A trio of vignettes depicting events across the face of the Emerald Empire.
Scenes from the Empire
By Shawn Carman, Brian Yoon, & Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
The innermost recesses of the Imperial City, the neighborhoods that directly surrounded the Imperial Palace and its adjoining compound, were not open to just anyone to wander the streets. There was a low wall surrounding the region, known informally as the Forbidden City, and while it could easily be surmounted, the frequent patrols in the inner city made doing so quite foolish; anyone caught without proper documentation was subject to imprisonment or execution. It was a punishment that only needed to be performed once or so per year in order to maintain its proper degree of importance in the minds of the city denizens. The result, of course, was that there was very little incidental traffic within the Forbidden City. Most who walked its streets did so quickly and with urgent purpose. In some portions, certain neighborhoods without major thoroughfares, there was virtually no traffic at all, and one could go all day without seeing more people than could be counted on one hand.
“Yes,” Tsuruchi Sanjo said, his breath pluming out before him. “Yes, this is exactly the sort of glory and honor I envisioned as part of my duties when I was selected to join the Empress’ Guard.”
“Be silent,” his companion said.
“If I am silent any longer I will go mad,” Sanjo said vehemently. “Fortunes know I cannot count on any conversation from the likes of you,” he glanced at Matsu Kasei with exaggerated annoyance. “And those who come here,” he gestured over his shoulder to the small estate where the man known as Taishuu lived or was held, depending upon one’s viewpoint, “are so embarrassed to be here they never say a word.”
Kasei frowned but did not argue further. He had noticed that the few who had access to Taishuu, no more than half a dozen individuals other than those who held sufficient rank to see him at will, such as the Emperor’s Chosen and the Jeweled Champions, did indeed seem somewhat embarrassed or even ashamed to be present when they arrived. He could not recall one speaking more than a handful of words as they presented their papers for him to inspect, usually then just paltry excuses for having to see the detainee in the first place. “Our duty is not for our own enjoyment,” he said. “We are honored by the call, and our families reap the benefit of our honorable service.”
“My family is surely reaping benefits to the left as well as the right and the center,” Sanjo muttered, stomping his feet lightly in hopes of gaining more feeling in them. He winced and immediately regretted the action. “Tell me a story.”
“What?” Kasei demanded.
“Tell me a story, Lion!” Sanjo insisted. “That is what you do, is it not? Relive the valor of your ancestors? Tell me a story before I commit seppuku out of boredom and then leave you in such a terrible state!”
“Hardly seems a terrible state,” Kasei muttered.
“Oh?” Sanjo asked. “You would have to choose between abandoning your post to go get aid or allowing my remains to sully the estate you are sworn to defend. Imagine the horror! Oh well.” He drew his wakizashi and aimed it half-heartedly at his abdomen. “I’ve lived too long already.”
“Fine!” Kasei snarled. “What is it you want to hear?”
“I have no preference,” the bushi said. “Whatever you like is fine.”
Kasei scowled, but after a moment, began telling a story. It was the tale of a simple man who was elevated to a lofty position, only to receive word of his family’s impending doom. Anguished over his inability to help, the man nevertheless fulfilled his duty without complaint, although it was obvious to all who saw him how great his suffering was. Finally, in an act of mercy, the Empress gave the man leave from his duties to aid his family, and the grateful warrior wept with joy. He fled home as fast as he could to join in the battle for his family’s lands. Kasei had just begun to speak of the battle where the valiant Hida Tatsuma, a former friend of his, had lost his life in battle with the Destroyers, when the rapt Sanjo was struck heavily in the face.
“Ow!” the Mantis bushi shouted, his hand going for his weapon at once.
“Idiot!” Kakita Idzuki spat, and struck Sanjo again with his folded fan. “Did you not learn last time to pay attention to your duties?”
Sanjo scowled and rubbed his face. “Why don’t you hit him?” he demanded, pointing to Kasei. “He was telling the story!”
“He paid attention and bowed his head as I approached!” the second-in-command of the Empress’ Guard said. “You, on the other hand, were slack-jawed and practically drooling, so entranced were you in whatever yarn your comrade was spinning!”
“The fault is mine,” Kasei said. “If you wish to issue reprimand, my lord, it should be to me.”
Idzuki looked at the two men for a long moment. “Perhaps,” he said, “I simply see two men who have endured an unpleasant duty for many weeks without complaint,” he finished. “I do not think a reprimand will be necessary, but I caution you to remain vigilant!”
“Yes, commander,” both men said, bowing in unison.
