As the word of the Empress’ proclamation slowly begins to reach the mainland, her most loyal and ardent subjects struggle to grasp the enormity of it.
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The night air was filled with smoke and the sound of fighting, but the din from the front lines was so familiar that at this point it was hardly noticed by those who had been fighting the Destroyers for more than a week. The forward camps had a slightly haphazard look to them, as they had been broken down and moved so many times as the army slowly lost ground that their constant reconstruction had become less and less a priority. The bushi stationed within the seemingly endless sea of tents could not rest comfortably due to the accommodations and the constant sound of battle, and their moods suffered as a result. Kuni Kiyoshi was aware of this, of course, but it did little to mitigate the irritation that seemed to plague him constantly. “Is this some manner of joke?” he demanded.
Akodo Shigetoshi looked at the Kuni daimyo with disapproval. “I find that manner of comment highly inappropriate,” he said sternly. “This is an edict from the Empress we are speaking of. Maintain respect.”
Kiyoshi’s expression was severe, and made more so by the kabuki-style make-up he wore. “I do not answer to you.”
“You do answer to me,” Hida Benjiro said sharply. “As long as I am in command here, you will maintain a proper tone. The Lion are here to aid us, and the least we can do is show their lord the respect he deserves.”
Shigetoshi frowned somewhat. “I would prefer he maintain respect for the Empress on general principle.”
Benjiro raised a hand. “Please, Shigetoshi-sama. This is a stressful situation for all of us. Let us not get mired down in details.”
The Lion Champion nodded. “Of course, Benjiro-san. My apologies.” He turned back to the messenger. “What degree of error might there be in this message?”
“None,” Hiruma Rohitsu answered. “My lord Todori called in many favors among the Mantis to get word to our commander in Toshi Ranbo. I was reassigned from my duties to bring the message to you here after hearing it from the shugenja who communicated with lord Todori, who himself heard the proclamation firsthand. There is no error.”
“There must be,” Benjiro insisted. “This is madness.”
“Yes,” Kiyoshi agreed vehemently. “The Dark Lord cannot be permitted to enter the Empress’ presence! Have we not learned this already? How many must that madman murder before we send him to Jigoku where he belongs?”
“Kiyoshi,” Benjiro said, “you need rest. You have been fighting nonstop for weeks now with no relief.”
“I do only what is asked of every Crab.”
“I know,” Benjiro said. “Your burden is greater, however. Go. Rest.”
Kiyoshi frowned. “As you command, rikugunshokan, but not before I speak to the Jade Champion. He will wish to hear of this.” With that, the Kuni daimyo stormed from the tent.
Benjiro watched him go. “There are many among the Crab who will question this decision,” he said darkly. “Many who will find fault with the Empress for such a decision.”
“Unacceptable,” Shigetoshi said. “Surely you can find some means to bring your men around to a more appropriate way of thinking. They are not dishonorable men. I have seen this much fighting alongside them.”
“They lack the certainty afforded by a life spent free of war with the Shadowlands,” Benjiro said. “It is rare to find a Crab warrior who has not lost a member of his family to the Dark Lord’s machinations. A reprieve will be unacceptable to them.”
“This is a tactic, nothing more,” the Lion Champion said. “The Empress would not endure the presence of Daigotsu if there was not something to be gained for the Empire from it. There will be no reprieve. Of this I am absolutely certain. My faith in the Empress is absolute, and it will be rewarded. You will see, Benjiro.”
“I sincerely hope so,” the Crab general answered. “Otherwise I fear that there may be many who will decide that the Empire does not warrant saving.” He smiled darkly. “Fortunately, in the meantime, there are countless enemies to slay in order to set aside the issue of the Empress’ motivations.”
“Fill your soul with war, brother,” Shigetoshi said. “All else will come in time.”
“Fill my soul with war?” Benjiro chuckled. “My friend, the soul of a Crab is nothing but war.”
* * * * *
The voluminous cloaks that Isawa Mitsuko preferred generally concealed her identity when traveling, which was always useful for a woman with duties such as hers. Most of the time, she preferred more proper attire when within another’s home; she considered anything less rude. Under the present circumstances, however, she had not paused from her arrival in the stables, but proceeded directly into the large shrine that dominated Kyuden Asako’s primary courtyard. There were fewer guards within the estate than most of similar size, but that was to be expected given the rather unconventional nature of the Asako family’s lord. The two Shiba standing guard over the entrance to the shrine recognized her from her frequent visits and bowed sharply, doing nothing to bar her passage.
