A trio of vignettes from around the Emerald Empire.
Scenes from the Empire
By Rusty Priske, Nancy Sauer, and Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
A Little Drop
A few years ago… before the ascension of Empress Iweko…
Shosuro Oniji held the small vial up to the light, watching how the afternoon rays moved through the nearly clear liquid and splashed colors across his worktable. He mentally measured the arc of color and nodded. He placed the vial back into a short wooden rack holding ten vials that looked identical to casual view and made a small note on a piece of parchment. The note appeared to refer to the bird patterns around Ryoko Owari, but it did not.
Oniji heard the noise at the door but ignored it. Instead he finished writing his note and picked up another vial, repeating the process of catching the light. While he was looking at it he said, “Can you explain to me why I am doing this?”
Shosuro Jimen, who had been waiting at the door, slipped inside and moved quickly, yet lightly, to Oniji’s worktable. “There are certain impurities that can find their way in during the brewing process. If they taint the mixture, its potency will be diminished.”
Oniji waited for a moment then said, “And?”
“And it will be more detectable.”
Oniji nodded. “A poison that is easily detected may as well be a knife. If it cannot go undetected then there is no reason for subtlety at all.”
Jimen bowed his head briefly. “Yes Master Oniji.”
“You are late.” Oniji’s tone implied that this was not an item that surprised him in any way.
“My apologies Master Oniji, but I was feeling poorly this morning.”
“That is a light way of putting it. It would be more accurate to say that you were violently ill this morning. Your fortunes were reversed, both north and south. You felt as if the plague had returned to Rokugan.”
Jimen nodded. “Yes Master Oniji.”
“Consider that one more lesson. You should be dead now. The only thing that keeps you standing here is that I wished to teach you and lessons are seldom valuable after the student expires. You ate a meal prepared by someone you could not trust.”
“I thought I could trust her.”
“You thought wrong.”
“I will have to rethink my allegiances.”
Oniji shook his head. “You have missed the point of the lesson altogether. It is not that you misjudged who to trust – it is that you trusted at all. You thought that you could be sure of her allegiance, yet there was someone who was able to convince her to look away at the right moment. Do you remember who recommended her to you?”
“It was you, Master Oniji.”
“Of course. You must always follow the mantra that the knife has two edges. What you use may also be used against you.”
“Yes Master Oniji.”
Oniji placed a vial back in its rack. “Now, what should we discuss today?”
“I have a question, Master Oniji. How could you tell that it was me at the door just now? That is a skill that could have use in the future, I would think.”
Oniji nodded. “You would think right. It was smell.” He saw the puzzled look on his apprentice’s face and continued. “It is slight but the mixture you consumed last night sends out a slight flavor of odor from your skin today. It is a mix of grass and sour wine. Do not worry. It is very slight. Untrained noses would not even be aware of it. It is good to be able to recognize it, though.”
Jimen frowned slightly. “In case someone wants to incapacitate you for a time, but not kill you.”
“That is simplistic. There are many reasons to wish to practice our craft against another other than just kill them. You think of our art as a hammer, Jimen. You need to think of it as a razor. If the only service we can provide is the death of the target then our options are few. But to control the way a person feels or thinks, that is great power indeed.”
Jimen furrowed his brow. “We can do that? What mixture?”
“You think too literally. What would happen if a clan daimyo were to find midnight oil on a piece of correspondence addressed to him?”
“He would consider it an attempt on his life, I would assume.”
Oniji nodded. “A virulent contact poison would only be placed there for one reason. The odds of it reaching that daimyo are slim of course. Too many others would touch it before it reached him. Someone would die but not the supposed intended. Then what would happen?”
“Retribution, or investigation and then retribution.”
“And if the letter was found to come from a daimyo of a different clan?”
Jimen thought for a moment. “War, I suppose.”
“Yes, and all from a small application of a substance when we had no intention of killing the target.”
Jimen thought longer. “It is still using death as a weapon. Directing that death to a different target is still delivering death.”
“A mid-level governor finishes his meal and doubles over in pain. He feels not all that different than you did this morning. He calls for you and you tell him that he has been affected by… what?”
Jimen paused then said, “Night Silk.”
Oniji smiled. “He has been stricken by Night Silk poison and will not last a day without the antidote, which you know the formulation for making. He pleads for his life and you oblige by putting together a mixture of something foul tasting enough that its bite will linger for a week. You ask for nothing in return… until you do.”
“And I suppose he gave off a slight odor of grass and sour wine.”
“Well done. These mixtures are just tools. In the hands of an amateur they would be no more effective than a paintbrush in the hands of an eta. In the hands of a master, though, they can buy and sell worlds. Anything you want can be yours with the right mixture of subtlety and arrogance.”
“Thank you for the lesson, Master Oniji. Might I depart? I wish to cleanse my system before I encounter anyone with an advanced sense of smell who I might offend.”