Ikoma Akiyama did not shiver from the cold as he blew the smoke from his pipe. He had long ago become accustomed to the cold, as his wife deplored it when he smoked within their estate inside the Forbidden City. Often he fumed as he smoked, resenting being forced outside in such wretched weather. Today, however, he smiled.
The old poet glanced down at the scroll case he had tucked in his obi. The one that bore the symbol of the Imperial Chrysanthemum and was inlaid with small turquoises. “Yes,” he said happily. “Yes, I think this will be most fortuitous.”
* * * * *
Takayasu knelt by the roadside shrine and closed his eyes. He had no idea which minor Fortune or kami the kanji indicated and he didn’t care. He never prayed to them, and the true ruler of the heavens knew his allegiance.
He wasn’t surprised when the annoyingly chipper voice interrupted his meditations. “Your piety humbles my spirit, brother. One would hope that your prayers are answered in the form of brand new riches and fantastical luck. Or, as I like to call it, fortunes and fortunes!”
Takayasu gritted his teeth and turned his head to look at his companion. Suzume Sodumu cackled at his own jokes so completely that he was bent over at his knees. The entire trip had been a similar situation, a series of flat jokes, long winded stories that went nowhere, and an unending sense of irritating optimism in the face of reality.
“One day, Sodumu-san,” Takayasu answered. He rose to his feet and stretched his arms. “I have faith that the world will be placed along the rightful order soon.”
“Wonderful,” Sodumu shouted. “I love your attitude, Takayasu. I am glad I can call you brother, now. It reminds me of a story from—”
“I will put aside etiquette for a moment, Sodumu,” Takayasu interrupted. “The last time I tried to be subtle I ended with a poison coursing through my body and a crazy woman punching me repeatedly in the face.”
Sodumu chuckled. “I’m sure it’s an experience you’re not eager to repeat.”
The smile never reached Takayasu’s eyes. “No.”
Sodumu leaned back against the wooden fence and cocked his head to one side. “Please, my dear companion, tell me the truth of the matter. Sincerity is one of the tenets of bushido, and we samurai should be true to one another.”
Takayasu nodded. “Sodumu, you love being a Sparrow Clan samurai more than anyone else I have ever seen.”
Sodumu grinned. “I take that as the highest compliment anyone could every give me, Takayasu-san. Thank you. I hope you can share my enthusiasm in times to come.”
Takayasu nodded. “I am loyal unto death, Sodumu. The problem here is that you are completely loyal to Yugoki.”
The smile faded from Sodumu’s face. “That is Lord Suzume, friend. Show him the respect he deserves.”
“Lord Suzume is the problem here, Sodumu. You are loyal to Lord Suzume, and that is exactly the problem we have with you,” Takayasu said.
Sodumu frowned. “We?”
“The Sparrow,” Takayasu said. “Our orders are to defeat the bandits plaguing our peasants. My orders are to make sure you die in the assault, but I think I’ll kill you here and take my chances alone against the criminals.”
Sodumu did not seem to move, but Takayasu noted that the Sparrow’s katana was now clear. If he took a step forward, he could cut Takayasu’s head off. But the Sparrow was holding himself back.
“You intend to kill me?” Sodumu asked.
Takayasu smiled and rose to his feet. “If you think your pitiful little Clan is worth saving, Sodumu, prove it to me here.”
Sodumu stood up and settled onto the balls of his feet. His hand rested, palm up, on the hilt of his blade. “I will kill you here, Takayasu, and I will root out the evil that seems to be plaguing this Clan. I promise this on your corpse.”
“No quips? No pointless stories? Have I met the true Suzume Sodumu at last?” Takayasu asked.
Sodumu only stared back.
Takayasu placed his hand on his sword. He focused on the reservoir of strength deep within him. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
* * * * *
Dealing with Demons
The tent had the scent of travel: a faint whiff of the packhorse that had carried it, road dust and smoke. There were other smells as well: lantern oil, ink, tea. Shimekiri kept his eyes closed as he tried to put the tent together with the battle with the Destroyers that his mind insisted was the last thing to have happened to him.
“You must be awake by now. If you sat up we could have a conversation.”
Shimekiri considered the voice for a moment. He had been aware of the other person in the tent as soon as he became conscious, but had ignored him in favor of more pressing concerns. Apparently, Shimekiri decided, the other was in a hurry to die. He rolled to his feet in one graceful motion, coming up in a crouch. “You were a fool to think that taking away my blades could stop me from killing you,” he said.
The other man was sitting at a portable writing desk, brush raised to mark a document spread before him. He wore a simple red kimono trimmed in black with the mon of the Emerald Champion over his heart. A mask painted with a wide smile covered the bottom half of his face. “Your blades are in the daisho rack behind you,” he said calmly.
