Two weeks’ worth of the ongoing saga of Rokugan’s devastating conflict with the forces of Kali-ma, as dictated by the results of the 2011 Kotei Season tournaments.
The Destroyer War, Parts 4 & 5
By Shawn Carman and Nancy Sauer
Spring had finally come to the Scorpion provinces, but the night wind still blew chill as it wound through the streets of Closed Pincer City. It was the wind that was making him shiver, Ieyoshi told himself. Just the wind. It had nothing to do with being trapped in this corpse of a city, or the Destroyers gathering to the south, or the battle to come. It was wind. The ronin grimaced and forced himself to walk faster.
His destination soon came into view: one of the few intact houses left in the city.It had been taken for the use of the commander of the Imperial force that had arrived the previous day, and two ronin stood guard at the doors. Ieyoshi stopped a prudent distance away from them. “I am Ieyoshi,” he said. “I have been sent for by the uruwashii.”
“You may enter,” one of the guards said. Ieyoshi fixed a neutral expression on his face and went in. The house’s main room was empty save for a white-haired man standing over a table, gazing down at something upon it. As the ronin entered he looked up and smiled. “Ieyoshi-san, you are prompt. Good.”
Ieyoshi bowed, hoping that he was bowing deeply enough to imply the proper degree of respect without going so deep as to imply an insult. A lifetime of dealing with desperate men had made Ieyoshi a fairly quick judge of character, and it was clear to him that insulting a man like Shimekiri was unwise: he wore his blades with the kind of swagger that came from being very good, very vain, or both. “Your message did not specify what you wished to speak of, so I am afraid I am unprepared.”
“You need not be concerned,” Shimekiri said. “You are the leader of the wave men here, and I wish you to be informed about your part in the battle tomorrow.”
Ieyoshi found it hard to cover his surprise at this. In his experience, Imperials and clan samurai usually dealt with ronin by forcing them into the front battle line and leaving them to fight or die. Of course, Shimekiri himself was a ronin; perhaps his action should not be that surprising. “Thank you, Shimekiri-sama. I would greatly appreciate any information you wish to give,” Ieyoshi said.
”Clan samurai look down on wave men, but we know that not all great warriors bear a mon.” Shimekiri gestured down at the map. “This should not take long.” He began speak, outlining what was known about the Destroyer forces and how the commanders of the Rokugani forces present planned to fight them.
As the explanation went on Ieyoshi began to feel cautiously optimistic about the coming battle. When Shimekiri and his command had marched into Closed Pincer City all anyone knew about him was that he was clearly a former Crane and that he held an exalted and obscure rank given to him by the Emerald Champion. This was not considered to be an auspicious sign.
But the longer Shimekiri talked the more obvious it became that either he himself was a competent military commander or he had someone on his staff who was and he was willing to listen to him. Ieyoshi was comfortable with either possibility. This left the question of why Shosuro Jimen had given him the rank of uruwashii, but Ieyoshi didn’t think that was much of a mystery. Shimekiri had the air of a violent, soulless killer, and Jimen probably had a need for men like that.
Shimekiri ended his explanation and gave Ieyoshi an enquiring look. “Do you have any questions?”
“No, Shimekiri-sama,” Ieyoshi said. “The Destroyers are expected to come in here,” he pointed to the map as he spoke, “your forces will be here, the Scorpion legion will hold this section of the city, and you want the city ronin to be here.”
Shimekiri nodded at this proof that Ieyoshi had been paying attention, and then he smiled widely. “Tomorrow we fight to defend the Empress’s honor, and all of Heaven will be watching.”
Ieyoshi didn’t see why this was funny, but he wasn’t about to ask. “They will be watching you, perhaps. I’ve never seen that Heaven cares much about ronin.”
“I am sure that a Kami is watching me,” Shimekiri said softly. “I have never doubted that.”
* * * * *
Ieyoshi ducked under the Destroyer’s swing, noticed it had over-extended itself, and closed in for a blow. Using his katana as a make-shift spear he stabbed his opponent in the weak spot under one of the arms and had the satisfaction of seeing it collapse. The feeling died as Ieyoshi looked around the street. There were too many Destroyers, far too many of them. His small group had been assigned this area because it was expected to see only scout forces: to have this many Destroyers present meant that something had gone terribly wrong. Not that this was particularly uncommon in war, Ieyoshi knew, but he preferred to be somewhere else when it did.
Ieyoshi’s thoughts were cut off by a sudden rise of noise from one of the side-streets. More Destroyers, he thought, but the figures that rushed out were human. Most wore the colors of the Imperial Legions, but some were ronin. Ieyoshi yelled for his men to follow him and then plunged back into battle, closing the distance between the two forces.
The two groups were fighting flank-to-flank when Ieyoshi found himself confronted by a white-haired human figure clad in black, its face painted kabuki-style in white and blue. The effect was dramatic and disturbing, and it wasn’t until the man shouted his name that Ieyoshi recognized him as Shimekiri. “Fall back,” the uruwashii said. “We are pulling out of the city!”
