by Nancy Sauer
Editing & Development by Fred Wan
Yashinko smiled at the man before her. “I am very sorry, Otomo-san. I have been to Toshi Ranbo many times, but I am afraid I never heard your name.”
“I am not surprised,” Usharo said. There was the merest hint of sorrow in his voice. “My branch of the family was heavily affected by the destruction of Otosan Uchi. It has only been recently that I have been able to turn my attention back to matters of the Empire.”
“It was a deeply unpleasant incident,” Kakita Komichi said. “We should speak no more of it.” A wave of agreement went around the small group, and then Yashinko reclaimed the conversation. “I hope you are enjoying your visit here,” she said. “It is our Champion’s desire to make Kyuden Kumiko one of the Empire’s premier courts.”
“He may be satisfied that it is becoming just that,” Usharo said. “I am especially impressed with how much news we have gotten through the winter, compared with courts on the mainland.”
Yashinko nodded. “Even in rough winter seas some of our ships go out, to get news from the coastal cities. And the Moshi and Yoritomo shugenja work with the Tsuruchi to gather news further inland.”
“And such an amazing breadth of news,” Usharo said. “I have even been able to follow the exploits of those Spider ronin.” “Ronin,” Komachi said. She twitched her fan. “Why would you care about them?”
Usharo laughed. “Because winter is long, and sometimes–even in Kyuden Kumiko–dull? A band of ronin who are going around fighting bandits would be a good topic for a puppet play, don’t you think?”
Komachi smiled back. “Indeed. They would led by the unrecognized son of a great samurai, of course, and he dreams of establishing his band as a Minor Clan.”
“Or perhaps something greater,” suggested Usharo.
“A Great Clan?” said Yashinko. “He would be a great man indeed to be equal to Yoritomo’s achievement.”
“What you have said is very true,” Usharo replied, bowing slightly to her. “But if I may be allowed to speak of a different kind of achievement, Komachi-san, your arrangements are simply stunning.”
“Thank you,” Komachi said. “I have been very pleased with the materials our hosts have provided.”
“I would like to speak with you sometime about possibly visiting Kyuden Otomo, if your obligations allow for it.”
“I would be honored.”
“Perhaps now, if Yashinko-san has no further need for us?” Usharo looked inquiringly at the Mantis courtier.
“Please, feel free,” she said. “I have enjoyed your company, but I really should mingle.” Yashinko flicked her fan to indicate the rest of the room, and its scattered groups of courtiers. “I look forward to visiting with you both again.”
After Yashinko had left Usharo turned to Komachi. “I am afraid I have been slightly inaccurate,” he said, holding his fan in front of his mouth. “I would sometime like to speak with you about a visit, but first I wish to speak about your clan’s struggle with the Mantis.”
Komachi casually moved her fan to cover her own mouth. “I am not sure what you mean, Usharo-san.”
He smiled slightly. “I think even an ikebana artist is aware that the Crane and the Mantis are in competition to dominate several large ports. I have come into some information about the Mantis Clan’s plans, and I wish to make it available to your clan.”
“Forgive me for being slow of wit,” Komachi said, “but I do not see why you would involve yourself in this matter. Or take the side of my clan.”
“I can not imagine a Kakita being slow at anything,” Usharo said genially. “I am sure you are simply being distracted by thoughts of your next masterpiece. But to answer your question: The Crane Clan supports Otomo Hoketuhime for Empress. And I, I also think that the Throne should go to someone with an ancient and noble lineage.”
“Ah,” Komichi said. “Of course. Yes, I would be pleased to help pass this information along.”
“Splendid,” Usharo said. “I am sure we will accomplish much good together.”
* * * * *
“Of course timing is important,” Shiba Yoma said. “But I think that starting with good material is the essential thing. Bad timing can ruin quality, but good timing cannot create it.” He poured a cup of tea and passed it over to his companion.
Tsuruchi Etsui accepted the tea and held it up to inhale the brew’s fragrance. As he did so his eyes automatically scanned the room, checking to see who was present and who might be approaching. The two men were at one of the small tables scattered about the edges of the main court room. It was possibly the best place in the kyuden to have a private conversation, because anyone who was close enough to hear what was said would be clearly in view. “I’ve found very good material in the Crane lands.”
Yoma nodded. “It is to be expected: they are a clan that loves luxury. Complexity, brilliance, elegance, balance. Those are the watchwords for the Crane. I have found contacts in the Crane worth cultivating, for access to such things.”
Etsui considered this. “You have no likely candidates in your own clan?”
“Yes, but they are harder to find. What is considered remarkable in Phoenix lands is the everyday among the Crane.”