The interior of the shrine, as always, was meticulously maintained and utterly serene. The lord of the castle allowed nothing to disturb its tranquility. The damage that the estate had suffered during the War of Dark Fire had been repaired, and in some respects the castle had been expanded. Most of the additions were much more in keeping with the present lord’s personal preferences, which only enhanced the resemblance of the estate to a large monastery. It would still be more than sufficient to host a Winter Court, should that come to pass, but for the moment, it was something of a living contradiction, which only increased its appeal to Mitsuko.
In the center of the garden was a square column of rock roughly twenty feet high. It appeared to have been hewn from a single, massive block of stone, and it seemed strangely out of place in the shrine. When the Asako daimyo was in attendance, however, it made much more sense. Asako Bushiken sat in the lotus position atop the column at the moment, seemingly lost in meditation. How he scaled the column, Mitsuko had never managed to deduce. Perhaps some esoteric martial arts maneuver associated with the monastic sect that Bushiken had founded? Ultimately it did not matter. And today, certainly, she had little time to devote to such things. “My lord Bushiken-sama.”
The monk opened his eyes. “Greetings, Mitsuko-sama. It is a pleasure to see you once again. I was given to understand you would be spending the season farther south, however. Nikesake, was it not? Has there been a problem with the reports you have been receiving from Pale Oak Castle?”
“No, my lord,” Mitsuko said with a bow. “Unfortunately, there is another matter that has arisen that requires not only my attention, but yours, and the entire order of Inquisitors. Forgive me if I seem presumptuous, but I needed to speak with you at once.”
A woman emerged from behind the column. “If the Master of Air feels so strongly, this surely must be a matter of great importance. Would you have me leave, my lord?”
“No,” Bushiken said at once. “Mitsuko-sama, have you met Asako Katashi? She is my principle advisor from the Inquisitors, and keeps me abreast of important events within the order.”
“I have not had the pleasure,” Mitsuko said with a respectful nod of the head, “but I have heard your name. You defeated the maho-tsukai duo from Dozen Tree Village, did you not? Impressive work indeed. It was no surprise to hear that you are overseeing the effort to find the traitor Fosuta.”
“You flatter me, my lady,” Katashi said with a low bow.
Mitsuko smiled. “Has word of the Empress’ proclamation reached you yet?” Seeing their lack of reaction, she grimaced. “Word reached the Imperial City a few days ago that the Empress announced at court that she was suspending the edict demanding the immediate execution of Daigotsu, and demanded that he be brought before her.”
“Daigotsu?” Katashi exclaimed. “The Empress wishes to hold parlay with the Dark Lord of the Shadowlands?”
“So it would seem,” Mitsuko said. “She commands her loyal subjects to seek him out with all due haste and bring him before her immediately.”
“Have I overlooked some simple truth that the rest of the Empire has embraced,” Bushiken said slowly, “or have we and others been seeking information concerning Daigotsu’s location for years?”
“We have,” Katashi said.
“And now everyone else will as well,” Mitsuko added. “This is a potential disaster of unimaginable proportions.”
“Daigotsu is a malevolent entity such as has rarely existed in the Empire,” Bushiken observed. “For those unprepared, even being in his presence could be catastrophic.”
“I agree completely, my lord,” Mitsuko said, “and that is why we must find him first.”
“She is absolutely right, my lord,” Katashi agreed at once. “We cannot risk any clan succumbing to the Dark Lord. There must be no tolerance, no lapse in vigil. One error and a plague of spiritual corruption far exceeding the disease gripping the Empire could begin.”
“I can see no other option but to deal with this matter personally,” Bushiken said. “What resources do you require, Mitsuko-sama?”
“I need more Inquisitors,” she answered. “My duties are such that I cannot handle every aspect of the investigation myself.”
Bushiken glanced at Katashi. “Recommendations?”
“Serizawa and Asai,” Katashi replied at once. “I will summon them. They will be here by morning.”
* * * * *
“Speak,” Bayushi Paneki commanded as he swept through the gates leading into Kyuden Bayushi. He dismounted smoothly and allowed his steed to be taken away even as he removed his heavy winter traveling cloak and let it fall to the ground, only to be snatched up inches from the snow-speckled earth by a servant.
