A series of vignettes depicting events from around the Emerald Empire.
Scenes from the Empire
By Rusty Priske, Brian Yoon, & Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Isawa Takashi leaned against the wall, casually spinning a small piece of string around his finger – first one way, than another. He created different criss-cross patterns around his knuckle, equally as likely to be a study in the lattice-effect of spiralling energy as the lacings on katana hilt or the tying pattern on a dress kimono.
He watched the other two who also waited. They were both young. One bore the raiment of a Lion, the other seemed likely to be ronin. No one spoke, awaiting the source of their mysterious summons.
Soshi Yoshihara walked into the chamber. She affected a sort of glide that many female Scorpion courtiers accomplished, but she was not quite as efficient at it. She did not have the air of sensuality that normally accompanies the movements. She would never admit that her inability to master the technique bothered her. She was a priestess of the kami, after all. She had more important things to worry about.
“You were summoned as well?” Takashi asked, continuing to twirl his string.
“I was the one who summoned you here. My name is Soshi Yoshihara, for those who do not know.”
Takashi’s eyebrow raised. “You summoned us?”
“I did. I know you were expecting a ranking official from the Hidden Guard, but you will see that I did not deceive you as to the nature of the summons.”
Takashi glanced around. “I think before you continue, we should all know who each of us is. If we are to speak frankly, we need to know who each ear belongs to.”
Yoshihara nodded. “You are concerned about speaking of the Sanctified Ones. Your reticence is deserved, but I can assure you that it is unnecessary. These are two newly inducted members of our group. This is Kitsu Katsuki.” The Lion bowed. “And this is M’rika.” The final member, almost certainly a ronin, bowed very deeply.
Takashi nodded, though he looked warily at M’rika. “I am Isawa Takashi. So this is the business of the Sanctified Ones? That only makes the lack of the Hidden Guard more puzzling, not less.”
“It is not exactly this,” Yoshihara said. “This is a very important mission that only the Sanctified Ones can perform, yet it is not, strictly speaking, Sanctified duties that we will be performing.”
Katsuki finally spoke. “My apologies Yoshihara-san, as I am knew to this post, but this does not make sense to me. Our duty is to ensure that the lands where the Empress is travelling are properly purified and worthy of the divine one’s presence. Our duties seem very clear.”
Yoshihara nodded. “You are correct. The Empire, however, is at war. The Empress is not travelling for leisure. There are enemies who walk within our borders. There are those who know that the Empress would not travel without the likes of us moving there first.”
Takashi frowned. “That is why our positions are secret. Otherwise our mere passage would indicate the Empress’ itinerary.”
“Our positions were kept secret, yes. But there has been a leak and it has been made known who four members of the Sanctified Ones are.”
They looked at each other. Katsuki said what each was thinking. “The four of us.”
Yoshihara responded by saying nothing and then Takashi sighed. “How could our names be leaked? I had never even heard of these two.” He then turned and bowed slightly to the Lion. “No offense.”
Yoshihara waited a moment and then said, “Our names were leaked because I leaked them, under the instructions of the Emerald Champion.”
There was a moment of silence before Takashi said, “What?”
“I approached Jimen-sama with a plan to try and flush threats to the Divine One that could be hidden with the Empire. To my honor, he acknowledged the value of the plan and instructed me to proceed. As the plan would only succeed if the identities of the Sanctified Ones involved were known, I leaked our names.”
Takashi frowned. “So you unilaterally decided to involve us in this plan?”
Yoshihara shook her head. “Not unilaterally. I believe I said that the Emerald Champion approved of this plan.”
Katsuki glanced at Takashi and then said, “So what of it? What is this plan?”
The Scorpion smiled and then said, “It is simple, really, which is the strength of it. Each of us will go about our duties, as normal. We will act as if we have been given instructions about the Empress’ travel plans and we will move ahead and perform our duties. Each of us will go to a different part of the Empire and perform our duties. Then identical retinues will leave the capital and travel to the areas we have prepared.”