“I had an assignment in the Lion lands once,” Etsui said. “I was surprised by what I found there–most were underwelming, but a few were very promising. I never expected a Lion samurai to care about such things.”
“Nor I. But I suppose I should not be surprised to find that they have a few stand-outs. When a Lion takes something to heart there is no stopping them. As to their southern neighbors, I have never attempted them. No particular reason, of course.”
Etsui nodded; he himself had no desire to mix with the Scorpion. He was about to ask about the Unicorn when he saw Yoritomo Yashinko drift over in their direction.
“Good morning, Shiba-sama, Etsui-san,” she said with a smile. “I hope I am not interrupting your conversation.”
“I am sure that you could only add to it,” Yoma replied. “Would you like to join us? We were discussing tea.”
Yoritomo Sachina studied the mirror’s reflection and made a slight adjustment to the neckline of her kimono. She had been working for weeks to negotiate a trade agreement with the Dragon, and had managed to secure extremely good terms for her clan–but she had yet to secure their final agreement. Today she would set in motion the plan to remedy that.
A door slid open behind her and a servant entered and bowed. “Yoritomo-sama, your guest has arrived.”
“Excellent,” Sachina said. She laid down the mirror, picked up her fan and headed for the doorway. Ignoring the still-bowing servant she stepped into her receiving room, putting a gracious smile on her face as she did so. “Good afternoon, Kanaye-san,” she said. “I am so pleased you could take the trouble to meet with me today.”
Togashi Kanaye looked up from the flower arrangement he had been studying. “It is no trouble, Yoritomo-san,” he said. “I left her behind on the river bank.”
Sachina blinked. “Of course,” she said brightly. She knelt down next to the monk–just slightly closer than propriety would call for–and served them both tea. “I have been enjoying my stay here; the Asako are so hospitable and their home is lovely. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Their eyes are on a horizon that no one else can see,” Kanaye said, nodding. He sipped the tea and smiled. “Iron Benten,” he said. “One rarely finds it outside of the Dragon lands.”
Sachina was cheered by her guest’s lapse into straightforward speech. “I developed a fondness for it when I was in Nanashi Mura,” she said, “and have tried to keep a supply with me since then.” She sipped her own tea for a moment, then set down the cup and reached into her sleeve. “I know that you are familiar with my discussions with your kinsmen here, but it is useful for me to have things written out. Could you please review this, and tell me if this matches your understanding of the issue?”
Kanaye accepted the scroll, opened it, and scanned it over. “To lick poison, you must first drink the bowl,” he announced as he rolled it back up.
Sachina did not grimace at this but it took some effort on her part. “I am so sorry, Kanaye-san. Were you saying that you found the terms agreeable?”
“It has flies for many ambitious frogs,” he replied.
Sachina made herself breathe deeply before answering. “I am sorry, Togashi-san, but I do not understand. Perhaps you could explain?”
There was sorrow in the look he gave her. “If you meet Shinsei on the road, you must kill him.”
It was several breaths before Sachina spoke again. “I am so, so, sorry, Togashi-san, but I am afraid that I must cut our discussion short. As you know, Moshi Minemi has been quite ill and I need to check with the healers assigned to her, to see how she is doing.”
“One must bow to help a fallen man,” Kanaye agreed.
“Indeed,” she said. “Please feel free to finish your tea; a servant will show you out when you are ready.” She rose and left the room with only a trace of annoyance in her walk.
Kanaye watched her leave, then he poured himself another cup of tea and sipped it leisurely. When he was done he slipped the scroll into his sleeve and left, smiling to himself.
* * * * *
Moshi Minami cautiously breathed in, amazed at how much her pain had decreased in such a short span of time. The fever that had left her too drained to walk was gone, and she could feel the tightness in her chest loosening up.
“Drink this, it will help your cough.”
Minami obediently took the cup she was handed and drank it. She was expecting something bitter, and was surprised to find it honey-sweet and tasting of flowers. “That was good,” she rasped out.
“I am glad you think so,” Asako Meisuru said, “because you are going to be drinking a lot of it.” She added a handful of dried plants to a pot of steaming water and fanned the vapors over to the Mantis. “Breathe deeply.”
Minami did, and after a few minutes felt soothed enough to talk. “Thank you, Meisuru-san, I am feeling much better. But I am surprised that you did not call upon the kami to heal me.”
“The kami are a powerful source of healing,” Meisuru agreed. “But so are the plants that the merciful Fortunes have given us. I have seen many cases of illness that the kami could not heal, but the skillful use of medicine could. Were they sent by the Fortunes to remind us of their gifts? I cannot say.”
