Scenes from the Empire

A selection of stories from around the Emerald Empire!

Scenes from the Empire

By Brian Yoon and Shawn Carman

Edited by Fred Wan

 

            Shosuro Jimen was not particularly a fan of the sea. It was too vast, too uncontrollable, too unpredictable, for him to ever feel at home. When a man was on a kobune, no matter what preparations he had made or what contingencies he had in place, he was at the mercy of the elements. Of course it was equally true, the Emerald Champion reflected, that all men were at the mercy of the fickle gods called Fortunes at all times during their lives, but when a man had solid ground beneath his feet it was far easier to put such concerns out of his mind.

            Despite his misgivings, Jimen had no choice but to admit that the view from the islands was spectacular. This estate in particular had a breathtaking view of the bay as the sun was setting in the distance, back toward the mainland of the Empire. He briefly considered asking of his host if it might be possible to bring the young Kakita girl he had been courting here. Surely the splendor would make her all the more pliable to his interests and, more importantly, his inquiries. But of course that would violate his policy regarding being indebted to a Mantis. And this Mantis in particular would likely be an spectacularly poor choice for an exception.

            “Enjoying the view? It’s exquisite, or so I have been told.”

            “Indeed,” Jimen agreed turning to face his host. “I am grateful for the opportunity to witness it, Utemaro-san.”

            “Hosting the Emerald Champion is a pleasure few are privileged to enjoy,” Utemaro answered, gesturing to a table where servants had laid out tea for them. “I am pleased that you accepted, Jimen-san.” The honorific he used, one used among equals, hung in the air a moment after the statement ended. Jimen was certain that the Imperial Treasurer had done it deliberately, perhaps only to see how he would respond.

            “I must say I was rather surprised to learn that this was your personal estate,” Jimen confessed as the two men sat down. “I rather thought it might belong to some cousin of your Champion, or perhaps a wealthy merchant patron.”

            “It does, after a fashion,” Utemaro said. “You might say that I am a wealthy merchant patron, after all.” He sipped at the tea without expression. “It is merely one of the many duties I have held for the Mantis in my years.”

            “Ah yes,” Jimen said. “As I recall, I saw a report indicating, to my great surprise mind you, that you were among the wealthiest individuals among the Mantis. I would not have imagined such a thing. I suppose I thought you purchased this place after your appointment.”

            “No, I have owned it for some years,” Utemaro answered. “It was not generally known that I owned it prior to my ascension, however. I have made it known since then.”

            “That is interesting. May I ask why?”

            Utemaro shrugged. “My duties keep me away from the islands for long periods, now. That my estate is so prominent within the city reminds the people here who I am and that I will, eventually, return. I prefer it that way.”

            “Interesting.” Jimen nodded appreciatively. “I respect the concept of maintaining presence. It is essential to what I… to what we, do.”

            “To what we do?” Utemaro chuckled ever so slightly. “Our duties are rather dissimilar, wouldn’t you say? For example, I monitor taxes and the allocation thereof to the Empress’ loyal subjects. You, alternatively, attempt to usurp the power of others in court settings.”

            Jimen carefully replaced the cup on the table and leveled a calm, even gaze at the Imperial Treasurer. “I am sure I do not know what you mean. I am equally sure that I do not appreciate your tone.”

            “I do not appreciate your attempts to usurp my authority during a brief but unavoidable period of being indisposed. Yet you did it regardless. I believe I am entitled in turn to your tolerance of my tone.”

            “Your authority, such as it is, exists purely because it was ceded from mine,” Jimen said. “By all rights you should consider yourself my subordinate. You are little more than a glorified lieutenant. A man of your practical nature should surely accept such simple truths.”

            “By all rights, you say,” Utemaro countered, sipping again at his tea. “By all rights save the edict of the Empress. I think you’re familiar with those. Particularly the one specifying the identities of the Emperor’s Chosen.”

            “An appointment,” Jimen said with a negligent wave of his hand. “You were handed your position. I earned mine.”

            “Oh yes,” Utemaro said. “By threatening children, if I recall.”

            Jimen’s gaze was no longer even, nor was it particularly calm. “Watch your words with me, Treasurer.”

            “Do you think you alone have information networks? I traffic in currency, and there is no information that cannot be purchased. You are a master of spies? I was a spy myself at one point. Do not think me a fool simply because we are surrounded by them.”

            “I knew you were more interesting than the rest of the Empress’ simpletons,” Jimen admitted. “Perhaps I have underestimated you.”

            “That seems quite likely,” Utemaro said. “We are not allies. Do not impugn my authority again, and we do not have to be enemies.” He shrugged in a completely disinterested manner. “I leave the choice to you. I do not particularly care one way or another.”

            “Interesting,” Jimen said. “I thank you for the tea. Perhaps we will speak about this again. Perhaps not. As for my response… let us see how boring the remainder of the court season is, and then we will decide.”

