By Rusty Priske & Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
Mirumoto Mareshi slept fitfully. Through the haze of his dreams he heard voices and saw an orange glow. The voices were faint and spoke in a language that seemed at once familiar and utterly alien to Mareshi’s thoughts.
The haze became smoke and the glow became flickers of light at the edges of his perception. He made no effort to find the source of the smoke and light for it was merely a dream. Mareshi was too practical a man to worry about dreams.
His mother’s scream changed that.
* * *
Shiba Ningen also slept. In his sleep he found himself walking through tall grass, on a bright and sunny plain. He never walked alone, but his companion was fluid. Sometimes it was a childhood friend. Other times it was his former master. Then it was a large, white nezumi.
“Ah, Kan’ok’ticheck. It is good to see you.”
The white rat said nothing for a moment and then said, “Why do you sleep?”
Ningen chuckled. “Is this a philosophical question, my friend? Or are you asking about how the human body works?”
Ningen saw the irritation in Kan’ok’ticheck’s manner. It was subtle enough that one not accustomed to the nezumi would not recognize the signs. “No. Why do you sleep now?”
The smile left Ningen’s face. “What are you trying to tell me? What is wrong?”
The green fields vanished and in their place Ningen was surrounded by fire. His skin did not burn, but he could not help but cringe from the heat that should have been there. As he watched, he saw another nezumi – Chi’kel – run screaming from the flames. His fur was alight and the fire engulfed him. He fell, writhing in agony, before he stopped moving completely.
Ningen flew up, away from the fire, through no effort of his own. He floated high above a great forest that had become a great conflagration. Ningen put a hand to his mouth. “No. The Shinomen burns.”
Shiba Ningen jolted awake.
* * *
“We must move now!”
Moto Chen looked at his wife as she moved around their chamber, gathering up items left out for a quick departure. Akasha always moved gracefully, but Chen could see a frantic edge in her motions.
“What is it? Stop for a moment and tell me what is going on.”
“Vyakarana is threatened. All the Naga are threatened. The forest burns. It may be too late. We will never be able to get there in time!”
Chen, long accustomed to Akasha’s manner, began gathering things for a journey. “The men we stationed after the war with the Lion concluded, they are not enough?”
Akasha’s silence hung heavily over the couple as they left the room.
* * *
Moto Jin-sahn peered through the leaves of the forest and sniffed the air. “Normally I would worry that the trail had gone cold.”
Shiba Danjuro did not smile. “This shows the rightness of our cause. People who would burn the forest simply to cover their escape are not foes to be respected.”
The Shogun turned his head slightly, “Fumiyo!”
The Lion samurai moved forward. “Yes, Shogun-sama?”
“Prepare the troops. We must stop this fire, but we must also finish our mission. Divide the men. Quickly.”
Fumiyo bowed. “Right away, Shogun-sama.”
Jin-sahn returned his full attention back to the signs of fire on the wind. “The Lords of Death find such wanton destruction wasteful. Those I send to judgment will not find them merciful.”
* * *
Nintai flexed his paws in exasperation. “We must go! Now! The flames inch closer by the moment!”
Ikoma Tenjin never looked up. “We will, but not without these scrolls. We must preserve what we have learned.”
Nintai looked at the five Ikoma scrambling around the temple, bundling up their writings. “Is history worth your lives?”
Tenjin stopped momentarily, looked at the last living kitsu, and said, “Yes. Yes, it is. That is why it is my duty to ask you to leave us.”
Nintai opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Tenjin cut him off.
“You are history, Nintai-sama. You are more important than this entire temple. We are prepared to die for it, but we beg that you do not die for us.”
Nintai bowed, then turned and left the temple.
* * *
Hida Fubatsu ran through the trees the best he could. His companions, Qolsa and Zamalash, could make much better time than he could, so he told them to not wait. The Naga had to be protected and Fubatsu did not want to keep them from doing so.
Still, that left him alone in a forest that was rapidly becoming more dangerous. Fubatsu did not feel scared, but how could one man fight off a force of nature?
He continued to run, though he was not sure exactly where he was going. At first he tried to follow the trail of the Naga going before him, but they left little for him to follow, and he was no tracker.