Katsuki nodded. “You are repeating the gambit that was successful during the War of Dark Fire.”
“I assume none of us will know which retinue will actually include the Empress,” Takashi queried, “Or will any of them?”
“The Empress will be travelling. I know which path she will be taking and to show the importance of each of us in this, I will share that information, though it is not to leave this room.” Takashi looked like he wanted to interrupt but the Scorpion did not pause. “M’rika will be responsible for the Empress’ actual well being.”
The other three all showed varying levels of surprise, none more so than M’rika herself. “Me? I am honored, certainly.”
Yoshihara stopped any further discussions by saying, “This may seem surprising to all of you, but I have been given every assurance of M’rika’s competency. In addition, the surprise displayed here will be shared elsewhere making it more unlikely that anyone would guess that is the Empress’ true destination.”
As Kitsu Katsuki and M’rika departed, Isawa Takashi gestured for Sohi Yoshihara to tarry. He did so subtly, to not make it obvious to the others. When they were safely alone Yoshihara said, “Yes? You wished to speak further?”
Takashi frowned and said, “You are leaving the safety of the Empress in the hands of a ronin. I am requesting that you switch our assignments. Give this ronin one of the false leads and I will protect the Empress.”
“You question M’rika’s appointment to the Sanctified Ones? Do you believe she would have received that position without his abilities being proven?”
“I do not care. The Empress’s safety is more important than such assurances.”
Yoshihara nodded. “I agree. This is why the Empress will not be travelling at that time.”
Takashi’s eyebrow shot up. “What?”
“It has come to the attention of that Emerald Champion that M’rika does not see herself as a ronin at all. She has sworn herself to this so-called Spider clan.”
“What? She must be dealt with!”
“Yes, but for two things. One, the stance of the Empress towards the Spider has softened of late. Second, so far it is just supposition. When I learned that Jimen-sama was going to order an investigation I proposed this plan instead. Our names were not leaked as I said. No one knows about this plan but the four of us and the Emerald Champion. If there is an assault on what M’rika believes to be the Empress, we will be able to expose both her and the Spider Clan as threats to the Empress.”
Takashi smiled grimly. “I see. Might I ask why you are willing to tell me this?”
“I was hoping that you were interested in a small trip.”
“Whoever rides in that palanquin must be able to defend herself. Would you care to be my escort?”
* * * * *
Brothers in Arms
The winter chill yet lingered in the streets of the Imperial City, driven across the western plains by the wind of the Unicorn provinces. Tsuruchi Sanjo had never come to terms with the discomfort of it, having been accustomed since birth to the warm climate of the Islands of Silk & Spice. Still, he favored loosing fitting garments that gave him freedom of movement, and he refused to squander his stipend on new clothing that better suited the weather. How could one spend month on clothing when there were so many interesting weapons, so much sake, and so many intriguing geisha that required his company? It was folly.
Sanjo stopped outside a small temple that was near the barracks assigned to him as part of his duties among the Empress’ Guard. He twirled the tonfa he had just purchased by its handle, marveling at its balance and the smooth quality of the wood. The carpenter who fancied himself a weaponsmith was skilled indeed! Sanjo looked at the temple. It was not much to the eye, but then many of the monks who were stationed within the inner city were of a conservative nature, so such a thing was not uncommon. This temple, however, held a new shrine, one recently constructed, and something within Sanjo told him that he must pay homage. He was weary, and if the truth was to be told he had consumed too much sake even considering that he was free of duties for the evening and subsequent morning. Ultimately, he decided that there was no time to be wasted and entered the shrine, intent on offering his prayers and retiring for the evening.
Sanjo moved silently through the temple’s courtyard, eager to avoid conversation with the monks. The shrine within the courtyard was yet small and modest, something that some took issue with but with which Sanjo believed the man interred within would have been pleased. He stepped within to pay his respects, and was surprised to discover that even at such hour of the night, it was occupied.
Two men knelt at the shrine, paying their respects. Sanjo realized after a moment that he knew them both. “My apologies, brothers,” he said quietly. “I did not mean to interrupt your reverence.”