“I have never thought of it that way,” Minami said. “I have no skill with the kami, though many in my family do. I have always envied them.”
“It is a wonderful thing,” Meisuru said. “But I have always felt that there was a kinship between courtiers and shugenja. You speak with the people around you and seek to sway them to your cause; I do the same with the kami.”
“That is a very interesting thought,” Minami said. “Yoyonagi is a shugenja. When I see her next I shall ask her about it, and write to you with her answer.”
“You are very kind,” Meisuru said. “Now I must leave you for a while–we think this sickness is spreading through the castle town, and so there are others who need my aid. I will leave you some of this drink to finish, and then you should sleep. I will be back later to check on you.”
“Thank you again,” Minami said. “I will remember this.”
“And so Mura Sabishii Toshi has passed back into our hands,” Doji Nagori said. He looked up from the pile of paper on his writing desk. “We have much to thank our friends in the Lion for.”
“It is as you say, Nagori-sama,” Kakita Senko said.
The expression on the Doji’s face did not change, but he shifted his attention from calculating how much additional pressure this would put on the Crab to studying the woman sitting before him. There was something just slightly off in the tone of her voice. “You have some reservations, Senko-san?” he asked, watching for her reaction.
Senko’s eyes twitched just slightly, so slightly that he almost missed it. “Not at all, Nagori-sama. Everything is in order, as you can see.” “Senko-san, you have been my liaison with Akodo Setai for all of the time he was barred from Toshi Ranbo–you are my eyes and ears with him. If you have heard anything that makes you uneasy, I must know about it.”
“Akodo Setai is the very soul of sincerity,” she said quickly. “I would never doubt his word, never.” She paused. “And yet, I cannot bring myself to trust his clan. The Lion have been our enemies for centuries, and I see little reason why they could not return to that state.”
“Chukandomo?” Nagori said. “Lady Domotai? Lord Kusari?”
“And the fact both the Lion and Crane are honorable clans, and hold the word of their Champions, both past and present, as worthy of deference. Yes. But there are differences as well, important differences.” She stopped a moment, to see if Nagori would speak, and when he did not Senko went on. “No Lion would object to seeing Hoketuhime on the Throne, but how many of them would rather see a Lion there? When spring comes they will make their move to claim it. It is inevitable.” She fell silent and waited.
Nagori thought of Matsu Atasuke, Domotai’s sensei. Atasuke was a good, honorable man, a man he was proud to call a friend–and one who would never, ever understand why Domotai had considered him worthy of owning Kakita’s first blade. “What you have said is very true. But in expecting them to act in their own best interests, you must also remember that they also act according to bushido. Should they move against us, their actions will be completely obvious. Afterwards.”
Senko smiled slightly. “It is my hope that I could be of help beforehand. Until then, do you have any messages you wish me to convey to Setai-sama?”
“I will have a letter written up,” Nagori said. “And please give him my personal congratulations on his clan’s return to Toshi Ranbo.”
* * * * *
The plum-trees in the castle garden had only a few early blossoms, but they were enough to justify taking a moment to admire them. Otomo Hoketuhime studied them, wondering how long it would take for the rest to bloom and if anyone would actually notice. “They look just the same–and yet everything is different.”
“‘Even the wisest say/everything changes, ‘” Seppun Kiharu said.
Hoketuhime laughed and turned away from the view. “And so it does. Last year I hosted the Imperial Court. Next year, I might do so again–as Empress.”
“It seems very possible,” Kiharu said. “I have heard many courtiers from many different clans speak in favor of you.” “Naturally,” Hoketuhime said.
“They are in my house.” She stepped over to the room’s brazier and warmed her hands over it. “But I know that many of them speak just as favorably of Togashi Satsu.”
“He is the grandson of the Dragon Kami. It is difficult to deny that he possesses great wisdom.”
“Which is fabulously useless, as he never does anything with it.”
“Some would say that you were being unjust in your judgment.”
“When I am Empress I can concern myself with being just in my judgments,” Hoketuhime said. “At the moment, I am more concerned with being effective.” She glanced at her visitor. “Do you disapprove?”
“Not as such,” Kiharu said. “But I worry. In the end, it is the Heavens that will show us who will next sit on the Throne. I would not want you to do anything that will cause you to lose their favor.”
Hoketuhime smiled at him. “With you to advise me, I cannot imagine that happening.” She gestured toward the door. “Will you accompany me to court this morning?”
“Of course,” Kiharu said. He gave the plum blossoms one last worried look and followed her out of the room.
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