Fubatsu looked forward and saw that the flames had moved. His current path offered no further access, so he turned to find that the orange glow had moved all around. While his death was not imminent, Fubatsu could see quite plainly that he would not be walking out of the Shinomen under his own power.
He pushed down his pride and began calling for help.
* * *
Moto Kunio waved his arm and his fellow Moto spurred their horses forward, pulling the partially cut tree down from its stump. “Drag it that way! Away from the fire!” They had been working at making a break for the fire for hours, and were far from making a difference. The forest was too dense and the trees too strong.
Kunio wiped his grimy brow and poured some of his precious supply of water over the head and neck of his horse. He turned to Moto Jabat and said, “The Lion hunt while we play as fire-wardens.”
“Our duty is clear. We need to stop this fire from reaching the Naga city. Nothing is more important than that.”
Kunio nodded. “Now, let’s tie off to that tree. The big one over…” He trailed off as he looked at the fire past the tree line they were trying to pull down. There was something in the flames. Something that could not be there.
When the goblins burst from the flames, screeching in pain and madness, Kunio hesitated, for just a moment. It was a moment he could ill afford. They hit him like a wave before his katana was clear of its saya. His horse fell under the assault, pinning his leg to the ground. One of the goblins pounced, wrapping its gangly limbs around Kunio’s head as he struggled in vain to throw it off.
They died together as the fire continued its inexorable advance.
* * *
Matsu Hatsuyo motioned towards the samurai on her flank. They watched as she passed on her orders, while never uttering a sound. They had been following the trail of their prey, a group that had left the dark castle as the fires were starting. Through the glow and smoke, they had finally reached them.
“Little Lion, do you not have anything better to do?”
As Hatsuyo watched, first one, then another, then more figures stepped from the haze. It seems that their prey was not oblivious to their presence. She called out, “My orders were to find you and end your lives. Nothing is more important than that.”
Roshungi stared at his enemy and laughed. “Typical. You don’t even know when you have lost. That is why Rokugan will be ours one day. Where you refuse to accept the inevitable, we adapt. A setback means only an opportunity to alter our initial plans. You see your certain death, surrounded by flames, and you insist on sticking with your original orders.”
“You see this as a weakness. I see it as a strength. We do not fail.” Hatsuyo then called out to the Lion samurai around her. “These are our targets, samurai. Do your duty!”
* * *
Yasuki Jinn-Kuen walked through the halls of Kyuden Hida, wishing that he was somewhere else. Samurai were not supposed to know fear, but over the years Jinn-Kuen had found a number of things that could inspire that feeling in him and Hida Kuon was near the top of that list. He walked slowly, but walked all the same–he was a Crab, and he would not be put off by fear.
The sentries looked him over carefully before admitting him to the room; Jinn-Kuen didn’t bother to notice them. Entering he found that the others were already there. Hida Kuon, Reiha, his wife and most trusted advisor; Hiruma Todori, the Hiruma daimyo, and finally Hida Otoya, the late shogun’s advisor who had sworn fealty to the Crab. Jinn-Kuen bowed deeply to Kuon and his wife, somewhat more shallowly to Todori, and shallower still to Otoya.
“Now that you are here, we can get started,” Kuon said. He straightened up from the map table he was examining and crossed the room to sit next to Reiha. “Otoya, report.”
“We have made few advances this month, but with both sides going to winter standing that is to be expected. Our position is strong, strategically speaking, and we should be able to finish pushing the Crane out of the province come spring.”
“Pushing them out isn’t the problem,” Todori said. “How are we going to keep them out?” It is as if they know our land better than we do!”
“They do,” Otoya said, tapping on the map table. Seeing the looks the others gave him he shrugged slightly. “The Daidoji have spent the last thousand years learning the art of war from the Lion, the hard way. The first thing one of them does, when he is put in authority over a piece of land, is to find the available maps of it. And if they are not accurate enough, he orders new ones made. When the Crane declared war, you may be certain they had Ya… they had the late Emerald Champion’s maps of the Yasuki province.”
Kuon’s scowled slightly, but Reiha spoke before he did. “In the end it will do them no good; they must have used up most of their tricks by now. When the winter ends we will show them that one needs real strength to defeat the Crab.”