            Utemaro smiled wanly. “As you like.”

 

* * * * *

 

            “I appreciate the visit, Hanbei-san,” Mirumoto Ichizo said. He had gone nearly a year without a single visitor from the outside, yet today two Dragons had come on their own to meet him. Togashi Gato had arrived without explanation in the morning and Kitsuki Hanbei had arrived a few hours later. It was perplexing, yet he would not deny the company. They walked together from the base of Sunset Tower to the small village at the Bay of the Golden Sun.

            “But you do not understand why I am here,” Hanbei said. The young Mirumoto nodded and resisted the urge to look askance at the magistrate. He knew of Hanbei from his time in the Dragon lands, but they had hardly been friends. Hanbei reached gempukku two years before Ichizo and quickly achieved the status of magistrate. They were hardly friends – yet here he was.

            His other visitor, Togashi Gato, did not seem to have any ulterior motives. Ichizo knew the ise zumi was a world traveler and needed little reason to appear in remote places of the empire. He seemed to take Ichizo’s presence and Kitsuki Hanbei’s appearance at Sunset Tower equally in stride.

            “I do not,” Ichizo replied. “There is nothing here but the reminder of fallen Otosan Uchi and the cold. What brings you to this miserable place?”

            “Perhaps his aim is the same as mine,” Gato said. Ichizo and Hanbei looked inquisitively at the bare-chested ise zumi. A serene smile crossed Gato’s lips. “The sun illuminates the entire bay as it crosses the horizon. It is a sight that must not be missed.”

            Hanbei rubbed his hands together to ward off the cold. “Enjoy scenery in this time of great strife? My aim is more… focused than that. Sunset Tower has seen better times, Ichizo. I come to ask you, why do you stay here?”

            “A promise and a duty,” Ichizo replied.

            “Who would place an important duty to a warrior untested in battle?” Hanbei mused. “I do not wish to offend you, Ichizo-san, yet you would not be my first choice for an important duty.”
            Ichizo held his tongue to avoid the first answer on his lips. Gato whirled and faced the Kitsuki.

            “We are all brothers of the Dragon Clan, yet you impugn Ichizo-san’s honor? I am not a bushi, Hanbei, but even I know the value of face. Do not presume to think you may say whatever you wish without repercussions because you are in the presence of an ise zumi and not a superior.”

            Hanbei involuntarily took a step backward at the force of Gato’s lecture. He blinked a few times as he regained his composure. He bowed to Ichizo.

            “My apologies, Ichizo-san, it was not my intent to insult you.”

            “None taken,” Ichizo said quietly. “I may not have many victories, but my honor is absolute. I swore to take on this duty and I will see it to its end, whenever that may be.”

            “Besides,” Gato said in a calm voice, “young bushi will always be the heart of our Clan. At the battle for Shiro Mirumoto, young Mirumoto Satobe singlehandedly raised the morale of the entire castle and made victory possible.”

            “Well,” Hanbei murmured, “Satobe-san’s contribution cannot be ignored, but it—”

            Gato waved his hand at Hanbei’s interjection. “The details are not important, Hanbei, only the message.”

            Hanbei gritted his teeth and did not respond. They paused in front of a restaurant and Hanbei stepped away from the group. “Three ochazuke, as fast as you can.” The cook nodded and began to prepare three bowls of the hot dish.

            “A symbol of my amends,” Hanbei said.

            “Eagerly accepted,” Ichizo replied. He blew onto his hands and looked around. The Bay of the Golden Sun had clearly seen better times. Few people walked its streets, and they seemed to all be peasant fishermen. One peasant was sprawled out in the alleyway, seemingly without the energy to move from the position. Every few moments, the man shivered or coughed.

            “I’ve investigated the papers at Shiro Mirumoto,” Hanbei continued. “You seem to stay at Sunset Tower for a maximum of three months. Then you leave and return to the Dragon lands or travel to the Crane lands for about the same time. You’ve always returned to Sunset Tower. Something draws you back. A duty, you said.”

            “Stop being so smug about your deductions,” Gato snapped. “Gloating only makes you appear foolish. Tell us what you think so we can celebrate your intelligence or mock your stupidity.”

            “There is nothing wrong in reveling in success, Gato-san,” Hanbei said. “The details define the story and this one is so particularly impressive.”

            “Back to your story,” Ichizo interrupted hurriedly. Gato and Hanbei had clashed earlier today about the differences between the two families, and Ichizo had no intention of listening to another rendition of the same argument. “What conclusion have you reached?”

            “You’re at Sunset Tower because you are guarding an artifact that cannot or should not be removed from the location,” Hanbei said. “It is a dangerous artifact, one that has a possibility of corrupting those around it. You leave to make sure it does not have a hold on your soul, but you return because you have promised to defend it.”
            Ichizo’s silence was all the answer Hanbei needed.

