A group of young samurai, sorely tested by their adventures to date, are given a mysterious and troubling duty by the Empress, and must deal with the ramifications of their actions.
The Hinge of Destiny
By Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
Toshi Ranbo, Late in the Month of the Dragon
The house was several times larger than the one he had grown up in and vastly more elegant. It was odd then, Yoritomo Saburo mused to himself, that he felt like he was coming home. Or perhaps not so odd. He had spent far too many months in Ryoko Owari killing monsters and placating suspicious Scorpion magistrates, all the while helping to hide a powerful and malign scroll from the Scorpion to whom it presumably belonged and from the forces of Kali-Ma, who apparently wanted it. Perhaps it wasn’t so odd that the house in Toshi Ranbo seemed comfortable and homelike.
As he walked the path that led from the gate Saburo’s companions trailed behind him. Utaku Kohana, Kakita Hideo and Akodo Saburo seemed pleased at seeing the house again. Mirumoto Ichizo and Hiruma Akio were glancing about, taking the house and its garden in. Isawa Kyoko was looking straight ahead, trying to ignore the small chest that Akio carried. Bayushi Kurumi walked beside Kyoko, ostensibly looking after the shugenja but in reality trying to make everyone forget that now they were back in Toshi Ranbo they didn’t need her anymore. Furumaro was gazing ahead with the same expression of detached interest that he usually wore.
They were in the entryway and taking off their sandals when Ichizo cocked his head as if listening to something. “There is someone here.” Akio, Kohana and Shunori promptly drew their swords.
“The Empress knew we were returning,” Hideo said quietly. “Perhaps a servant was dispatched to prepare the house for us.”
“Or maybe someone else has been making preparations,” Saburo said, equally soft.
“It is Doji Ayano,” Furumaro said. Everyone looked at him.
“There is no reason for Ayano to be here,” Hideo said.
Furumaro laughed. “Do you think it is that easy? Do you think you can bring her into the story and then dismiss her before she encounters danger?”
Hideo blanched for a moment, then he spun on his heel and walked swiftly down the hall. The others trailed in his wake. They found Ayano in the study, looking over a picture scroll, and as the group entered the room she rose and bowed. “Please excuse my intrusion,” she said. “The Voice of the Empress sent me with a message for you all, and he insisted that it be given to you the moment you returned.”
“It is the Empress’s house,” Shunori said. “If you are here on her business there is no need to apologize.”
“Shunori is right,” Saburo said. “But what was Satsu-sama’s message?”
“He instructed me to tell you that as soon as you cleanse yourselves of travel dust you are to present yourselves in the Imperial Palace, as the Empress desires to meet with you.”
“But why are you here?” Hideo asked. “The Voice has no shortage of paper, or messengers.”
“It is not my place to question the Voice of the Empress,” Ayano said calmly. “But I assume he thought it would be more efficient for me to deliver the message, for I am to present myself along with you.”
There was silence for a moment while everyone considered this. Furumaro spoke first. “Clearly you must all hurry, so you may find out what the Empress means by this. I will go take a nap and stay out of the way of your preparations.” He started down the hallway to the room they had given him.
“Brother Furumaro,” Kohana objected, “you must come with us–she wants us all. Besides, this is your chance to see the Empress!”
“I would prefer not to see her after I have been stripped down to my loincloth,” Furumaro said. “And after she was attacked by assassins disguised as monks, I am sure that the Imperial Guards are taking no chances.” He turned his back and continued his way.
“That is ridiculous,” Saburo said.
“Actually, the Guards might take his loincloth, too,” Kurumi said. Saburo and the others looked at her, and she shrugged slightly. “The Emerald Champion was so angry after the attack he canceled the Empress’s Winter Court. Do you think any of the palace guards want him angry at them?”
“Kurumi-san,” Saburo said after a moment, “can you come up with an explanation for Furumaro’s absence that sounds respectful?” She nodded, surprised and pleased at having been asked. “All right. The rest of us will get ready as quickly as possible–we shouldn’t make things worse by making the Empress wait.”
* * * * *
A court functionary showed them to a private audience room, announced them, and then departed. The Imperial Advisor, the ronin Susumu, was waiting there and he accepted their bows. “The Empress and her Voice will be here shortly,” he said, and then lapsed into silence.
Kurumi studied him for a moment from under the fringe of her hair and then she glanced to her left, catching Ayano’s eye. Ayano slowly closed her eye, held it closed for a few breaths, then reopened it to stare back at the Scorpion. Kurumi began to worry. Ayano had seen what she had seen: the Advisor did not know why they had been summoned, and was disturbed by this.
