By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The Mantis Estates in the Imperial City could be politely described as opulent, perhaps even lavish. Many in Toshi Ranbo eschewed politeness on this particular subject, however, and instead used words like “ostentatious,” “shameful,” or even “disgusting.” It was the last one that entertained Yoritomo Sachina the most. Given her unique background, having spent most of her life as one of the most successful geisha in the Empire despite her noble birth, she understood very well that no matter how much a samurai claimed to despise wealth and commerce, he depended upon such things to live. Whether the dichotomy existed as a result of hypocrisy or delusion varied from person to person, but the result was the same: it was easy to manipulate someone who did not know or refused to acknowledge the truth.
As Sachina glanced about the main audience chamber of the estate, she could not help but feel a twinge of regret. It was ridiculous, of course, because now she had everything she wanted. She was, in a very real way…
“Sachina-san,” a voice interrupted. “Mistress of all you survey?”
Once she might have worried that such a comment might indicate her mood was transparent, but then of course her associate was only stating what the incredibly obvious. “I am certain I have no idea what you mean, Singh-san.”
As always, the gaijin’s swarthy skin and strange head-wrap made him seem oddly out of place in Mantis colors, but Sachina had always found his appearance strangely exotic and appealing. Yoritomo Singh stroked his moustache absently. “We are virtually all that remains of the clan’s delegation to the Imperial Court,” he said. “Between us, you are the only real choice to lead the clan’s agenda in court. You should feel privileged.”
“But of course I do,” she said with a coy smile.
“Unfortunate that it should happen this way,” Singh said with a frown.
Sachina often found his moods inscrutable, but he was so sincere that she had begun to doubt he was capable of deliberate deception under any circumstances. “Whatever do you mean?”
“From my perspective, the only colleague who could ever truly have been a threat to you was Yoyonagi-sama. So of course, rather than attempt the infinitely slow and complex task of bringing her ruination, you caused her to be elevated,” Singh explained. “Now she is the Amethyst Champion, thanks in no small part to you, and far too busy with her own duties to interfere with your leadership here.”
“A position well-deserved,” Sachina noted. “For Yoyonagi-sama, I mean.”
“Naturally. Still, to see so many others elevated above their station while you remain here,” Singh shook his head. “I am certain it must be difficult. Minami, vassal of the Jade Champion. Yashinko working directly with the Imperial Treasurer. To many it must seem as though you have been left behind.”
Sachina’s warm expression faded into a cold glare. “Your point is well made, Singh. You are no simpleton, no oblivious pawn to be manipulated.” She fanned herself lightly. “Not that I ever mistook you for such, of course. I knew there was a courtier’s heart somewhere in there.”
“Of course,” Singh said. “I have heard the Empress is in attendance at the Imperial Palace as of a few days ago. Do you know when she will convene her court?”
“Not yet,” Sachina said. “They say her Winter Court will be convened at Kyuden Bayushi very shortly. It is possible she will not hold court here, but instead wait until then to make her first appearance.”
“Either way you will have very little time to find replacements for our absent colleagues,” Singh said.
“I am aware,” she said with a frown. “Most of our more promising prospects are in the Islands, assisting with the conclusion of the Amethyst Champion’s court.”
“Once, years ago, I had to assemble a patrol of guards during the city’s most raucous festival. It was a terrible struggle to find enough men sober enough to join me. This will be only slightly more difficult, I imagine.”
Sachina chuckled lightly. “Do you miss the Kingdoms, Singh-san?”
“Of course,” he answered. “But my path has led me here, and here I must remain until I am guided home once again.”
“We could always recruit Kekiesu,” she observed. “Perhaps she would remind you of home?”
“She reminds me of the parts of home I do not miss,” Singh said darkly. “I think we would be best served to leave her to her other duties.”
Sachina frowned at the comment, and began to pursue the matter, but the two were interrupted as another entered the chamber, and Sachina’s expression quickly changed. “Perhaps we should consider new possibilities,” she said, her voice practically a purr. “What would you say to the notion of attending the Winter Court, Kalani-san?”