            “I am here because I believe this tale should be told to the rest of the Empire,” Hanbei said. “A tale of selfless sacrifice from the Dragon may be exactly what the Clan needs to elevate our status. We have a unique opportunity with Iweko-sama’s ascension to rapidly become one of the strongest Clans in the Empire. I don’t want to miss that chance.”

            “Is it selfless sacrifice,” Gato asked wryly, “if everyone must be told over and over of its import?”

            “I would rather do my duty, Hanbei-san,” Ichizo said. “I do not ask for glory or recognition. I do it because it must be done.”

            “I do not ask you to abandon your work,” Hanbei insisted. “Give me the details and I will make sure the story is told at this year’s Winter Court.”

            “No,” Ichizo answered. “Secrecy helps guard this artifact. I will not let Rokugan be jeopardized for fleeting glory.”

            “Even if it will propel your Clan’s political power?”

            “Even so,” Ichizo said resolutely.
            The arrival of the steaming dishes interrupted the conversation. Ichizo could tell by the look in Hanbei’s eye that his persuasions were far from over. Though the rice in hot tea would warm his insides in the cold weather, Ichizo found that his appetite was gone. Hanbei and Sato sat down to enjoy the meal. Ichizo took the bowl and stood up. He ignored his companions’ inquisitive looks and stepped outside the shop. He made his way down the cold alley and knelt beside the prostrate peasant.

            “Here,” Ichizo said. “Come into the shop and eat this. No man should be outside in this cold.”

            The peasant sat up quickly. Ichizo sprang back in surprise. The peasant’s movements did not seem to be of a man near crippled from the cold. The man’s face was weathered from many hours in the fields. His face beamed with the friendliest smile Ichizo had ever seen. His eyes, bluer than ice, twinkled with delight.

            “I appreciate your generosity, young man,” the stranger said. His voice seemed to boom from everywhere. “It warms my heart to know that human decency still reigns in your Clan. As you have warmed my heart, so will I warm your rice fields. Rest well, warrior, and know that your simple gesture here has earned my favor.”

            With that, the man was gone as if he had never been there. In his place lay a small item, glistening in the winter sun. At closer inspection, the item seemed to be a small trinket of a dragon, made entirely of ice.

            Ichizo knelt, bowl of ochazuke in his hand, and marveled at the world.

 

* * * * *

 

            Other than being slightly larger than most temples of its type, the monastery was not particularly remarkable. It was situated in a small valley roughly an hour’s walk from the town it ostensibly served, both of which were far outside the boundaries of any province claimed by the Great Clans. If the local lore was to be believed, and there was no way to know if it could in fact be true or not, the temple was constructed only a few decades after the Little Prophet, Shinsei, disappeared into the Shadowlands with the Seven Thunders. If correct, that would make it approximately a thousand years old. The architecture appeared to be right for that period, but it was rare for anything in the Empire to endure so long without extensive reconstruction, so there was no way to know for certain if this was how the temple appeared so long ago.

            Seppun Tashime chided himself for being too caught up in irrelevant details. He had been traveling alone for many weeks now, possibly months. He had lost track after a while. Regardless of how long it was, whenever he spent too much time without the company of others, he found that he became overly analytical about things that were not important to the task at hand. It was, perhaps, an unconscious way to escape the constant, burning need he had to finish whatever hunt was before him and move on to the next. He suspected today would not be the day that he would see it ended, but at least he might make progress.

            Tashime stood before the temple for a moment, regarding the high stone wall and thick wooden gates. Such things were not uncommon in the unaligned lands, as bandits had a habit of thinking that temples possessed something worth looting. The magistrate reached up and rapped sharply against the wood, listening to the loud report and wondering how long it would reverberate within before someone answered him. To his surprise, he waited only a few short moments before there was a loud sliding sound from within as the doorway was unbarred, then the gate creaked open and a monk stepped out.

            The man was clad in the customary trappings of a sohei, a warrior monk, but his head was free of the wraps that usually completed such an outfit. His face was lined with age and years of exposure to the elements. His gaze was even and completely devoid of emotion. “Yes, friend?” he asked in a completely empty tone.

            “Greetings, brother,” Tashime said with a short bow. “I am a weary traveler and I hoped to rest within for a brief time before continuing my journey.”

            The monk scrutinized him carefully, as if unsure whether or not to admit him. Finally, his eyes settled upon the Imperial mon on Tashime’s chest. “Oh,” the monk said plainly. “Of course, sama. Please, enter and be at peace.”