“No apology required,” the hoarse whisper that was Bayushi Hirose’s voice replied. “My daily prayers are complete.”
“Daily?” Sanjo asked. “You offer prayers here daily?”
“I do,” Hirose replied. “Bayushi Norachai was a great man. He was a tremendous honor to my family and my clan. I honor his memory as all loyal Scorpion should.”
Sanjo nodded. “And what of you, Naomasa? What brings you to the shrine of a Scorpion lord?”
Matsu Naomasa stood from where he had knelt beside Hirose. “My father was a Deathseeker. He regained his honor, and that of my family, at the cost of his own life. In his last moments, Norachai-sama did the same, and for that I honor him.” He gestured to a smaller urn within the shrine. “Upon his deathbed, when informed of the shrine that would be his, Norachai requested that those guards who fell beside him be interred alongside him. Akodo Kurogane was my friend, and I honor him as well.”
“I see,” Sanjo said quietly.
“Your presence here confounds,” Hirose admitted. “The Mantis have no love for the Scorpion, even if some are able to put aside their disdain for a greater purpose, such as we have.”
“In truth,” Sanjo said, “I do not know. I felt… led. To pay my respects.”
“Destiny moves us in manners we cannot comprehend,” Hirose said. “I offer you my thanks for your reverence for Norachai-sama. It is an honor for all Scorpion. And I take my leave of you, to offer your prayers as you see fit.”
“Forget not my kinsmen in your prayers,” Naomasa reminded him. “Or our fallen comrade Tobikuma. His wounds are grievous, and his return to our side is yet uncertain.”
“Of course,” Sanjo said, nodding as the two men left. In their absence, the shrine was utterly silent. And in that silence, Sanjo stood, uncertain what to say.
* * * * *
The distant inhuman screech had become familiar over the previous months, but it continued to put Hida Demopen in a state of unease. By the sound, he guessed it originated nearly a mile away from his current location. It was not an immediate threat, but he knew their brief respite had come to an end.
He began lacing his arm guards and looked up at his companion in the tent. The Scorpion stared off into the distance in the direction of the noise, his expression unreadable under his mask.
“As you can hear, Kosaku-san, my time is short. You must get to the heart of the matter,” Demopen said. His voice was customarily curt, but not with any malice.
Bayushi Kosaku nodded. They had become familiar with each other’s styles and rarely took umbrage. “I understand. Thankfully, my duties here are brief. I requested and received orders that would give you direct command over several Scorpion military assets stationed along this part of the border. If you would accept it, Demopen-san, a legion of the Scorpion’s bravest warriors will follow your order as if they were given by the highest authority.”
Demopen’s fingers stopped mid gesture. He barely stopped himself from uttering a curse. “What do you mean?”
Kosaku shrugged. “I mean exactly that. It sounds grander than it is, Demopen-san. You will be able to give orders to fifty samurai and five hundred ashigaru warriors. You know these men; they are the ones who have been fighting by your side all these months. I assume you can forge a bond of experience and camaraderie with them?”
“That is not the problem, Kosaku-san,” Demopen protested. “I have told you many times that your men have proven their worth. I will fight with them at any time.”
“Then what is?” Kosaku asked.
The Crab sputtered. “What is wrong with the current method? I am happy to work with you as a partner and share my thoughts with another commander.”
“That will not change, Demopen,” Kosaku answered. “I am still stationed here and I will continue to advise you on any tactical measure you wish. I have a different view on warfare and defense and I will help you utilize that to our greatest potential. However, there are two great problems with the current chain of command. The first is that I am not a soldier. I am a warrior, of course, but I have not been fully trained as a commander. It is only necessity that places me in my position now.”
“You have adapted well,” Demopen stated. His hands began to lace the piece of his armor once more.
Kosaku’s lips curled into a slight smile. “Thank you. You, on the other hand, have been fighting in the Crab armies ever since your gempukku.”
“It was also necessity that placed me in that position,” Demopen said. “The years have not been kind on us.”