Moshi Kalani frowned as he poured a cup of cool water. “I suppose I would ask the Fortunes why they would punish me so,” he said. “Court is not for such as me.”
“Oh, I think I disagree,” Sachina said. “I think that many of my counterparts in the other clans’ delegations would find you extremely… interesting.”
“What a pity I will be otherwise engaged,” Kalani said. “Lord Naizen-sama has delegated command of his personal fleet to me until further notice.”
Singh seemed alarmed at the news. “Is Lord Naizen ill?”
“He is not, praise the Thunderer.”
Sachina raised an eyebrow. “What has engaged his interest? Is it his new Kitsune bride?” She paused for a moment. “Speaking of which, the Kitsune are well-liked by everyone. Perhaps we should recruit from among their number to replenish our ranks.” Another pause. “Well-liked by everyone but the Crane, I suppose I should say.”
“What is the condition of the prophet?” Singh asked.
“There is a report from a minor magistrate in the area, Yoritomo Saburo, regarding the threat to the prophet,” Kalani said, “but it is somewhat… fanciful. He claims the threat is ended, but the details are difficult to believe.” He shrugged. “Regardless, we know that the prophet’s visions grow less frequent, and she has lapsed into brief periods of catatonia, much as many great seers and prophets before her have. It is the burden of her gift, I suppose.”
Sachina and Singh turned and began discussing Kalani’s unusually long revelation among themselves, and it seemed that neither noticed how the sailor had avoided answering the question regarding the Mantis Clan Champion.
Somewhere in the seas of Rokugan
For as far as Moshi Eihime could see in every direction, Mantis ships dotted the seas. The majority of the Second and Third Storms were assembled here, perhaps the largest collection of Mantis samurai in one place outside the islands since the War of Fire & Thunder. It made Eihime uneasy, although for admittedly unusual reasons.
“I know that look,” rumbled the Mantis Clan Champion.
“Forgive me, my lord,” she said. “I mean no disrespect.”
“Just come out with it,” Yoritomo Naizen said. “We have much to do today and I would prefer to spend as much of the day free of brooding subordinates as possible.”
Eihime gestured to take in the entire horizon. “Is this beneficial, Naizen-sama? Are we accomplishing anything?”
“The Thunder Dragon is weakened from its journey to the mortal realm,” Naizen said. “You saw that yourself. It needs time to replenish its strength, and then there will be no point in our defending it.”
“Is there any point now?” Eihime asked. “No one knows that Thunder now dwells within the mortal realm save for us, and we only know because of your link to it through the helmet you bear. No one would every find it except that there just happens to be a massive fleet seemingly located in the middle of the ocean for no apparent reason.” She shook her head. “We risk attracting attention. We are placing the dragon at greater risk.”
“Greater risk?” Naizen almost laughed. “There is almost nothing in the mortal realm that could threaten it in the first place! We are here to deflect threats that are not worth its attention or, if it comes to that, to briefly delay any threat that can pose a danger to it, so that it might have more time to flee.” He paused and considered for a moment. “Think of us as something of an… honor guard.”
Eihime pursed her lips. It was clear from her body language that she disagree, but she only bowed. “I follow your command, my Champion.” She was silent for a few moments after rising, then turned back over her shoulder. “How long does a thing such as the Thunder Dragon require to replenish its strength, do you suppose?”
“I have no idea,” Naizen replied honestly. “With the rather obvious exception of the Fire Dragon’s presence in the Imperial City last year, this is a completely unknown event. No one knows what to expect.”
“I saw that you had spoken to Sayoko.”