“All is in readiness, my lord,” Bayushi Jutsushi replied. “Word of your arrival came by messenger three days ago. In that time, all you requested in attendance have been able to reach the castle. The last arrived one hour ago.”
“They have been made aware of the Empress’ proclamation?”
“As you commanded, lord,” the magistrate said with a bow. “There has been some… discussion… since lord Koji-sama arrived a short time ago.”
“That is to be expected,” Paneki observed, almost to himself. He glanced at Jutsushi, noticing him for the first time. “Why is my hatamoto not greeting me himself?”
“He is entertaining your guests at the moment, my lord,” Jutsushi replied. “He felt your arrival should be private, and has arranged some matter of import to be discussed. No one should disturb you.”
The Scorpion Champion nodded. “What is your role in the court?”
“My duty is to observe the guests at all times,” Jutsushi replied. “I have been assisting the governor in identifying private relationships between them. Affairs, rivalries, that manner of thing.” He paused for a moment. “At least, that was my duty until three days ago. I have been made responsible for ensuring all is in readiness in anticipation of your arrival.”
“Well done,” Paneki said as he crossed into one of the secondary entrances to the castle. “Inform my hatamoto that you will be joining my personal staff at the conclusion of the Winter Court.”
Jutsushi remained outside the threshold that marked the entrance into the palace’s innermost series of chambers, rooms that were reserved for the highest ranking Scorpion. “Thank you, my lord. I am greatly honored.”
Moments later, Paneki entered one of his private audience chambers. There was heated discussion taking place within; it was obvious from the tone of the murmurs audible outside the doors even if the special construction of the room prevented anything being overheard intelligibly from outside. As soon as the doors swung open, however, all conversation ceased, and those within bowed deeply before their Champion. A chorus of “My lord” and “Paneki-sama” was uttered, but he waved them away. “You know the matter of discussion,” he said. “Speak your thoughts.”
“I have seen great chaos during my lifetime,” Yogo Koji said, “but this may be the most dangerous thing that I have ever seen take place.”
“Your penchant for melodrama remains intact, I see,” the Soshi daimyo observed softly.
“This is serious, woman!” Koji nearly bellowed. He glanced at Paneki. “I apologize for my tone, my lord, but surely you must see how significant this is. The Empress has extorted her people to have contact with Daigotsu! This can only lead to disaster!”
“I seriously doubt that the average samurai is going to forsake his duties to search for the Dark Lord,” Soshi Yukimi said. “And even if he does, do you believe that Daigotsu will be so easily found?”
“The Spider have tendrils everywhere,” Shosuro Toson said. “I believe this was the Empress’ most effective means of making contact with Daigotsu. He will surely hear of her proclamation. Will he choose to answer it? It seems unlikely, but if he did, which would be more damaging: if he appeared unannounced and the Empress admitted him, or if it was known that he was expected?”
“That thought has occurred to me as well,” Paneki mused. “I believe you are correct, Toson.”
Koji’s scowl intensified, but he nodded respectfully to his lord. “What are we to do, then, Paneki-sama?”
“We are Scorpion. We protect the empire from threats unseen. If the Empress wishes Daigotsu found, he shall be located before the other clans have begun their efforts.”
Koji rubbed his chin. “Would you have him experience… an accident? Before we discovered him, of course.”
“The Empress’ will shall be obeyed as long as I rule this clan,” Paneki said sternly. “I know you believe that you think of the Empire, Koji, but while I am Champion, there shall be no difference between service to the Empress and service to the Empire. Is that understood?”
“As you command, my lord,” Koji bowed deeply. “Finding the Dark Lord will be a difficult task. Perhaps impossible.”
“That is not necessarily true,” Yukimi observed.
Paneki took a deep, slow breath. “You speak of using the Oni’s Eye,” he finally said.
“What?” Koji shouted. “My lord, no!”
“It is the best hope we have of finding the Dark Lord,” Toson agreed. “I am not comfortable with using the accursed thing, but if it is your will that the Scorpion find Daigotsu, my lord, this is the most promising avenue.”
“Insanity!” Koji roared. “The damnable thing will destroy us all! It is corruption given form!”
“It does not appear to be corrupted by Jigoku,” Toson said with a frown.