“You are willing to incorporate our style of battle with your own. Our tactics have managed to hold these beasts at bay, even take back some of our territory. Success must be rewarded, and I trust that you will know how to best utilize my men,” Kosaku continued.
Demopen gestured to the tent opening, and the pair began to walk toward the forces gathering to repel the next advance. “I see your point. The next one?”
“My final point is simple. We had a tragedy last month that could have been easily avoided if my men had been in place.”
He remained silent. The Destroyers attacked at dawn with a swiftness they had never displayed before. Demopen had roused immediately and began shouting orders to mount a defense. Kosaku had not become ready so quickly and the Scorpion forces lay in disarray for much of the fight.
“Can I still rely on you, Kosaku-san?” Demopen asked as they drew closer to the men.
“Of course,” Kosaku responded immediately. “Few things will change. I have only asked for and received official word for emergency situations.”
Demopen wondered how much that official word had cost Kosaku. It could not have been helpful toward his career, but he also knew that the Scorpion had taken last month’s error deeply to heart.
When the two commanders were in speaking distance, the two leaders of the deadliest force in the army stood up. Few things could withstand an assault from the unbridled fury of a Crab berserker or the reckless abandon of a Bitter Lies swordsman. Fewer still could handle a unit of both fighting together. The amalgam had severe casualties but had turned the tides of more than one battle.
“Are you ready, Ikarukani?” Demopen asked, peering into the man’s face.
The berserker clasped his hands in front of him and showed his teeth. Demopen couldn’t tell if it was a smile or grimace, but it was close enough to an agreement.
“Forgive his eagerness, Demopen-sama,” Bayushi Shigehiro called out. “My friend has been itching to throw himself against the Destroyers again. You asked us to recuperate during the last battle and he does not like to let his talents waste away.”
Demopen chuckled. “You needed the rest, even if you will not admit it. We’ll destroy their commander during this battle.”
“‘We?’” Ikarukani echoed.
“I’m joining you this time, men,” Demopen said. “You can show me first hand you deserve all the praise I heap on your shoulders.”
A round of chuckles rumbled through the unit.
“Demopen-san!” Kosaku called out. He turned.
“Loyalty is the greatest tenet of the Scorpion Clan, my friend,” Kosaku said quietly. “You have earned mine. I know you will live up to it.”
Hida Demopen stood speechless for a brief moment. He smiled and bowed deeply at the waist.
Then he spun on his heel and slung his tetsubo against his shoulder. “All right, lads!” he shouted. “Let’s show these Destroyers the combined might of the two deadliest Clans of the Empire!”
His soldiers roared back. The cheer rang in the air, overcoming the sound of the approaching demon army.
* * * * *
Names were such curious things.
The woman called Fatina walked across the small chamber that served as her quarters within the Spider stronghold called the Fingers of Bone. Fatina had not always been her name, but her previous names no longer mattered. To call the rooms her chambers was a trickery of names, for they were little more than a large cell. And the Fingers of Bone was an ominous, sinister name given to a simple feat of nature, one that had left numerous tall rock spires concealed within a canyon, virtually impossible to find unless one knew what one was looking for, and exactly where to look for it. Curious indeed.
There was the whispering sound of the door opening behind her, just as it had done at this exact time the day before, the day before that, the day before that, and a dozen more times in perfect ritual succession. “I hope the sun finds you well this day, lord Mishime-sama,” Fatina said, struggling to keep the fatigue and annoyance from her voice. “Unfortunately, I have little new information to offer you, since as you know I have not left these rooms in many weeks.”
“Mishime is such a tiresome wretch, is he not?” a woman’s voice asked.
Fatina turned quickly at the voice, then felt the color bleed from her face ever so slightly. “Lady Shahai,” she said quietly. “I apologize. I was not expecting you.”
“Clearly.” The Lady of Blood walked in a slow circle around the perimeter of the main chamber, examining everything without touching any of it. “I have not been in your quarters before, I do not think,” she said. “How very pedestrian. Would you not prefer something more comfortable?”