Naizen nodded. Moshi Sayoko was the head sensei of Tempest Island, the most prestigious of the Yoritomo family’s shugenja temples. “She believes that she has discovered a means of assisting the dragon,” he said. “The whole thing sounded completely foreign to me, but it had something to do with a ritual that would forge a bond between individual shugenja and the dragon, allowing each to draw on the power of the other. Hundreds of shugenja could lend their power to the dragon and give it strength, while individuals among their ranks could draw on a tiny fragment of its power, enough to give them incredible abilities while the dragon would scarcely notice the sensation.”
Eihime frowned. “That sounds dangerous, my lord, and risky. Does it not sound like the mingling of a mortal’s soul with that of a demon? Not that I compare the Thunder Dragon to a demon,” she added hastily, “but I would think the loss of self would be a terrible risk.”
“If possessing thunder in one’s soul is a risk, then all Mantis suffer from it already,” Naizen said.
The shout came from the lookout that Naizen had stationed atop the tallest mast of his personal ship the man had lashed himself in place and spent the past few hours scanning the waters around the ship for any sign of disturbance. He would likely have baked in the sun if not for the crude shelter he had created by rigging a heavy cloth to keep the sun off of his head. “What is it?” Naizen roared up at him.
“The water, captain!” the man shouted back, forgetting the proper form of address in his obvious panic. “Something in the water!”
Naizen grabbed a heavy yari and stormed to the side, looking over into the choppy sea, hunting for any sight of something that might pose a threat. He swore at how murky the water was, allowing him only glimpses of movement amid the cloudy depths. “Can you clear the water?” he demanded.
“I command the winds, my lord,” Eihime answered, “not the seas.”
“I should have sent you to the capital and brought Kalani!” Naizen roared. “If I told him to find out what it was he would dive in with a knife in his teeth!”
“Be at ease, storm-soul human.” The strange voice bubbled up from the waters, distorted but completely comprehensible all the same. “We mean no harm. We seek the avatar of the Spawn Father. We sensed its arrival.”
“Who speaks?” Naizen demanded. “Show yourself!”
“As you like.” The waters churned for a moment, and an inhuman face appeared amid the waves, surfacing rapidly and revealing a green, finned body that was easily borne above the waves by the stirring of a powerful tail barely visible below the surface.
“Who are you?” Eihime asked, staring. “Are you…”
“Yes,” the creature answered. “I am Sakarah of the Ningyo, and we wish to join you in your defense of the avatar.”
* * *
Whether or not the city of Toshi Ranbo was the largest in the Empire was a matter of some debate among those who were interested in such topics. A decade earlier none would ever have made such a claim, but since it had become the new Imperial City it had expanded at a rate that was simply staggering to witness for long-time residents. Some claimed that Toshi Ranbo had exceeded the size of Ryoko Owari Toshi, the largest city in the Scorpion lands, but most agreed that there was no way to be certain, and indeed many were of the opinion that it did not matter in the least.
Isawa Emori had always found himself in the latter group. He had enjoyed his stays in the Imperial City, although in all honesty there had only ever been one stay of note. Still, during the year that the Phoenix Clan had occupied the city, his status as the Master of Earth had placed him among the city’s highest ranking samurai, and he had enjoyed all the city had to offer. Although tales of the debauchery that were available in Ryoko Owari had always intrigued him, he suspected that the social environment there would be a bit more sinister than he would have found appealing.
He raised his eyebrows for a moment. “Hmm? Oh, yes. I apologize. Please, follow me.” In his musing, he had almost forgotten his guest. He smiled politely, and continued walking through the stacks of scrolls that filled this particular library. “I am sure he will be somewhere in… ah, yes. Here we are.”
The two shugenja had rounded a corner and discovered a middle-aged man sitting atop a large table, surrounded by dozens of scrolls, reading one and humming merrily to himself. The man was so engrossed that he did not appear to notice their approach. It would have seemed a comical scene, had Emori not seen the exact same thing at least a dozen times before. “Master Bairei?”
Asako Bairei looked up, and for once, he appeared to Emori to be both well rested and nourished. “Emori-san!” he said happily. “Do you know that the Miya have not only retained the cataloging system I implemented while we were guests in the city, but completed the process in this library and two others? What industrious people, those Miya! I miss the city terribly.”