“Forgive me, Reiha-sama,” Jinn-Kuen said quietly. The words were bitter in his mouth, like cheap tea over-brewed. “When winter ends we will lose the Yasuki lands. If we have not done so before then.”
There was a moment of silence as the others stared at him. “Explain,” Kuon said. Jinn-Kuen swallowed nervously; his champion’s voice held not a hint of anger, and that was a bad sign. “Kuon-sama, we do not have the finances to support the army in the Yasuki provinces. At this moment there are enough supplies to maintain them through the end of the month. After that….” He made a dismissive gesture.
“How?” Todori asked. “Didn’t you make a bundle on tea this year?”
“It will all go to the Wall,” Jinn-Kuen said. “Maintaining it is always our clan’s greatest expense, and this year it is more expensive than ever–the Crane have seen to that.”
“So we either weaken our defense of the Wall,” Todori said, “or we leave our forces in the Yasuki provinces to starve.”
“If we were to bring the matter up in the Imperial Court, we could call attention to the Crane’s actions,” Reiha said.
“If we could bring it up? Reiha-sama, at this moment Doji Nagori is praying to the Fortunes in hope that I will do such a thing. For us to admit in the Imperial Court that we cannot defend our claim on the Yasuki lands would be a gift that he would cherish forever.” Jinn-Kuen paused, remembering again the moment when he realized that Domotai really was serious about defending Doji Kurohito’s honor, and that he was fighting against the focused might of the Crane political machine. “There is nothing I can do in the courts to improve our position. I have failed you, Kuon-sama. I have no excuses.”
“We have no options in court, my lord,” Otoya’s dry, clinical voice broke in, “but we still have military solutions. Specifically, the Damned. I have begun the process of moving them to the Yasuki lands–since they are expendable we need not budget supplies for the long term, and when the Crane start losing their own lands they will be more agreeable in court.”
Todori stared at the advisor in gape-mouthed horror. Reiha took a sharp intake of breath. Jinn-Kuen quelled his first impulse, which was to stand behind Reiha, and concentrated on becoming as inconspicuous as possible. Kuon leaned forward slightly. “You would use the Damned against the Crane?” he asked. The tone was neutral, but the ones who had been born Crab could hear what lay beneath it.
Otoya nodded. “They have a devastating quality that even regular Crab berserkers cannot match. I cannot think of–”
“YOU WOULD USE TAINT AGAINST THE EMPIRE?” Kuon was on his feet now.
Otoya swayed slightly from the volume, finally seeming to take in the reactions of the others. Then he straightened up and looked Kuon in the eye. “My Champion, my only thought was to advance the good of the Crab Clan,” he said. “If my plan displeases you, I can rescind the order.” Brazen, Jinn-Kuen thought, but smart; if there was anything that Kuon hated more than the Taint, it was cowardice. He watched with fascination as Kuon started walking towards Otoya–and then continued on past him.
The advisor closed his eyes for a moment, and then startled like everyone else as Kuon’s fist drove down onto the map table. The table was plain but solidly built, and like most things in a Crab castle had been made with the idea that it should serve as a weapon in a pinch. It took Kuon an entire minute to rip it apart with his hands, and after he finished he stood with his back to the others, looking down on the wreckage. “Jinn-Kuen,” he said.
Jinn-Kuen made himself step forward. “Yes, my lord?”
“Send word to the Crane. Ask for terms.”
Jinn-Kuen bowed his head. He had pored over his reports for hours, trying to avoid this moment, and even after he given up he had cherished a small hope that Hida valor could accomplish what koku could not. “Your will, my lord,” he said, his voice almost a whisper. He had always maintained that coin was more powerful than honor, and now the Crane had made him an object lesson in that truth. “With your permission, I will draft the letter now.”
“Go,” Kuon said. “All of you–go.”
* * *
Qolsa and Zamalash felt the concern of their kin before seeing them. The Asps were nearby, but did not flee the flames as would be expected.
Qolsa reached out through the akasha. “What is it? Why do you not come to us?”
The one called Bendish thought, “Our charges do not come. They sent us ahead, but we have been cut off. The temple is surrounded by men of the foul.”
“We must go to the city. Our first priority must be to our people.”
“We have sworn an oath. The people of the temple must be protected.”