Within moments Jimen had left and Oniji returned to his task, inspecting the vials, one at a time. Then, quickly, he felt a stabbing pain in his midsection. It passed but then returned. As he felt his bile rise he put his forearm to his nose and inhaled deeply.
Then he smiled.
* * * * *
Brother of Strength
The monk sat and watched the courtyard of Bishamon Seido during midday. Under different circumstances, there would be swarming activity all across the area. He had once, when he was young, compared it to what one would find if one kicked an anthill. His sensei had overheard, and he had deeply regretted the comment almost instantly, and for approximately three days of double chores. If his younger self could see the courtyard today, it was highly unlikely that the youth would even recognize it.
Normally there would be hundreds of students training in the courtyard, and dozens of Kitsu priests conducting their battle exercises in preparation for tours of duty with the Lion armies. Now, there were perhaps dozens of students, slightly less than half the normal number by the monk’s estimation. And he could see precisely four Kitsu training. The others had all been summoned away. Perhaps they were on the front lines of the war already, or perhaps they had been used to fill vacant spots elsewhere in the clan’s provinces, spots vacated by other Lion being sent to the front lines. Or, and this was the direst of the possibilities, they had been conscripted as part of the desperate forces that were fighting against the severe winter conditions to try to find and destroy the plague-spawned undead that were presently ravaging the Lion countryside. The notion of so many youths, untested and untrained for such a duty, facing against undead monstrosities in the center of a nighttime blizzard filled his heart with a weight he could not give name to.
There was too much war. Too much even for the Lion Clan. The monk shook his head with incredulity at the very thought. How could the one clan born for war be overwhelmed bit its excess? The thought was nonsensical, and yet he could not escape the notion that such had come to pass nonetheless. What would come of his former clan? What fate would the Lion be left to in the face of such disastrous odds? He was not sure. He could not know. The teachings of the past few years, all the time since he had entered the monastery and left that time behind, had taught him to believe that fate would unfold as it must. It was a lesson the monk had never learned, and now he no longer felt any desire to try.
The monk rose abruptly and returned to his meager quarters within the shrine. They were bereft of any major features save for his simple straw mat and a low table that he could use for a variety of purpose, most frequently writing. And it was writing now that drove him. He quickly secured a black length of scroll and dipped his brush into the ink. He paused only for a moment, reflecting that this might be among the most important letters he had ever written. And then he put the brush to the paper.
Those few of you who I have chosen to receive this message have for one reason or another struck me as men of purpose and drive in the short time that we have known one another in the various convocations where we have met. Some of you I knew before the time of our service to the Brotherhood, and for that reason I will use my former name, which I continue to use to this day despite the typical convention of abandoning such.
I trust that none of you have so retreated from worldly affairs that you do not know of the dangers facing our home. My teachings tell me, in part, that the affairs of the world are not to be considered, for they are a barrier to the achievement of true spiritual harmony. I have struggled to accept these words, and now I find that I have reason to reject them completely. This is not the time for enlightenment and introspection. This is the time for action. Yes, even among the Brotherhood.
In the morning I intent to inform my abbot that I will be taking leave of my duties at Bishamon Seido and traveling to the battle lines. If I am able, I will teach. If I can, I will inspire. And when I must, I will fight. I will not stand aside and watch the Empire suffer when I can take action to prevent it, even if only in a very small measure. What manner of soul could ever take my words as wise if I did so?
I hope that you will join me, brothers. I hope that we can help guide the Empire to its future.
Your brother in study,
* * * * *
A Glimpse of the Soul’s Shadow
The plum tree was sheltered from the north wind by a tea house, and thus was the first one in the embassy’s garden to bloom in the spring. Kakita Hideshi looked it over carefully for blossoms as he had every day since the winter nights had begun to shorten: the first flowers of spring would be a splendid gift for Beniha. The tree was still tightly budded today, and so he left the area and started back towards the main building. A crunch of feet on frosty gravel and a flash of dark red alerted him that he was no longer alone.
“Good afternoon, Kakita-san. It is a lovely afternoon, is it not?” Bayushi Kindebu continued walking along the path he was on until it joined the one Hideshi was on and then he stopped.
“It is, Bayushi-san,” Hideshi said. Kindebu’s presence could only mean trouble, the duelist thought. He had been sensibly quiet since the day Beniha had shamed him in court, but not for a moment did Hideshi think that he had forgotten it. “The ikebana competition is taking place in the Azalea Pavilion,” he said.
Kindebu smiled. “Thank you, I may visit it later. But my business here is with you.”
“I cannot imagine what business you would have that concerned me,” Hideshi said.
“Indeed. It requires some explanation, I am afraid. You are aware of course that after the attempt on the Empress’s life most of the great houses in Toshi Ranbo looked to improving their security. But not the Scorpion embassy–we are always concerned with such things. So concerned, in fact, that we have anti-taint wards in place.”