“As near as we can tell, but we there is much we still do not know about the Eye.” Koji glared around the room. “We have barely begun our investigations, and already have discovered many risks! It warps the minds and souls of those who use it!”
“Enough,” Paneki said, raising his hand. He contemplated the matter for a few moments. “We will use the Eye.”
“Please, my lord,” Koji began.
“I said enough,” Paneki reminded him. “Koji, you will place one of your agents in direct supervision of the act. Toson, you will permit this to occur. This is a matter of grave importance.” He paused again, as if considering something very seriously. “If the attempt fails, then we will use Korenaga.”
Toson paled slightly. “My lord, we have never allowed such a thing. Someone corrupted using the Eye could have unforeseen consequences.”
“And if it does, you shall have a member of the Kuroiban on hand to deal with the ramifications.” Paneki said. “This is my final decision. We are Scorpion, and we will enact the Empress’ will no matter the cost. Do any of you question this?”
“No my lord,” they all answered.
“So be it.”
* * * * *
The man known as Katsu waited patiently, ignoring the pointed stares of the guards who barred his path. The many stone spires known as the Fingers of Bone stretched in all directions, but this one, one of the smaller of the spires, was restricted to all save the Dark Lord himself. Any who attempted to enter it would be killed, although to Katsu’s knowledge none had tried. The massive, nameless warriors that Daigotsu had selected to oversee the entrance never spoke, and as near as anyone could tell, never left their duty stations. Katsu could see into their souls, and he knew that they were not what they appeared to be. Yet even his power could not tell him what was within the Dark Lord’s spire, or why he entered it alone each day for hours at a time. Something within him urged him to force his way in and see for himself, but even the madness-bringing power of the khadi could not drive him to that end. Katsu was not certain that he could defeat Daigotsu and, more importantly, he felt that devotion to his lord was one of the final handholds that he possessed preventing him from descending into absolute insanity. Katsu had seen the madness of Iuchiban, and wanted none of it. He may have had no love for his lord, but his honor demanded some degree of loyalty despite it.
The whisper of black silk was audible as the Dark Lord of the Shadowlands emerged from the thick, all-concealing curtains that marked the spire’s entrance. His demeanor, as ever, was inscrutable, but Katsu detected some slight sense of annoyance. Daigotsu responded to the bows of the guards with a dismissive gesture, then stared at Katsu for a moment. “What has happened?”
“My lord,” Katsu said, his voice little more than a hoarse whisper. “We have received word from your vassal Susumu.”
Daigotsu nodded slowly. “For him to risk contact it must be significant. Was there any compromise of our communication network?”
“It does not appear so,” Katsu said. “There was a near detection with our man among the Komori, but nothing disastrous.”
“Eliminate secondary agents on the periphery,” Daigotsu ordered. “See to it that your man is responsible for their detection and elimination. Remove any doubt regarding his loyalties.” Daigotsu smiled slightly. “It is good enough for the Scorpion, is it not?”
“As you command,” Katsu said with a bow. “There has been a proclamation from the Empress, my lord. One concerning you.”
Daigotsu folded his hands into his sleeves. “What is it?”
“She commands her subjects to scout the Empire and find you,” Katsu said. “She wishes you brought before her. Not for execution, but for a dialogue of some sort.”
“A dialogue,” Daitogsu said. “Interesting. What has been the reaction?”
“Susumu reports some confusion, possibly the first lacings of discontent, but the Empress’ subjects appear to be complying for the moment.”
“Fascinating,” Daigotsu said, almost to himself. He glanced at Katsu with a curious expression. “What do you make of it?”
The khadi shrugged slightly. “We know that the Empress experienced a moment of omniscience at the point of her ascension, but that her recall of that information is not absolute. Might she have learned and recall that you have Jackals among your vassals? It is possible. If so, she may hope for some insight into the nature of the Destroyers.”
“If that is correct, then she is willing to risk the distrust of her people in order to save their lives,” Daigotsu mused. “Perhaps she is more than I imagined.”
“We may need to prepare additional measures to prevent the discovery of this place,” Katsu said. “I assume you will not wish to relocate?”
“There will be no relocation,” Daigotsu said. “I will make preparations. I may have need of your unique talents.”
Katsu stared for a moment. “You cannot be considering this,” he said.
“There shall be a dialogue, to be sure,” Daigotsu answered with a thin smile. “But it shall be on my terms, and no others.”
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