“Then let us return, and ensure they are safe, before continuing.”
Bendish made no sound as he and the other Asps stopped and turned around. Chi’kel was frantic. “What-what are you doing? We must-must go! Flee!”
Bendish turned to the nezumi and said, “There is no way out. The men who are responsible for this blaze keep us from leaving.”
Chi’kel turned to Nintai. “They are mad! Come-come! We run! We can sneak past!”
Nintai looked at Chi’kel then back to the Naga. “I never should have tried to leave them. You run, Chi’kel. Get clear of the forest as fast as you can. I will not leave.”
Chi’kel watched as Nintai and the Naga hurried back to the temple. The nezumi shook his head. “Mad. They are mad.”
* * *
Of all the things Fubatsu expected to see coming through the forest, none of them were his brother. “Fubatsu! Thank the kami!”
“Jumetsu? What are you doing here? How did you find me?”
“I was already coming to find you when I saw the fire. I heard that those Naga had taken you and I had to know. I found one of them and they spoke to each other the way that they do, and they found one of them that knew where you were.”
“Qolsa and Zamalash. I was following them but I got cut off. How did you make it to me? Is there a path past the fire?”
Jumetsu shook his head. “I made it through but the fire moved behind me. I was looking for shelter when I heard your voice. But look, I found something!” Jumetsu rushed through the growth with Fubatsu following along.
“What is it?” Fubatsu looked at the stone block, leaning against a small rise.
“Here, help me pull. There is an arch behind it.”
Fubatsu saw that his brother was correct. They had to clear the greenery that had grown over the stone, as well as pulling back roots from a tree that had grown on the rise since the stone was last moved. They were Crab, though, and their strength and perseverance granted them access to the passage leading down into the earth.
They squeezed past the stone and into a tunnel behind it, carrying a torch made from a fallen branch. The tunnel was not roughhewn. The stones lining the walls and ceiling were well crafted. “It looks Kaiu.” Fubatsu did not answer. Where there were cracks from age, roots poked through. At one point a massive root system from what must have been a monstrous tree nearly blocked the entire passage, but the Crab forced their way past.
“Do you feel the air?” Jumetsu asked. “It feels cooler. I think we will be able to wait out the fire down here.”
The passage opened into a chamber that was decorated by faded frescoes and wall carvings. The two Crab looked on in wonder. “It looks like some sort of temple.” Jumetsu said as he examined the walls under the torchlight. “Is it Naga?”
Fubatsu shook his head. “No. It doesn’t match what I have seen from them. It looks more like a temple to one of the Fortunes, but to none of the Fortunes I know.”
“Wait, here is an inscription. It looks like you were right. This is for someone called the Fortune of Names. Names? What does that mean?”
Fubatsu shook his head. “I have no idea.”
Jumetsu held the torch higher to see the remains of a painted image. “Wait… is this a ratling?”
* * *
The Lion attacked the Spider ferociously. The Spider had chosen the field of battle, and had done so well, as they had the advantage of height and cover. They could not match the Lion’s skill, however. For every two Lion that fell, three Spider did the same. Hatsuyo tried to take the fight to Roshungi, but could not find the monk in the chaos of battle. Roshungi struck at will, through the Lion ranks, using his speed to kill a Lion, or distract him so that one of the Spider samurai could finish the job, and then disappear back into the smoke, Lion after Lion left lifeless from his assaults.
Hatsuyo found herself facing a much larger man. His katana marked him as a former samurai, but his features showed that he had been given over to the taint long ago. He appeared unable to speak through the scars on his face and he only grunted at the smaller Lion who meant to end his life.
Hatsuyo saw the motion at the edge of her vision. She ducked and spun as Roshungi slashed at what would have been the back of her neck with a daito. She answered the attack with a katana swing at his shins, but he leapt above the arc of her blade.
She pressed the attack, refusing to give him a moment to vanish back into the smoke. His agility kept him one step away of her thrusts, but Hatsuyo saw the patterns in his movements and adjusted. She feinted and as he moved to avoid the perceived threat, her katana met him.
Roshungi looked at her with surprise as he felt his innards leap to join the forest floor. As he fell to his knees he smiled. With his last awareness he watched the tainted brute separate Hatsuyo’s head from her body with one mighty swing.