“A great comfort, I am sure,” Hideshi said. He did not know what Kindebu looked to accomplish by discussing the secrets of his clan, but he had no intention to let slip what the Crane were doing to safeguard their guests.
“And a great surprise,” Kindebu said, “when you crossed the embassy threshold and immediately became ill. You covered it quickly, and I am sure no one else noticed. Everyone else was watching Asahina Beniha–they were too worried about what an air shugenja could do to think about her yojimbo. But I saw it. I know your secret.”
It took Hideshi a moment to work out what Kindebu was implying, and when he did he laughed. “That is it? Your business with me is to threaten me with a story you made up?”
“You deny you felt ill?”
“Why should I deny it? Your shugenja did it hoping to embarrass Beniha.”
“Too much work for not enough result,” Kindebu said. “Kakita-san, I don’t think you are taking this seriously enough. Consider for a moment what would happen if my clanmates were to bring this up in court.”
“Nothing would happen. Lady Doji is a sensible woman and would recognize your lies for what they are.”
“Perhaps, in a normal year. But nothing is normal this year, and many members of the court are quite skittish. Lady Doji would have to order you to be examined, just to quiet their fears. And what would happen then?”
“Bayushi dog,” Hideshi snarled. He took two steps forward, his hand resting on the strange obi he wore, just above his katana. “I have never been to the Shadowlands, so you are accusing me of maho–tonight Lady Doji will have my request for a duel with you.”
Kindebu held out his hands in a gesture of peace. “I am accusing you of nothing save being tainted,” he said. “It is true you never have been to the Shadowlands, but your mother’s father fought there. The Ikoma scrolls are full of names of honorable men who became tainted at the battle of Oblivion’s Gate.”
Hideshi was silent for a moment, caught by something he had never before considered. “It proves nothing,” he said finally. “You are grasping at straws.”
“Haven’t you ever wondered at the pain you feel when you enter the Imperial palace?”
“You only guessed that!” Hideshi said.
“I didn’t have to guess,” Kindebu said. “If you are tainted, you would be affected by the palaces’ wards.”
“It is natural to feel holy awe in the Empress’s house.”
“Holy awe doesn’t normally cause your bones to ache,” Kindebu said. “If it did, Togashi Satsu would be a cripple now.”
Hideshi took one deep breath and then another, using his Kakita training to will away his panic. “I am not tainted.”
“Oh, but you are,” Kindebu said. “You are merely stalling now, because you know what will happen when it is brought up in court.” He smiled and backed up a few steps, stopping outside of Hideshi’s zone. “But it doesn’t have to happen, you know. You clearly are only lightly tainted, and are in full control of yourself and your loyalties. You could demonstrate that control by passing along to me some of the things you learn by listening in on all of your charge’s conversations.”
Hideshi glared at him. “You expect me to spy on Beniha for you?”
“As a demonstration of your loyalty to her, yes. It would be so much better than the courts learning that she had a tainted man as a lover, now wouldn’t it?”
Hideshi’s vision when black for a heartbeat, and then blood-red. When his eyes cleared he was still standing on the path, facing Kindebu. His hand was clutching his obi with a death-grip. “You will not threaten her,” he whispered hoarsely.
“The only threat to her is you,” Kindebu said. “Tragic, isn’t it? There is a small teahouse called the Jade Pearl a few blocks from here. Leave your reports with a servant named Iwao.”
“No,” Hideshi said.
“As you like,” Kindebu said. “I will go see Lady Doji now. She should be in the Azalea Pavilion watching the ikebana contest, I believe.”
“No, you will not,” Hideshi said.
“Killing me here isn’t an option,” Kindebu said. “There are guard patrols everywhere, and I don’t plan on dying quietly. There will be questions, many questions from my family. In the end, you will be revealed.” He turned around, preparing to run, and then stopped. On the path before him there was a small crowd of ghostly, twisted figures. Behind them the path disappeared into a dark mist.
“I am sure there will be questions,” Hideshi said. “But there will be no blood, no body, and no link to me.”
“What? What is this?” Kindebu said. He inched back away from them, closer to Hideshi.
“The Kami Ryoshun has a higher opinion of me than you do,” Hideshi said. “By his will I bear the Talisman of Gaki-do. Which is where you are going now.”
“I can’t go to Gaki-do,” Kindebu said. “I am not dead! I–” The leader of the group, a figure with a Mantis mon on his breast and a wide, bloodless slash across his abdomen, reached out and grabbed the Scorpion by the wrist. Kindebu’s mouth continued to move, but no sound could be heard. He struggled to break the grip but the others swarmed around him, dragging Kindebu towards the mist. He twisted around to give Hideshi one last horrified look, one hand outstretched in a silent plea. Then he vanished into the mist.
Hideshi watched in silence until the garden reappeared in front of him. Then he buried his head in his hands and began to shake.
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