In the wake of an attempt on the Empress’ life by gaijin assassins, and the subsequent cancellation of Winter Court by the Emerald Champion, the Crane make a bold political move to cement their power within the Imperial City.
The Shadow Court
By Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
The gardens surrounding the Imperial palace were frequently used for events of the court, and so it was not unusual to find groups of courtiers standing about. It was unusual to find them weeping, fidgeting, or looking shocked and horrified, however. As she walked through the gardens, her yojimbo trailing behind her, Doji Domotai became more and more disturbed by what she was seeing. Domotai considered stopping and asking a random courtier what was going on and decided against it: she needed someone whose information she could trust.
The sound of a familiar voice caught Domotai’s attention and she followed it to find Asahina Beniha standing with a group of courtiers near one of the side entrances. Beniha was busy reciting prayers, while Kakita Hideshi had his blade drawn and appeared to be trying to watch every point of the gardens and the palace door simultaneously. “Beniha-san,” she said, “what is going on here?”
Beniha looked up from her prayers. “Lady Doji, thank the ancestors you are safe! I was afraid you might be somewhere in the palace. Gaijin assassins have attacked the Empress!”
“I do not know how–some of them seemed to be garbed as monks. They attacked moments ago, in the throne room. The chancellor seemed to have some warning of it; he ordered everyone out of the room just before the attack. The Guard were battling them.”
Domotai put her hand on her sword and turned towards the door, looking as if she was thinking of charging in and joining the battle. Before Beniha could speak again, the door opened and Shosuro Jimen stepped out, flanked by some of his men. “The threat is at an end,” he announced. “The Empress’ Guard and others have slain the assassins. None survived, and although there were grave losses, the Empress was not harmed.”
“Beniha-san,” Domotai said quietly, “we shall double the allotment of soldiers we have given to Toshi Ranbo’s defense. This outrage shall not be repeated. I–” she paused, her attention suddenly caught by Jimen’s words.
“For that purpose, I am canceling the remainder of Winter Court effective immediately.” Silence clamped down on the Cranes as he continued to speak, a silence that was unbroken until the Emerald Champion had finished his speech and departed.
“No Winter Court?” Beniha said. “We will be ruined! The Empire will be ruined! How can we work together when we cannot meet?”
Domotai stood quietly for a moment. “It will not be a problem,” she said finally, and then she strode off into the crowd, heading for the steps that Jimen had stood on. When she reached them she turned and faced the crowd. “Servants of the Empress, I beg you to hear my voice,” she said. Domotai waited until she had the attention of all, and then she resumed speaking. “The Emerald Champion has closed the Empress’s Winter Court, citing concerns for the Divine One’s safety, and indeed it is the wish of every honorable samurai that the Emerald Champion keep the welfare of the Empress first in his heart.” She paused a moment to allow the crowd to take in her words.
“He further bids us to see to our own affairs in this time, and the Crane Clan will not be slow to obey. Since the days of the First Emperor it has been our duty to help maintain the civil order of the Empire, and we will continue to serve the Empress in this manner. Any member of the Imperial Court whose responsibilities require them to stay in Toshi Ranbo is welcome to be the guest of the Crane at our embassy. There you may meet with your fellow courtiers and conduct the business which your lords sent you here for, advancing both your clan and the Empire’s welfare.” She stopped and smiled broadly.
A buzz of murmured conversation arose from the crowd, as the assembled courtiers reacted to her invitation. From a cluster of Phoenix courtiers Shiba Yoma stepped forward. “Lady Doji, your invitation is gracious and most welcome. The Phoenix Clan honors you for your dedication to the ideals of your ancestors. We accept.”
“I am delighted to hear it, Shiba-san,” Domotai said. “I look forward to greeting all of you tomorrow at the Crane embassy.” She offered the crowd one last smile and descended the stairs. “Come, Beniha-san,” she said, “we have preparations to make.”
* * * * * *
Ikoma Yasuko closed the pillow book and irritably dropped it on the table next to her. There were few things more vexing, she reflected, than waiting for letters one knew were going to arrive at any moment. The time had to be filled up somehow, but anything started was doomed to be interrupted.
There was the sound of quick footsteps outside her door, and then discreet clapping. “Come in, Igawa-san,” Yasuko said. “I am expecting the letter.”