Before her thoughts could run too far there was the sound of a door sliding open in the back of the room. The Empress entered, accompanied by Togashi Satsu and surrounded by a small cloud of guards. She took her seat behind the screen as Satsu went to stand before it. He gave a cool, shallow bow in response to Susumu’s much deeper one, and then nodded graciously to the young samurai before him. “The Empress bids you to rise,” he said. “She also wonders why not all have responded to her summons.”
“Brother Furumaro is responding to her summons by honoring it from afar,” Kurumi said. She had decided to handle the problem by telling something that approximated the truth, and so she continued on in her explanation, laying stress on the monk’s concern for the Empress’s continued well being. When she was done Satsu tilted his head for a moment before speaking. “The Empress is not offended by Brother Furumaro’s intentions,” he said. “However, the next time she summons him, he will show himself.” “It will be as you say,” Kurumi murmured in reply.
Next Satsu walked over to where Akio knelt. “Akio-san,” he said, “this word has already gone out to the lords of the Crab, but the Empress wishes to say it to you as well. Your brother was a brave samurai who brought glory to his clan and family. His name will be remembered with honor while her dynasty endures.”
“Thank you, my Empress,” Akio said. Tears began to form at the corners of her eyes, but she did not raise a hand to acknowledge them. Her companions politely looked away to give her privacy.
Satsu next went back to stand before Kurumi. “Bayushi Eisaku perished in the same battle as Hiruma Aki,” he said. “The Empress wishes you to know that your friend also died a hero.”
Kurumi stared at him for a moment, looking for all the world as if he had kicked her in the stomach. “I had wondered if I would ever know,” she said unsteadily. “Thank you, Divine One.”
“You knew Eisaku?” Hideo asked. He didn’t quite hide the suspicion in his voice. “That is quite a coincidence.”
“The Empire is battling for its life. There are no coincidences here,” Satsu said. “Did you find what you sought in the Scorpion lands?”
“We think so,” Saburo said. “We left it at the house–we did not want to bring it into the Empress’s presence without her permission.”
Susumu raised an eyebrow. “You fear this thing? And yet you seek to use it as a weapon?”
“I am not sure how we are supposed to use it,” Saburo said. He gestured. “Kyoko-san could tell you more about it.”
The priestess bowed deeply and then began to speak. She outlined how they had happened to find the scroll, what they had done with the surviving guardsman, and their reasons for keeping it. She then stopped for a moment and seemed to gather her strength for what came next. “Chosen of the Empress, Divine One, I have been trained in the ordinary knowledge of a Phoenix shugenja. An Inquisitor could, I am sure, tell you much more than I. Yet I have been taught the history of my clan and know well the role the Phoenix played in the destiny of the Day of Thunder. The scroll we have found seems, in all respects, like one of those called the Black Scrolls. The power it contains is vast, the spirits it attracts are wholly evil, and its purpose is unknown to me.”
“A Black Scroll?” Susumu said. He appeared to be on the verge of laughter. “You propose to use a Black Scroll to defend the Empire?”
“Your pardon, Chosen,” Ayano said, “but Saburo-san has already stated he does not know what its use is.”
Susumu gave her a sharp look and was about to speak when Satsu held up a hand. “The Empress approves of your actions,” he said. “Further, she bids you to continue your guardianship for a time. Your next journey will put this scroll far beyond the grasp of Kali-Ma’s servants.”
“We are the Empress’s to command,” Kurumi said. “What does she wish us to do?”
“From the beginning of his appointment the Shogun has sought after the man named Daigotsu and his self-styled Spider Clan. The Empress has received word from Moto Jin-Sahn that Unicorn samurai under his command have located his abode in a region known as the Fingers of Bone.” Susumu went very still at this announcement.
“The Empress wishes us to apprehend Daigotsu,” Shunori said. He was trying, with limited success, to look properly stoic. His companions all looked alarmed.
“The Empress wishes you to deliver a letter to him,” Satsu said.
“What?” Shunori, Akiko, and Susumu said in chorus. The Imperial Advisor’s expression was shocked; the Lion and the Crab were horrified. “We are the Empress’s to command,” Ayano said hurriedly. Kurumi had produced a fan and was using it to shield her face from the Imperials while she shot disapproving looks at Akio and Shunori.
“It is an action without precedent,” Satsu said. His voice had shifted slightly in tone, and all who heard him understood that he now spoke for himself, and not the Empress. “But the Daughter of Heaven has decided on this course, and you are appointed to carry it out. You are to leave tomorrow: All the arrangements have been made. You are to speak of this to no one save Brother Furumaro, for he is to go with you.”
* * * * *
The Northern Edge of Rokugan, Month of the Serpent
Shunori finished his prayers and waited, listening. Every evening since they had left Toshi Ranbo he had prayed to his ancestors, to Akodo-kami, to Matsu Tsuko, asking for guidance. And every evening he was answered with silence. Slowly he let his eyes rove around the mountains that surrounded him. He and his comrades had journeyed for days through the Great Wall of the North, and tomorrow they would leave the lands of the Empire entirely. Shunori fixed his intention in his heart and steadied his will. Tonight was the last night his ancestors would be able to keep watch over him. Tonight he must act.