“I am pleased to hear it, Bairei-san,” Emori said. “However, I have come on another matter. Have you spoken to Ochiai-sama since yesterday?”
“I do not believe so,” Bairei said, frowning slightly. Emori could easily imagine he was trying to determine what day it was. “Does she have need of me?”
“Not to my knowledge, no,” Emori continued. “She did, however, select a candidate to take the place of Tamori Nakamuro.”
“Ah,” said Bairei, his jubilant mood dissipating at once. “What a terrible loss. Such a brilliant mind and noble principles. I will miss him terribly.”
“As will we all,” the woman accompanying Emori said.
“Oh,” Bairei said. “Hello! I apologize. It was not my intent to be rude. I am Asako Bairei.”
“I know you, Master of Water,” the woman said with a slight smile. “I am a tremendous admirer of your work, my lord.”
“Bairei-san, this is Isawa Mitsuko. Ochiai-sama selected her as the new Master of Air. She is to sit upon the Elemental Council with us.”
“How delightful!” Bairei said. He rubbed his chin for a moment. “Your name sounds familiar to me, but… you will have to forgive me, my dear, but I am not as gifted with names as I am dates and facts. They just seem to… slip away.” He paused. “Until they pass away, of course. Once an individual is dead I seem to be able to recall virtually anything I learn about them. It really is quite peculiar and I wonder what it might say about my character…”
“Bairei,” Emori said gently. “Mitsuko-san is a student of Nakamuro’s, of course, and of Asako Juro as well.”
“A student of Juro’s, you say,” Bairei said. “Are you an Inquisitor?”
“I am,” Mitsuko replied. “Or I was. It may be that this responsibility will make my other duties impossible to continue.”
“An Inquisitor,” Bairei mused. “I suppose that explains the behavior of young Emori here!”
Mitsuko raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Indeed. I do not believe I have ever been with him in the presence of a woman as lovely as yourself without him resorting to…”
“Bairei-san,” Emori interrupted, “I do have a request from Ochiai-sama.”
“Oh, of course,” Bairei said. “What is it the Master of Fire desires?”
“You have a greater historical perspective than the rest of us,” Emori continued. “She hopes that you will prepare your thoughts for her regarding the creation of this new Dynasty.”
“I would be delighted.” The older man’s face lit up noticeably. “Is it not glorious? I only wish that the entire Council could have been present at her coronation. It was most unorthodox, of course, but surely nothing of such substance has occurred in Rokugan since the dawn of the Empire.”
“It was a glorious day for the Empire,” Mitsuko agreed. “I only hope that the other clans will recognize the will of the Heavens when they see it. It is rare for most to show such awareness of the Celestial Order being made manifest.”
“I believe few who actually witnessed the event, or who find themselves in the presence of the Empress, will have room for doubt,” Emori added.
“Still,” the new Master of Air said, “I find myself with some doubts regarding the Empress’ closest advisors. Some among them seem to be of what I would consider questionable character.”
“We can but rest assured that our faith in the Empress is not misplaced,” Bairei said. “And there are many among her chosen advisors whose presence in which we can take comfort. Togashi Satsu is among the finest men I have ever known, and I understand that the new Shogun retained the services of Shiba Danjuro-san. That is the action of a wise man, in my estimation.”
“It is interesting that you should mention that, Bairei-sama,” Mitsuko said. “I had hoped for an opportunity to make inquiries of you related to your judgment of character.”
“Indeed. That is why I asked Emori-san to introduce us. I require your counsel.”
Bairei smiled. “I would be happy to be of use.”
“I understand that you were one of those who worked with Juro-sama and sensei Isawa Sawao to develop the theory related to the destruction of the Dark Oracles, is that correct?”
“That is something of an overstatement,” Bairei said. “They did the greatest amount of the work. They simply asked me to look over their findings and verify them, which I happily did.”