The door slid open and Igawa bowed to her. “Forgive me, Yasuko-sama, but there are two letters.” He held them out to her.
“Already? Well, I suppose speed is of the essence today.” Yasuko picked one and looked it over. The pure white paper had been strongly scented with plum blossoms, and the red and black ribbon that held it closed also had a sprig of bamboo and a few pine needles knotted into it. “No subtlety at all. Really, Mizuno, has Domotai rattled you that badly?” She opened the scroll and scanned it. It was, as she was expecting, an invitation to spend the winter court season at the Scorpion embassy. “Read it,” she said, passing it back to Igawa, and picked up the other one. Its paper was white with the merest blush of pink, and it was held shut by a dark green ribbon with a bare bamboo twig knotted into it. Yasuko smiled with approval and opened it. In strong and elegant script there was a formal restatement of Domotai’s invitation to attend winter court at the Crane embassy.
“But what will we do?” Igawa asked. “We cannot accept both invitations.”
“How is this even a question?” Yasuko said. “We are going to the Crane, of course.”
“That will offend the Scorpion,” Igawa said.
“And so? The Scorpion still have a homeland because the Lion have put themselves between them and the Destroyers. What have we to gain by going to their embassy? On the other hand, if I am going to offend the Crane Champion I want something to show for it. “Yasuko turned away and headed for her writing desk. “You will write out a polite refusal to Shosuro Mizuno. Have it done in an hour.”
* * * * *
“Asahina-sama, it is my honor to welcome you into this house.” Bayushi Jou smiled and bowed deeply to the Crane courtier, politely ignoring Hideshi standing behind her. Beside her Bayushi Kindebu bowed as well, but he did not smile, and when he arose his attention seemed fixed on the yojimbo.
“Thank you, Jou-san,” Beniha said. She bowed slightly in return. “I am gratified that Mizuno could spare time from her busy day for me.”
“Time spent conversing with one of the lords of the Crane could never be considered wasted,” Jou said. “I will escort you to her now.”
Jou led Beniha through the twisting corridors of the Scorpion embassy, seemingly taking a long approach to her destination. At last she stopped before a door, announced Beniha, and bowed her into the room. Hideshi took up station at the door, looking stone-faced and slightly pale.
Mizuno was waiting in a room with one of the outer doors slid partially open to allow a view of the garden outside. Several small braizers were positioned to ward away the chill, and a tea pot and cups were set out beside her. Mizuno greeted Beniha and poured them both a cup of tea. Beniha accepted hers and drank it while admiring the garden. Then, putting the cup down, she came to the point of her visit.
“Mizuno-san, Lady Doji has sent me to bear her personal invitation for you to attend Winter Court at the Crane embassy,” she said.
“Lady Doji is most kind,” Mizuno said. “But as you see, I have perfectly adequate rooms here at the Scorpion embassy.”
“Indeed, they have a lovely view of the garden. But to stay at our embassy would be very convenient for you, as all of the other clan’s delegates will be under the same roof. It would bring us great joy to help your clan in this time of their distress.”
“I am sure,” Mizuno said. “But as you say my clan is in some distress, and I have almost as much work here with my fellow Scorpion as I do with the other clans. You can see how it is to my advantage to stay.”
“I cannot deny that you know your duties best,” Beniha said. “Nevertheless, should matters change your invitation will stand through the winter. And of course you are welcome to all events planned for our guests.”
“Thank you, I shall certainly attend as many as I am able,” Mizuno said. “Please offer Lady Doji my gratitude and my good wishes for the success of her winter court.” The two women chatted politely for a few moments, and then Beniha offered her goodbye and departed.
As soon as they arrived back at the Crane embassy, Beniha turned to her yojimbo with a look of concern on her face. “Hideshi, what is wrong?”
He frowned at her. “I thought I had concealed it.”
“I saw it, but I know you very well; I don’t think anyone else did.”
“As soon as I crossed the threshold of the Scorpion embassy, I came under some sort of attack. All of my bones ached, and my stomach turned rebellious. It ended as soon as we left.”
Beniha whispered a short prayer and then stood as if listening. “The kami say there is no spell upon you now. It must have been some manner of prank they were playing inside of their embassy, intending to shame us. The nerve of them, to interfere with a yojimbo’s duties after the attack on the Empress!”