“Hai, Shimekiri-sama!” Ieyoshi yelled back. Then he set aside the question of what had happened and focussed himself on the delicate task of leading an organized retreat.
* * * * *
His left arm hurt badly, but it was still attached, and that was good enough for Ieyoshi. Moving carefully he used it to pick up the cup of water before him and bring it to his lips. As he drank his gaze wandered through the valley below, where Closed Pincer City was being systematically razed by the Destroyers.
Light footsteps sounded on the path behind him, more sensed than heard, and Ieyoshi turned around to see Shimekiri approach. He was still in his black armor and kabuki paint, and Ieyoshi felt a slight prickle at the base of his neck at the sight. “Shimekiri-sama,” he said, bowing awkwardly.
The uruwashii acknowledged the greeting with a slight nod and continued past Ieyoshi, stopping a few paces beyond to stare at the city. He made a slight hissing noise, and then spoke. “A waste. We could have held it.”
“What happened?” Ieyoshi asked.
“The Scorpion withdrew their forces without warning–our left flank was completely uncovered.” He turned around and gave Ieyoshi a malevolent look. “What do you think I should say to the Scorpion commander, when we next meet?”
Ieyoshi bowed his head for a moment so that he didn’t have to meet Shimekiri’s eyes. “I don’t think it will be a matter for words,” he said.
“Well said. And what of you? I have heard you were injured.”
“Not seriously, Shimekiri-sama. I have a shallow cut on the left arm, and a bruise that goes right down to the bone, but the healers say I will recover.”
“Excellent.” Shimekiri smiled. “My force suffered heavy casualties in the battle; a man of your skill will be most useful.”
Ieyoshi blinked a bit at that. “Shimekiri-sama? I am not part of your command. And I do not seek to be.” A feeling of uneasiness spread through him.
Shimekiri laid his left hand on his katana and smoothly thumbed the blade up. Still smiling he took a step closer to the ronin. “Ieyoshi-san, you must have taken a blow to the head as well. I cannot think of another reason you would refuse a call to serve your Empress.”
For a moment Ieyoshi couldn’t speak. He understood precisely the threat that Shimekiri had just made, and he was paralyzed by the sudden notion that getting killed was the correct action. Then the habits of a lifetime rose up and he bowed his head again. “I am so sorry, Shimekiri-sama. The day has made me slow and stupid. Of course I am at the service of the Empress.”
“Indeed,” Shimekiri said. “Your first task is to speak to the other ronin from Closed Pincer City and explain to them their situation. Then make sure they are all ready to move by sunset; we will withdraw from this area under the cover of darkness. Do you have any questions?”
“No, Shimekiri-sama,” Ieyoshi said.
Shimekiri smiled and left without further word. Ieyoshi waited until he was gone and then quickly picked up his flask of water. The liquid was cool and sweet, but the dryness in his mouth remained.
* * * * *
Shinjo Genki took a draught of water from a small clay bottle, emptying what remained. She exhaled shakily and wiped a spare few droplets from her lips with the back of her hand, a gesture that would have horrified many of her frequent colleagues had she made it in the courts to which she was accustomed, but here, near the front lines, no one looked twice. The Lady of the Shinjo looked down at her clothing. It was ripped in many places, stained in others. She had been in what amounted to a running battle for almost two weeks now, with little time to rest or refresh. The people alongside whom she had been traveling and fighting this entire time, people who would rightly be called refugees by anyone with a proper sense of the term, were as tired and as battered as she. How could she pause to consider herself when so many were depending upon her for leadership.
Many times since her ragged band had fled the Temple of the Scorpion’s Shadow in the Crane lands, they had come across military units moving to and from the front. None of them could spare the manpower to aid the refugees, and the Destroyers were so close behind that settling in a village that might soon be overrun seemed foolish. What were Crane refugees to do, then? Genki was not sure, but she knew that she could not abandon them until they were safe. If she did so, she could not meet her daughter’s eyes upon her return home.
The thought of her daughter, so small and pure of heart, caused a wave of grief to course over Genki. It was only recently that the little one had finally stopped asking where her father was. Would she be asking for her mother now? Genki covered her mouth to stifle an inadvertent sob.
“My lady,” a voice said softly behind her.
Genki brushed at her eyes and turned around. “What is it, Moru?”
Moru was a young monk, and with the deaths of most of his superiors at the Temple of the Scorpion’s Shadow, he had come to a role of leadership among those who remained. He had been the first to volunteer to aid Genki in the defense of the temple, a vital act that had allowed the majority of the village to evacuate in time, but which had cost the lives of many brave monks. The others looked to him for guidance, and he looked to her. She could not fail him now. “I thought you should know, my lady… the word is that the regiment we encountered yesterday has diverted southwest to intercept a large advance force of Destroyers.”
Genki shook her head. “We expected as much.”
“Indeed,” he said. “The problem is that there is an additional group, a smaller force of scouts but sizeable enough, and it is moving northeast toward a village called Kyobu Mura.”
Genki frowned. Such a movement would not endanger the refugees under their care, so it seemed odd for it to be brought to her attention, unless… “What are the present defenses of Kyobu Mura?” she asked. In her heart, she knew the answer.