“Still,” she persisted, “you are familiar with the work done thus far?”
“I am,” he confirmed. “The death of the Dark Oracle of Earth is reason for all Phoenix to celebrate. And, thus far, there is no indication whatsoever that there has been another manifestation of his power anywhere in the Empire.”
“You know of Isawa Mizuhiko, then.”
Bairei smiled again, but this time more wistfully. “A former student of mine, yes.”
“And what do you think of him?”
Bairei did not answer right away. He reached down to a bowl of water that sat next to him on the table, and trailed his finger through it, just barely grazing the surface. Images flickered in the water, many of the young priest Mizuhiko. “He is a good man. His will is strong, and his command over the kami considerable. There is a disquiet in his spirit, however, and I fear that it will cause him great difficulty before he heals the wound in his spirit.”
“Not all men are capable of healing spiritual wounds,” Mitsuko observed. “Would you not say that is correct, Emori-san?”
“I… what?” The Master of Earth seemed confused by the question.
“I hope it is not your intent to use your new position to facilitate an inquisition of dutiful Phoenix samurai undeserving of such attention,” Bairei said, his tone clear and his attention fully focused on the others. “Not only will I not assist in such an endeavor, I will not abide it either.”
“That is not my intent,” Mitsuko said with a slight bow. “I have heard specific rumors regarding Mizuhiko, and that is all. I wish to assure myself that there is nothing of substance regarding them.”
“Any allegations against other Phoenix that I can allay, I will gladly do so,” Bairei said. “I find them generally unfounded and without substance, as you say. Take, for instance, the case of Isawa Tokiko.”
Mitsuko frowned. “I am not familiar with that name, I fear.”
“A student of Shiba Ningen, Master of the Void,” Emori supplied. “Some have suggested that she is… less than stable. This is not an uncommon allegation with regard to the ishiken, of course.”
“Those who commune with the Void do occasionally present a problem,” Mitsuko acknowledged. “I am not familiar with such a case in at least a generation, however.”
“She was sent on a mission to the Mantis lands,” Bairei explained, “perhaps to rid Kyuden Isawa of her presence, perhaps not. Regardless, during the rash of assassinations against the Empire, it was Tokiko who saved the life of Tsuruchi Nobumoto while staying at Shiro Ashinagabachi. That single act has been a tremendous boon to our relationship with the Mantis Clan.” He held up a finger. “Do not be so quick to judge, Mitsuko-san. While we often bear heavy burdens for our rapport with the kami, we have also contributed greatly to the empire. Many live and prosper now, because we have had acted while others hesitated.”
Mitsuko bowed. “I will endeavor to live up to the example set by men such as yourselves, and by the Lady Ochiai.”
Bairei smiled and nodded. “That is all we could ask for.”
* * *
For far too long, the Imperial Palace had seemed more like a tomb than an actual palace. The death of the Empress Toturi Kurako and most of her guardians during the attempt by the Unicorn Clan to seize control of the city a year and a half ago had left a terrible stain in the minds of many. That many attendants of the previous Imperial Court had been slaughtered on the balcony by hungry spirits likewise cast a shadow over the palace. Or at least it had until a few days ago.
The sight of the new Empress, the Divine Child of the Heavens, arriving in the city, protected by one thousand Seppun guards in their most splendid armor, had been a spectacle that none who saw it was ever likely to forget. Bayushi Norachai had wept at the sight of the Empress ascending the stairs to enter the Imperial Palace, and he had done so without shame. Like many of the city’s more jaded citizens, he had found himself questioning the validity of a Kitsuki ascending to the position. It seemed so… random. And yet when he had seen her, in that moment when she had turned and favored her subjects by gazing lovingly upon them, he had known. There was no miraculous parting of the heavens, as was rumored to have happened at Seppun Hill. She did not lay on hands and heal the sick. She simply smiled, and that was all that was required. There could be no mistaking that this was indeed the Divine Empress, and that the Heavens had endorsed her rule. It was in that moment that, for the first time since his friend and mentor, the previous Emerald Champion, had died that he felt true hope for the Empire.