“My preferences are not a concern,” Fatina answered carefully. “And regardless, this chamber is more than adequate for my needs, particularly when I consider some of the places I have dwelled back in Medinaat-al-Salaam.”
“The Jewel of the Desert,” Shahai said. “I have often considered what marvels must be found there. My ancestors visited there centuries past, you know.”
“I did not,” Fatina admitted.
“Few do,” Shahai said. “My lineage is not something most concern themselves with. Why do you suppose that is?”
Fatina licked her lips. “I suspect, my lady, that most are too afraid of who you are to worry about who your people are, so to speak.”
Shahai smiled slightly. “Perhaps so. Quite insightful. You know, I have wanted to come and speak with you for some time.”
“I see.” The chamber suddenly felt very cold. “Why have you not done so, my lady?”
“A number of reasons, really.” Shahai trailed one finger across a small piece of sculpture from the Sands, one of the few keepsakes Fatina kept of her homeland. “You might be surprised how difficult it is to find someone to watch a precocious little thing like may Kanpeki. His ogre yojimbo is very dutiful but somewhat ill-suited to correction, if you take my meaning. And of course my husband would have discouraged my visit.” She paused for a moment. “He is away, seeing to the concerns of our clan at the moment.”
“I see,” Fatina repeated. “You feel he would have prohibited you.”
“My devoted, beloved husband feels I have some latent issues with controlling my baser impulses,” Shahai admitted. “I must confess it is not something I have gone out of my way to dispel.” She fixed Fatina with a stare. “The truth is sometimes difficult, don’t you agree?”
“I do,” Fatina agreed.
“Where is Master Saleh?”
Fatina sighed and cast her eyes downward. “My lady, if I knew the answer to that question, I assure you that I would have answered on the first of the more than one dozen times Mishime has asked me.” She looked up and met Shahai’s gaze. “I do not know where he has gone, nor do I know what he plans. I know only that he is a fool.”
“In the latter, I do not doubt your word in the least,” Shahai said with a smile. “In the former, I am less certain. Have you been made aware of the circumstances surrounding his disappearance?”
Fatina cleared her throat slightly. “I am given to understand that he disappeared during the war with the Destroyers last summer, and that at least a small number of the ironclad monstrosities the goddess fields disappeared with him.”
“Close enough,” Shahai said. “Were your kinsman yet loyal to us, to those who took him in, gave him shelter, and protected him from his ill-defined fears, he would surely have resurfaced by now. He can but be loyal to the Destroyer, or perhaps to himself alone.”
“The latter is more likely, my lady,” Shahai said. “Saleh was terrified of the Destroyer. It was the reason he fled here to your land, for fear that the arrival of her hordes in the Jewel of the Desert was imminent.”
“I see,” Shahai said. “I can perhaps understand his desire to gain dominion over that which he feared, but his foolishness is without bounds, it seems.” She paused for a moment, then regarded Fatina curiously. “Why did you come? If Saleh came out of fear, what was the purpose of your flight? Do you fear the Destroyer as well?”
“I do,” Fatina confirmed, “but that was not the reason for my flight. I fled here because, while I fear the Destroyer, I fear your husband more.”
Shahai seemed genuinely surprised, and perhaps even somewhat pleased. “Why ever do you say that, dear?”
“As I told Saleh, this is a land of god-killers,” she explained. “And none among them are as bold, as powerful, and as ruthless as your husband. If the Destroyer can be stopped, it will be he that accomplishes such a task. And he is not a god, but a man, and can therefore be reasoned with. He can be convinced, for instance, of the value of service by one such as myself. That is why I came to your lands.”
“I see,” Shahai said. She continued her circuit around the room, moving wordlessly until she returned too the door through which she entered. She gave the room one final survey, then smiled thinly at Fatina. “I think you require something a bit more robust in terms of your chambers,” she said. “I will make arrangements.”
Fatina bowed. “Thank you, my lady.”
“Do not make me regret my indulgence,” Shahai said in a warning tone, and then she was gone.
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