* * *
“The Crab will testify in the Imperial Court that Doji Kurohito’s word was true, and that the Crane claim on the Yasuki provinces was legitimate,” Domotai said coolly.
“Yes, Lady Doji,” Jinn-Kuen said. He knelt before her in what he assumed was one of her private receiving rooms in Kyuden Doji, with only her chief bodyguard and an old scribe for witnesses. He did not know why she hadn’t made him do this in front of her assembled court, but he was grateful nevertheless: eventually the whole Empire would know that the Crab had lost, but at least no one would have watched them surrender.
“Also, to demonstrate to all that harmony has been restored between our two clans, you will take a Crane woman as your wife. I shall determine who that woman is.”
Jinn-Kuen winced inside. This would be a demand for him to accept a Crane spy into his household, one who undoubtedly had a covey of duelist relatives just waiting to avenge any insult, real or imagined, to her honor. “The grace and beauty of Crane women is known throughout the Empire, Lady Doji. I would be honored to accept such a wife.” He would just have to take extra precautions around her while at the same time treating her with the delicacy he normally reserved for dealing with high-strung Otomo courtiers. Kuon, he thought wearily, would never understand the sacrifice he was making for the good of the Crab.
Domotai smiled. “I’m sure,” she said. “For her dowry, we shall assign control of the Yasuki lands to you.”
Silence reigned in the room, and then Jinn-Kuen found his voice. “Lady Doji?”
“You have a question?” Domotai said.
“That…that puts them in Crab control.”
“As amazing as it may seem to you,” the sarcasm in her voice cut like the north wind, “I was aware of that.”
“I don’t…Lady Doji, I do not understand. The Crane won. Those are your lands.”
“And I can do as I will with them, with the Empress’s approval.” Domotai gave him a considering look. “Yasuki-san, I will be clear with you–but what I say must go to your Champion’s ears, and his alone. You are aware that this spring I was gifted with the private journal of the Righteous Emperor?”
“I am, Lady Doji.”
“In reading it, I became convinced that while it was the Emperor’s will that Yasuki Hachi take control of the Yasuki, he ultimately felt that it was in the Empire’s best interest for them to belong to the Crab. I am therefore honoring his wishes of the Throne by returning them to you.”
Jinn-Kuen looked at her skeptically. “You could have done that at any time and ended the war between us.”
“Impossible, while your clan’s insult to my clan stood. But now that has been cleared away, I can proceed.” She smiled.
If he lived a thousand years, Jinn-Kuen decided, he still would not understand the Crane. “Why then not make it public? It is surely an honorable thing to obey the wishes of an Emperor, even one that has passed on.”
Domotai’s smile grew a bit wider, and took on an impish quality. “Tell me, Yasuki-san, when the Scorpion hear that we have given you the Yasuki provinces, what will they do?”
“They’ll want to know why,” Jinn-Kuen said. “And no matter how hard you try to keep this a secret, their spies will find it out.”
“And when they learn that we gave up all title to the Yasuki provinces and the incomes it generates because it was the honorable course of action?”
“They–” Jinn-Kuen paused as one thought generated another. “They won’t believe it,” he said slowly. “So they will look harder, wondering how we managed to hide the real agreement from them.”
“We cannot keep the Scorpion from spying on our clans,” Domotai said, “but this should keep them busy for a little while.”
“For years,” Jinn-Kuen said. For the first time in weeks, he smiled. “You are a worthy opponent, Lady Doji.”
She nodded briefly, accepting the compliment, and then waved over the scribe. “It is time to sign the treaty,” she said.
* * *
Domotai waited until the Crab had left the room before trying to get up–she had reacquired the art of getting up gracefully, but there was no sense in taking unnecessary risks. She had barely begun when the door behind her slid open and Kusari hurried in. Domotai grinned to herself. Her husband knew better than to offer his help unasked, but nothing she could do would make him stop hovering around her, just in case.
“You were magnificent, my wife.”
“Thank you, my husband.” Domotai nodded at the old man, who picked up the treaty scrolls and slipped out of the room. “It has been a busy day: I have cleared my father’s name, carried out an Emperor’s plan, and gotten rid of a province that would have brought us nothing but trouble for years to come.”