Today followed behind the new Emerald Champion, saying nothing, as they entered the palace to meet with the Empress. The new champion was nothing like Yasuki Hachi, and at his direction, Norachai had embraced his disgraceful reputation, using it and other resources at his command to become a scourge of all who threatened the Scorpion. His life had purpose once more, one that had little to do with his position as Protector of the Imperial City, and he valued that purpose even as he loathed himself for it.
“Hisoka,” Shosuro Jimen called out as the two men walked down one of the broad hallways. It was one of the only times that Norachai could immediately recall hearing what appeared to be genuine happiness. “I believe congratulations are in order, my friends,” the Emerald Champion said. “The Imperial Chancellor? What a prestigious appointment! I can think of none more deserving.”
Bayushi Hisoka’s features twisted into a smile that Norachai was certain had thawed the hearts of hundreds of women. “Thank you, Jimen-san. I am quite sure we will be able to coordinate our efforts.”
Norachai noticed the other man farther along the corridor, and stepped out from behind Jimen to bow deeply. “Togashi Satsu-sama,” he said.
Satsu stopped and bowed to all three Scorpion. “Carry the Fortunes, friends,” he said. “Jimen-sama, Norachai-sama, it is a pleasure to see you again.”
“It is we who are honored to meet with the Voice of the Empress,” Jimen said, returning the bow. “We have come to pay our respects to the Empress and offer our services in whatever capacity she requires.”
Satsu nodded his head respectfully. “I have no doubt that the Empress will have need of the Emerald Champion and the Protector of the Imperial City, particularly when the positions are filled by such talented individuals such as yourself.”
“I look forward to it very much, as I am sure Norachai-san does as well,” Jimen said smoothly. “I have a few questions I wish to address to the Empress. They are relatively minor matters, but ones I feel warrant her attention.”
“That will not be possible.” Satsu’s tone was genuinely regretful. “The Empress does not grant audiences.”
Jimen seemed surprised, but only for a moment. “And I am certain we all agree that is wise, given the record of treachery against the throne in living memory. As you say, however, I am the Emerald Champion.”
“And I have no doubt that should the Empress require a duel fought on her behalf, a matter of law enforcement dealt with, or someone to command her legions in the absence of the Shogun, that she will call upon you, Jimen-sama, and that you will perform your duties with the efficiency that the entire Empire has come to respect. But none see the Empress unless she summons them. Those were her words.”
Jimen considered Satsu’s words. Norachai could see that the Emerald Champion was assessing what he clearly now considered a new threat. “And you are the only one permitted unrestricted access?”
“The Divine Empress selected me as her Voice,” Satsu said. “She chose me to carry her word to her people. Only those she specifically summons may have the privilege of hearing her divine voice. That is her will, not mine.”
“And how would one know that?” Jimen asked. “All I, or any of us, have to base that assumption on is your word. Imagine that your position and mine were exchanged. Would you feel comfortable with the possibility, however remote, that one man had usurped control of the Empire purely by restricting access to its ruler? I know the notion makes me most uncomfortable.”
Satsu smiled very slightly. “Call my honor into question if it pleases you to do so,” he said. “It affects me not at all. However, by implying that such an act is even possible against the Heavenly Dynasty calls into question the divinity of the Empress, and that is something I will not permit.”
“I see,” Jimen said. “How exactly do you propose to deal with such a thing, then? To challenge her personal champion to a duel because he fulfilled his mandate in inquiring after the Empress’ safety and well-being?”
Satsu’s features darkened very slightly, and Norachai was grateful when Hisoka interceded. “My lords,” he said smoothly, “I think we are all of us allowing our passion for our duties to overwhelm our senses. May I suggest that perhaps we discuss this matter on another day? I feel certain that when Jimen-sama speaks with the Empress in court, he will come to understand, as we have, that her will cannot be suborned to another’s. And, Satsu-sama, I trust that you will come to understand that the Emerald Champion is our ally in our defense of the Empress and her court, and as such is undeserving of our enmity.”
