a shrewd judge of character, and he spoke very highly of you. For Umibe to do such a thing… well, let us simply say that he does such things rarely.”
“I recall your cousin,” Minami said. “A wise man. I enjoyed our conversations.”
“Very good,” Daigo said. “I would like to offer you a position in my organization working with him.”
Minami’s eyes widened slightly. “Working with shugenja?”
“Not exactly,” Daigo answered. “I am creating three positions for my highest ranked subordinates. One will coordinate all matters pertaining to shugenja in my service. This role will be filled by my cousin. One will attend all matters related to the Jade Legion that serves me, and one will handle all matters related to representing my interests in court. Obviously I will be involved in all three as well, but a wise man delegates authority. I would like to offer you the position as my representative in court.”
The young Mantis bowed deeply. “I would be greatly honored to accept, my lord.”
“So be it.” Daigo beckoned for Bachida, who stepped forward. “This is my assistant. Give him an account of all your immediate requirements. He will see to it that the correct people receive them. I would like for you to leave for the capital within the week, if you think that you can endure the weather to reach it.”
“That is my duty,” Minami said with another bow. “Do not concern yourself with the particulars, only know that I will reach the capital as you wish.”
“Excellent,” Daigo said. “Now, if you will forgive me, I have much to do. Bachida?”
Bachida hesitated only a moment, then took up a scroll and quill from one of the tables. “If you will accompany me, Minami-sama,” he said, “we will adjourn to another chamber that the Jade Champion might continue his work.”
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