“And settled a spy in the house of a troublesome courtier,” Kusari said.
“You are mistaken, my husband; I would never dream of putting a spy in the house of the new Yasuki daimyo. He is expecting that.” Domotai smiled. “Instead, I will see to it that she has only his best interests at heart, and will loyally make sure that he is kept aware of the duties of his new station. All of them.”
“It is not as complete a solution as killing him,” Kusari said thoughtfully, “but there is no blood feud to worry about afterwards. And it is very honorable.”
“Now we must wait to see if Nagori succeeds with his part in all of this,” Domotai said.
* * *
Electricity crackled through in the air around Fumiyo. She instinctively ducked her head while raising her katana, but the charge was not aimed at her. She watched a little shugenja sent a charge through one of the samurai at her side and could the smell the charred flesh as he fell beside her.
Matsu Fumiyo had led a unit of Lion after a small group of Spider assaulting some of the Unicorn scouts. She had very little patience or respect for the Unicorn, but they had been defending themselves well, against superior numbers. Fumiyo’s men had turned the tide back against the Spider for a moment. Until Fosuta appeared.
The Lion tried to cut their way through the Spider forces in order to join ranks with the Unicorn, but the blasts of energy kept that from being possible. Fumiyo watched the dangerous shugenja cackled while his beard splayed and stood out from his face as a result of the ambient energy around him.
Moto Najmudin watched the efforts of the Lion and tried to match them from his side, to equal effect. All his efforts did were to refocus some of the attentions of the Spider forces back towards the Unicorn. As his katana blocked a blow from Daigotsu Junichi, Najmudin thought how this battle would have gone far differently if the shogun had had more time to mobilize his forces.
Junichi suddenly twisted the naginata in his hand and sent Najmudin’s katana spiraling across the ash-strewn ground. As the Spider jumped back instead of following through on the attack, Najmudin instinctively knew what was to follow.
He barely had time to mutter a prayer to his gods when Fosuta’s blast tore through his body.
Fumiyo scrambled through her mind, trying to find a way to turn their looming defeat into a victory. She sought any sort of opening to turn the battle, but the moment she looked for came from on high.
The skies opened up, into the greatest deluge that Fumiyo had ever seen. It was if the kami had scooped up the great ocean itself and deposited it on top of the Shinomen Forest. A cry came from the back lines. “The Phoenix are coming!”
Daigotsu Junichi saw that the rain and imminent reinforcements were rallying their opponents. He knew that the enemy could still be broken, but he would have to act decisively. “Crush them! Now!” He turned to direct Fosuta to annihilate one of the pockets of resistance, only to see the Onyx Champion vanishing through the trees. “Coward! The battle can still be won!”
He turned back towards the Lion in a rage, but Fumiyo had found her opening. He drove his katana under Junichi’s helmet until the blade reappeared through its crest.
* * *
Akodo Seiichi and Isawa Mizuhiko walked through the scorched remains of the forest. “The intervention of the Phoenix was very welcome, Isawa-san. You saved the forest and many of the Shogun’s forces.”
“We were not alone, Akodo-san. The kami were with us, and our allies gave us the protection we needed to create a strong enough rainstorm to douse such an inferno. I only wish we could have saved more of the forest.”
“Better than three quarters of it still remains. The Naga beds were saved, thank the kami.”
Mizuhiko shook his head. “Not all. The Dragon have uncovered a temple, previously unknown to us, which many Naga awakened to defend. Alas, they were no match for the fire.”
“That is why we search. To find the extent of the destruction.”
“Hold, Seiichi-san. Do you hear that?” The Phoenix stopped and listened and the Lion followed suit.
“I hear nothing.”
“Come this way.”
Seiichi followed the jogging Isawa, though he had no idea what trail they were following. As they rounded a copse of burned out trunks, he saw the remains of a battle. One figure, covered in fur, scrambled into the doorway of a charred husk of a building as Mizuhiko ordered him to stop.
“Scavenger!” the Phoenix yelled.
Seiichi scanned the burned out building and the bodies strewn in front of it. “No, Mizuhiko-san. Hold. I don’t believe this is what you think.” He looked towards the ratling. “You are the one they call Chi’kel, are you not?”