The two men stood staring at one another unflinchingly, and then Satsu bowed. “Forgive my defensiveness, Jimen-sama. I mean no disrespect to a man of your station.”
Jimen likewise bowed. “I fear I am a product of my times, Satsu-sama. I have seen too many Emperors come to an undeserved fate. If I overstep my boundaries, I apologize for my presumption.”
Satsu smiled. “I will inform each of you personally when the Empress intends to convene her first court. As you surely know, Hisoka-san has arranged for it to be held at Kyuden Bayushi this winter, but I feel certain the Empress will hold at least a brief session in the palace prior to her departure. I am certain she will wish to meet those who serve in her name, such as yourselves.”
“Thank you, Satsu-sama,” Norachai said, and watched the man depart.
“Forgive my intrusion,” Hisoka said. “However, I assure you that Satsu is not a man you wish as an enemy, my friend. Not even the great Shosuro Jimen would enjoy difficulty of the magnitude that would bring.”
“No, you were right to intervene,” Jimen said. “Satsu now feels somewhat apologetic for his actions, and views you as a more trustworthy colleague. It was well played, friend.”
Hisoka’s smile was warm. “I am certain I have no idea what you mean.” He bowed. “If you will excuse me, cousins, I have work to attend to. Paneki-sama desires a list of potential attendees as soon as possible, and I hope to have one prepared for him by the day’s end. Carry the Fortunes.”
“And you as well,” Norachai said.
“Well that was certainly interesting,” Jimen remarked as the two departed. He seemed genuinely entertained by the entire affair. “I imagine that the political environment here in the capital will become much more amusing from this point forward. It will be most enjoyable!” He glanced along the corridor to ensure that no one else was around. “While I have your ear, Norachai, there is another matter that will require your unique talents. There is a merchant patron in town, affiliated loosely with the Ide, who has been interfering with a number of vital clan endeavors along the Lion border. I have a notion as to how it might be handled, and I think it is something at which you would excel. Perhaps we can discuss it over…”
Jimen stopped, raising one eyebrow. “Excuse me?” he said quietly.
“No more,” Norachai said. “I was a weak-minded fool to ever sell my soul so cheaply.” He glanced back down the corridor to where the Empress’ private chambers remained. “No more. My honor may be gone, but that does not mean I cannot reclaim it.”
Far from seeming angry, Jimen actually chuckled. “You cannot possibly be serious. Redemption? You?”
“We shall see,” Norachai said. “If any on your list of targets are criminals operating or even residing temporarily within the Imperial City, then give me their names and they will cease to be an issue. Not because I have had them disposed of, but because I will have executed my duties and held them accountable for their actions.” He paused and glanced out of one of the windows at the city beyond. “I will cleanse this city of all unworthy of the Empress’ presence, even if I must burn entire sections of it to do so. I will be the Protector of the Imperial City, perhaps for the first time.”
“You know,” Jimen mused after a few moments’ consideration, “I had given up all hope that you would ever find that steel hidden within you.” He chuckled again. “That day some months ago when we had our… conversation? I had wondered if it would surface, or be submerged forever. I thought you had been lost. That would have been perfectly fine, really, as I have enjoyed a pawn of your skill. Now, however,” he trailed off. “Now I suppose we shall have to see what comes of it.”
“I suppose we shall.”
The two men continued down the hallway. After a short distance, incredibly, Jimen began to hum a merry tune. “This really has been a fantastic day. I cannot remember being surprised so many times in one day in years.”
Anger bubbled to the surface in Norachai’s mind. “Life is not a game, Jimen-sama.”
“And that is where you are mistaken,” the Emerald Champion corrected. “When you understand that, truly understand it, on that day you will have achieved your true potential, Norachai.”
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