            “Thank you, brother,” Tashime said, and hefted his pack. He had tied his horse in a grove a short distance away, easily reached if there was difficulty. He felt eyes upon him as he entered the primary courtyard, and saw many other monks. Some were similarly dressed to his host, while others were more traditional. The traditionalist monks that he could see looked upon him with curious expressions, and Tashime’s inner sense that he was on the right path grew stronger. “May I ask after the devotion of your temple, brother?” he asked in a casual tone.

            “We are purists of the Tao, sama,” the monk answered. “We revere the Heavens in an appropriate manner, but our emphasis is plumbing the depths of the Tao for its wisdom.”

            “That is very interesting,” Tashime said. “I wonder if I might speak with your abbot?”

            “I am afraid he is unavailable,” the monk answered without hesitation. “He has traveled abroad and is not expected back for several days. I would suspect you do not intend to remain that long, friend. I apologize for the inconvenience, sama.”

            “I see,” Tashime answered. “I would speak with the ranking brother in attendance, then, if I might.”

            The monk actually ventured a glance toward the magistrate. “For what purpose, sama?”

            “A matter of philosophy,” Tashime said.

            The monk frowned ever so slightly. The expression would be undetectable had it not been so completely blank only moments before. “We do not possess a rank among ourselves, sama. I do not know…”

            “I will speak with you, Seppun-sama,” a voice said. Another sohei stepped forward, his facial wraps fully in place. “You may return to your duties, brother. I am certain our guest appreciates your hospitality.”

            “Certainly,” the magistrate agreed, bowing slightly to the retreating monk. “I am Seppun Tashime of the Emerald Magistrates,” he informed the newcomer.

            “I am Hongo,” the monk answered. “You have philosophical questions?”

            Tashime’s eyes darted around the courtyard one last time. He had seen all he needed to see. “After a fashion,” he said. “I wish to speak of the impact the brothers of this monastery have had on the local populace.”

            Hongo did not react, but there were slight shifts in body language in those around the periphery of Tashime’s vision, and he knew he was in the right place. “I fear I do not know what you mean.”

            “I believe you do,” the magistrate insisted. “The people of the local village are much beloved in the Imperial City because of their piety. They have turned in taxes in excess of the levied amount every year for two decades. The surplus, they say, is a gift for the throne. In return, any time they have been plagued by bandits or other ills, Imperial intervention has been swift in coming.”

            The monk shook his head. “I fail to see your point.”

            “My point is that the village has stopped its offerings. I have seen the place with my own eyes. The fields are as fertile as ever, but the people are different. They have been taught the fighting arts, and they look upon outsiders with disdain where once they had only joy.”

            “The fighting arts are not illegal,” Hongo said mildly.

            “Teach a man to fight and he begins to look for reasons to use his skills. In the absence of an enemy, any outsider becomes a potential foe.” Tashime nodded toward the monk. “You, and perhaps others, came to this place and have turned not only the simple folk of the region, but the monks of this temple as well, against their lords. That is no mean feat, and I would know the why and how of it.”

            Hongo shook his head. “Why would you say such a thing?”

            Tashime nodded in his direction. “Your hands lack the long-term stains that the brothers who have served here for years bear. It comes from the black soil. You are a newcomer.” Tashime rested his hand lightly on the hilt of his blade. “I wish to hear of you and your order, ‘brother.’”

            Hongo shook his head again, but this time he chuckled lightly. “My work here is done, ‘friend,’ so there is little reason for me to stay. I will tell you nothing.”

            “I assure you, you will. Here, or in the magistrate’s chambers in the Imperial City. The choice is yours.”

            Hongo stared at the magistrate, meeting his eyes. “She said you had steel, and that you were a threat. I thought she was a sentimental fool. I was mistaken.”

            “She?” Tashime asked. “What do you mean?”

            If Hongo responded, Tashime never heard it, for he was brought to the ground by pain the likes of which he had never known. It pierced every part of his body, wracking him and rendering his limbs completely uncontrollable. He ground his teeth together and refused to scream, but it was a terrible struggle.

            Another wrap-clad form appeared in the periphery of his vision. Despite the pain, he could tell by the stance that it was a woman, and there was something wrong with her eyes. Something terribly wrong. Her right hand was wreathed in shadow, and he knew that she was the one who was responsible for his pain. He summoned all his will and struggled to one knee.

            “You are truly a marvel,” a woman’s hoarse whisper said. “Were you any other man, a man of any sin or vice, this spell would rend your soul from you utterly. Yet you survive. I had wondered if you could possibly be the man you seemed to be. I imagined it was all an act. Perhaps there is more to you than even I imagined. We shall see, in time.”

            Tashime slumped to the ground again, and blackness swirled in. He heard the woman’s voice ordering Hongo to leave him, that he would be of use later. Hongo objected, certain that his master, whomever that might be, would want Tashime dead, but the woman’s voice brooked no disagreement.

            As darkness claimed him, Tashime was certain he knew who she was.

 

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Author: Shawn Carman View all posts by