“You would not have told me that if you knew who I was,” Shimekiri said. He would not bother with the blades yet: they had probably been coated with jade dust or something equally vile. He shifted his balance infinitesimally, preparing to spring, and then froze in surprise at the other man’s next words.
“You are Shimekiri, the Fallen Crane, the Black Kabuki, the Demon Blade of the Shadowlands.” The man leaned back slightly, studying Shimekiri as if he was some rare tea he was thinking of buying. “I must admit, I had always assumed you were a story the Kakita Masters had invented to keep the younger students in line. Imagine my surprise when I read the reports from the battle against the god-beast. Imagine my greater surprise when we found you lying in the middle of what had clearly been a battle between a group of elite Destroyers and a band of what appeared to be Tainted ronin.” He paused and put down his brush. “Excuse me, I have not named myself. I am Shosuro Jimen.”
Shimekiri felt a certain relief as the gap between his past and his present filled in. Why he was not killed on sight was easy for him to reason out: the Empress’s servants would be interested in finding out where Daigotsu was, and a living prisoner was a great treasure. His current freedom was then a sham; Jimen was probably protected by wards of some sort. “My name is Daigotsu Shimekiri,” he said, “and you have no torture that could make me betray my lord.”
“I suppose drama is a reflex for someone of your background,” Jimen said. “You have been unconscious here for hours. In that time I could have had you bound in chains and wards and shipped off to the Jade Champion–and I am confident he does have tortures that could make you betray your lord. Now, could you please sit down? It is distracting to speak with someone poised to break one’s neck.”
The two men stared at each other in silence, testing, thinking. Finally Shimekiri stood up and walked back to the daisho rack. He looked closely at the hilts of his swords, and then picked up the wakizashi. He pulled the blade out a handspan, looked at it, and then re-sheathed it. He slid it into his place in his obi and then turned his attention to the katana. This too he inspected, but when he was finished he kept it in his hand. Shimekiri then returned to his previous location and knelt down, setting the blade to his left, the hilt towards Jimen. “What do you have to say to me, Emerald Champion?” he said.
“The Empire is at war with these Destroyers. As is, for whatever reasons of infernal politics, Daigotsu. This is grounds for an understanding, is it not?”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Shimekiri said, with a thin current of contempt in his voice.
“Not at all,” Jimen said. “But that doesn’t mean we cannot be useful to each other.”
“I have no use for you.”
“Don’t you?” Jimen said. “I think that the status of an uruwashii would be useful to anyone.”
“Uruwashii?” Shimekiri said, curious as to where Jimen was leading. “That rank has not been used for years.”
“The Empress in her wisdom has revived it, so that she may reward her vassals who show particular heroism in defense of the Empire.” Jimen picked up the document he had been working on and held it out. “This is an Imperial commission for the rank of uruwashii, made out for the ronin known as Shimekiri.”
Shimekiri’s breath caught for just a moment as he considered what had just been offered him. “Unamusing,” he said. “Your empress has declared the Spider to be outlaws; you would never give such a position to one of us.”
“The Empress already has one mon-less Spider in her service, I am sure she can weather the indignity of a second. Especially when he is busy killing her enemies.”
Shimekiri was silent, thinking. The position of uruwashii granted power and authority, and the chance to add to the legend of his name. But Shosuro Jimen could not be trusted–everyone knew that. “I am not a fool. You are setting up a trap of some sort.”
”True, but it is only the obvious one–I’m trying to get you killed in a useful fashion before you become a big enough problem that I have to deal with you.” Jimen shrugged slightly. “It’s a bit simplistic, I admit, but the Empress’s winter court is quickly approaching and I have no time for something more elaborate.”
“I do not plan on dying.”
“Few men ever do. I am something of an expert on this.”
Shimekiri was silent, weighing the sincerity in Jimen’s eyes with the multiplicity of ways this offer could turn on him. Then he reached out a hand and took the commission. “You will want travel papers as well,” Jimen said, passing him two more scrolls, “and an authorization for the Imperial Quartermaster’s office. I’d advise you not to present yourself looking like the villain in the Peach Pit Boy, but that is your affair, not mine.” Shimekiri slid the scrolls into his obi and then stood up.
“You will live to regret this,” he said.
“I can only hope,” Jimen replied.
After the tainted warrior had left Jimen drew a long breath and began putting his writing supplies away. The Shogun’s attack on the Shinomen Forest had not been totally useless, he reflected, but its main effect was to force the so-called Spider into hiding. Now he had Shimekiri to gather them all together and lead them against the Destroyers, and any survivors could be dealt with later.
And if he managed to embarrass the Kakita family in the process, so much the better.
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