Hideshi smiled slightly and laid his hand gently on her cheek. “It would take more than pain to take my attention from your safety, Beniha-chan.”
* * * * *
The Liquid Pearl sake house was filled with samurai in various stages of intoxication, all of them loudly proclaiming their thankfulness for the Empress’s survival, their willingness to die in her defense, and the perfidious evil of gaijin. This made it the ideal place for a private meeting. Shiba Yoma wove through the crowded room until he came to a table with one inhabitant and a good view of the street. “Good evening, Jinn-Kuen-san,” he said. “May I join you?”
The Yasuki daimyo looked up from his drink. “Of course, Yoma-san. The Voice of the Masters will always be welcome at my table.” He signaled one of the serving women, and a clean cup and a fresh bottle of sake was quickly set before the Phoenix.
“It has been an interesting day,” Yoma said. “You have heard of the Scorpion invitations?”
“I have.” Jinn-Kuen gulped down his cup and poured another. “It brought a smile to my face. Now I can tell off that Crane witch.”
“You hate her only because she is made of iron,” Yoma said, “and you underestimated her.”
“Only Daidoji can be Iron Cranes,” Jinn-Kuen objected.
“The first Daidoji was born a Doji,” Yoma said. His voice dropped slightly. “You cannot possibly be thinking of accepting the Scorpion invitation.”
“And why not?”
“Everyone else is going to the Crane embassy. The Crane have better food, better entertainment, and the charming custom of killing their enemies in broad daylight, in front of witnesses. Why would anyone go to the Scorpion, given a choice?”
“They aren’t Cranes,” Jinn-Kuen said.
“Did you come to Toshi Ranbo to serve yourself?” Yoma asked. “Or do you have a higher duty? A duty to your clan, perhaps?”
“I can’t be ordered by you.”
“I have hopes you can be reasoned with, however.”
Silence fell over the table as the two men drank their sake. Jinn-Kuen finished first. “Very well,” he said. “The Crane it is.”
* * * * *
“Your pardon, Genki-san,” Iuchi Ietsuna said, “but there are things I do not understand about today.”
Shinjo Genki paused in writing and laid her brush aside. “It is no problem, Ietsuna-san. To improve your grasp of politics is why our Khan sent you here.”
“Thank you, Genki-san. I do not understand why you have chosen for us to attend the Crane winter court, and not that of the Scorpion. They have two of the Empress’s chosen, and they were given the honor of hosting the Empress’s first winter court. What do the Crane have to offer?”
“A very good question, Ietsuna-san; you are already developing a courtier’s mind. When making decisions in court, one must always balance the present against the future. The Scorpion are powerful now, yes, and if they succeed in promoting their own winter court this year they stand to become even more so. We share a border with them: Is it good for us that they become so much more powerful? I think not. And then, there is the sad business of Ide Tang: I don’t see we should make it easier for them to insert more agents into our clan.”
“Would they really do that?” Ietsuna asked. “We are fighting by their side to defend their provinces.”
“Of course they would,” Genki said. “Just because they are fighting for their lives doesn’t mean they will stop being Scorpions.”
Ietsuna was quiet for a few minutes. “No,” he said finally. “No, they would not.”
* * * * *
Doji Nagori finished reading the scroll and laid it on the pile beside him. “That is the last,” he said. “All of the clans are coming, save the Scorpion.”
Domotai nodded. “Our gambit with Beniha worked perfectly–Mizuno couldn’t resist the chance to deny me something I wanted, and so she has shut herself out of the first few weeks of court.” She smiled at Nagori. “I am, of course, heartbroken by this.”
“Your stoic acceptance of bitter pain would do your father credit,” Nagori said. “What shall be our priorities?”
“We must tamp down any talk of Noritoshi. Shosuro Jimen is a man without honor, but he is the Emerald Champion and our clan must avoid getting dragged into a conflict with him.”
“He appears equally reluctant to widen the conflict. I suppose he isn’t willing to be so obvious as to start a feud with an entire clan,” Nagori said. “In a similar fashion, we must suppress any discussion of how badly we have been affected by the plague.”
“Indeed,” Domotai said. “Only our strengths will be discussed. The Crane has suffered ill fortune before and it did not last. So long as the Empire endures we will endure, and we will make sure our guests remember that.”
“I will remind them with every story I tell,” Nagori said.
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