Chi’kel stepped tentatively out around the burnt doorpost.
Seiichi continued. “This was the Temple to Te’tik’kir. This was your home. And these…” He looked at the ground. There were Naga and humans. Some of the humans wore Spider mons while the others were Lions. “The Ikoma.”
“I told-told them to run!” Chi’kel exclaimed. “They worry about papers instead of fire. Like paper help-help against fire!”
Mizuhiko spoke softly. “But it was not the fire that killed them.”
“Dark ones came. They killed all of the good humans who listened to Chi’kel’s story. They killed the Naga that guard-guard temple. They even kill other Naga who come to help-help.” The nezumi pointed at one of the Naga bodies. “That was Zam’lash. He was Chi’kel’s friend once, before he went away with-with other Naga. Other Naga dead-dead too.”
Seiichi looked over the bodies and the burned out temple. He shook his head. “Such a waste. Such a…” He stopped and his eyes snapped to Chi’kel. “You said everyone here was killed except you?”
Chi’kel’s eyes dropped and he did not answer.
Seiichi moved quickly through the bodies, not skipping any of them, Naga or human, though he dismissed each with a glance. As he did so, Chi’kel sat down on his haunches and started to moan, the same sound that alerted Mizuhiko in the first place.
Finally the Lion went into the temple proper, stepping gently over the last of the slain Ikoma. Through the burnt walls he could see what he was looking for, but he prayed he was wrong.
He was not.
Nintai’s attackers were not content to kill the last of the true kitsu. He had been stabbed through the heart, but then they had nailed him to the wall, as if on display. This would have been horrible enough but there was still something worse.
Before they nailed Nintai to the wall they had skinned him.
Mizuhiko thought he would never be able to get the sound of Seiichi’s anguish from his ears.
* * *
Hosting an Imperial Court on short notice would challenge the resources of any Great Clan, and to do so the year after a large-scale famine was almost unthinkable. Bayushi Paneki had therefore been more than happy to accept a small favor or two from the Crane Clan; and equally happy to do a few small favors in return.
“Both the Imperial Chancellor and the Emerald Champion requested that you be allowed this audience,” Togashi Satsu said.
Doji Nagori knelt before the Empress, head low to the ground before her. “I am most grateful for their kindness,” he said. “It will enable my clan to present a unique gift on behalf of my Champion.”
“The Empress has no need of gifts,” Satsu said.
“Indeed not,” Nagori said. “The Empire and all within it, our lives, our property, our honor, belong to the Divine One. No, Lady Domotai wishes to present a gift to the generations yet to come.”
There was a faint rustle of cloth, and Satsu said, “Continue.”
Slowly Nagori drew out a scroll case and set it before him. “Divine One, this is a copy of the treaty between the Crane and Crab Clans ending the war between them and settling the issue of the Yasuki provinces.”
“I had not heard that there was any such treaty. And this treaty has no force until the Divine One approves it.”
“Exactly,” Nagori said. “No one has heard of it, and it does not yet exist. In years to come, our children’s children will hear of the many conflicts that troubled the Empire at the time of Empress Iweko’s ascension. They will also hear how the Empress decreed that all such conflicts in her lands cease. They will hear that within the week the war between the Crab and Crane Clans ended. Since the time of Doji-kami the Crane have been the guardians of the Empire’s arts,” Nagori said. “There is no higher gift we can offer than a story. And it lies in the Empress’s power to make it a true one.”
“Sophistry,” Satsu said. “Is that all your clan has to offer?”
There was a motion from behind the Empress’s screen, and Nagori heard Satsu step back to confer with the Divine One. He spoke for a few moments, and then returned. “The Empress is pleased by this gift to the future,” the Voice of the Empress announced. “In accordance with her plans, today in court she shall issue her first Imperial Decree that all war within her Empire cease within a week’s time, and that an accord between all currently warring parties shall be submitted within one weeks’ time. At her next public appearance, you will have the opportunity to prove your clan’s devotion to the will of the Empress, and present this treaty for her approval.”
Nagori lowered his head all the way to the floor. “Thank you, Divine One, for this opportunity to serve your Empire. My Champion will be most gratified when she hears of this.”
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