“Minimal,” Moru admitted. “There are a handful of defenders, but they will be unequal to the task, I am afraid.”
Genki lowered her head and closed her eyes. “What are our options?”
“Few,” he said. “If we attempt to defend, we will most likely suffer losses significant enough that our current defense of the refugees will become impossible simply due to manpower.”
“And if we do not.”
Moru lowered his head. “The village has no chance of survival, my lady.”
Genki struggled not to give in to despair. “The prudent choice would be to leave the village to its fate, I suppose. It is what any responsible soul, charged with the protection of others, would do: to protect those under their care and maintain the proper resources to do so. It is what any tactician would do. What any general would do.”
“That seems reasonable,” Moru said quietly.
Genki was silent for several minutes. “But it is not would Shono would have done,” she finally said, her voice just above a whisper.” She looked up at the monk. “I will go to defend the village. Any who wish to do so may accompany me, but it will be purely on a volunteer basis. No one is expected to come. You have command while I am gone.”
“Forgive me, Lady Shinjo, but that duty will fall to another,” Moru said. “I will be at your side, now and always.”
Genki smiled. “Tell the others.”
* * * * *
Soshi Kochoko was surprised to be admitted to the Scorpion Champion’s audience chamber without preamble. The guards simply bowed and stepped aside, granting her admittance. The doors closed behind her, and she found herself alone with her Champion. Or, to be completely accurate, her Champion’s widow.
“Kochoko,” Bayushi Miyako said, her voice surprisingly warm as she turned from the maps she had been studying. There were a disheartening number of southern provinces that had been marked with ‘occupied’ flags. “I am grateful that you came as quickly as you could.”
“It is my duty to serve,” Kochoko answered with a bow. “I would have preferred to bathe and change before your company. I feel unworthy to be in your presence.”
“Of course, I remember well your fastidious ways. Even when we were children, you always had to clean immediately after play.” Miyoko smiled, but it disappeared quickly. “In any event, my need for information must take precedence over your preference. I apologize, but such is the state we find ourselves in.”
“As you say, my lady,” Kochoko said, bowing again. “The Temple of the Virtuous Maiden has fallen to the Destroyers.” She hesitated for a moment, as if to say something else, then stopped and simply looked down.
“There is more you wish to say, then?” Miyako asked.
“I would not presume,” Kochoko answered.
“If my oldest childhood friend cannot speak to me with freedom, then my position means nothing,” Miyako said. “Please, my friend… speak your mind.”
Kochoko hesitated for a moment, but finally could not resist. “In my heart I have harbored resentment against the Scorpion,” she confessed. “The abandonment of my family, the Nanbu, after the failed coup was difficult to endure.”
“The lot of vassal families is often difficult, but that was a particularly heavy burden,” Miyako admitted.
“If not for the efforts of my father, I do not know if we would ever have been accepted back.”
Miyako smiled again. “Tzurui was a good man.”
“I say all that to say, I am a loyal Scorpion, and perhaps even more inclined than most to see the clan endure punishment, but this… the battle at the temple…”
“Say it,” Miyako said.
“You knew that the defense would fail,” Kochoko finally said. “You knew the forces allocated to me were inadequate.”
“I did,” Miyako said. “I make no denials about that. Not to you, at least.”
“Why?” Kochoko demanded. “Why would you see the Scorpion brought so low?”
“Because it is necessary,” Miyako said.
Kochoko scowled in frustration. “I do not know if we could repel the Destroyer invasion under ideal circumstances. I do not know if we could push them back and force them to take an alternate route toward the Empire’s heart. But I do know that they are not taking the full measure of the Scorpion, and I do not understand why!”
Miyako placed her hands on the table. “We must draw the enemy close, using whatever means necessary, so that we can plunge a dagger into their heart.”
Kochoko stared at her blankly for a moment. “Then all this is some sort of… some sort of sacrifice?”
“What would the Scorpion not sacrifice for the Empire?” Miyako asked. “If we can draw the Destroyers to us in their entirety, if we can trap them in a location where they can be assaulted on all sides without mercy until they are eradicated from the mortal realm, should we not do that?”
Kochoko shook her head. “Why must the Scorpion suffer so?”
“Because only the Scorpion are strong enough,” Miyako answered instantly. “Only the Scorpion have the strength to do what must be done. The others are too weak, too arrogant. But we can do this and survive, and those who survive will reap a generation’s worth of gratitude and pity. Those who survive will be the masters of the Empire.” She shrugged. “If you do not wish to participate in this effort, I will dispatch you to a distant corner until the deed is done. I would not see my friend lost against her will.”
The older woman stood still for several moments, looking at the freshly battered saya in which her wakizashi rested. “No,” she finally answered. “If this is to be our lot, then I embrace my destiny. And if by fulfilling my duty, I can teach the Empire to respect the name Nanbu, then so much the better.”
“Excellent,” Miyako said. “I have always been grateful for your friendship, but in recent years I find myself even more grateful for your loyalty.”
Kochoko bowed sharply. “It is the first duty of every Scorpion, my lady.”