When he returned to camp no one made a comment: they had become accustomed to his nightly devotions. Saburo and Kohana were off standing their watch shifts. Ayano and Kurumi were huddled close to the fire, still trying to work out how one properly addressed someone of Daigotsu’s peculiar non-status. Ichizo and Kyoko were discussing the Tao while Furumaro looked on. Hideo was idly flirting with Akio while she folded origami animals. “I have a question,” Shunori said, causing everyone to look up at him. “Why are we doing this?”
There was silence and confused looks, and then Ayano said, “Because the Empress has commanded it?”
“Why are we obeying?” Shunori said.
“Because she is the Empress,” Ichizo said, “and to suggest we do otherwise is treason.” He reached for his swords, but Kyoko stopped him with a light touch to his hand and a soft word.
“She is treating with Daigotsu. Daigotsu! He is a known tsukai. He destroyed Otosan Uchi. He murdered two Emperors!” Shunori looked around, daring someone to contradict him.
“I don’t think anyone here regards him as a good samurai,” Hideo said. Furumaro laughed. “I doubt the Empress has mistaken him for such either.”
“So she is going to deal with evil men? Is this proper?”
“The Daughter of Heaven decides what is proper,” Ichizo said. “It is our part to follow her decrees.”
“Indeed?” Shunori said. “Were the Thunders wrong, then, when they went against the last Hantei?”
Kyoko shook her head. “How can you have been in her presence and ask such a question? I know you cannot hear the kami sing, but you must have felt something.”
“I do not listen to feelings,” Shunori said, and Kyoko twitched slightly. “I watch a samurai’s actions and draw my conclusions. What but Jigoku could be behind her command?”
“Jigoku has no hold on Iweko,” Furumaro said. “The very idea is ridiculous.”
“And how would you know? You haven’t even seen her!”
“On a clear day even a blind man can point to the sun,” Furumaro said. “However convoluted the Empress’s logic may be, it is hers and hers alone.” Kyoko nodded her agreement to this.
Shunori turned to Akio. “What of you, Hida-san? What do you think of an Empress who deals with the Shadowlands?”
Akio turned away and stared into the fire. “The armies of the Shadowlands have covered the lands of the Crab and are now lapping about the Scorpion provinces,” she said finally. “Meanwhile, Daigotsu is cowering here in the north. I do not think it is correct to say the Empress is dealing with the Shadowlands.”
“Is it correct to say she is dealing with a blasphemous criminal?” Shunori said. “One who can corrupt the weak through their desire for power?”
Akio shrugged. “If they are weak, we are better off without them. And for that matter, Daigotsu is the one at risk, for he is the weak one. He has lost all but these Fingers of Bone, and the Kuni have said that even Fu Leng is lost to him now.”
“Shunori-san,” Ayano said, “I share your doubts. It is difficult to imagine why the Empress desires to send this letter. Is that not so?” She looked to Hideo, who nodded. “But the Empress has sources of information that we do not, from both Heaven and earth. Is it so hard to imagine that she is taking into account things that we do not know? And consider her Voice, Togashi Satsu. Can anyone doubt the honor of that man? Can you doubt that he would have requested kanshi from the Empress if he felt that her actions were misguided?”
For as long has he could remember Shunori had listened to stories about the Second Day of Thunder and the confusion of loyalties that had divided the Lion Clan on that day. Now he understood what those stories had been trying to tell him. He stared at his companions, trying to order the thoughts that swirled through his head.
Kurumi stood up. “Shunori-san, I do not know how much this would comfort a Lion, but the Empress is being both clever and cautious in her actions. Her actions are risky, perhaps, but she is not going headlong into danger.”
“What do you mean?” Shunori said.
“Look at who she has sent to deliver this letter,” Kurumi said, gesturing around the fire. “You have shown yourselves to be brave and resourceful, so she has some certainty that the letter will be delivered, but you are all young and of little importance to your clans, so that it would be easy to dispose of you if certain things were to go wrong. And have you wondered why she sent Ayano? One courtier alone would be at risk of being suborned by Daigotsu, but with two we can watch each other. Whatever the Empress is doing, she is being wary in doing it.”
“Shunori-san.” He looked up at the familiar voice to see that Kohana had been drawn back to the fire by their discussion. “You have spoken the doubts I have felt.” She waved her hand over the group. “The doubts all of us have felt. But there are no reasons to think that the Empress is acting on Jigoku’s behalf, and many to think she is not. She is the Empress. Whatever we may feel, is it not our part to obey?”
Shunori looked away from her, and the crackling of the wood in the fire was the only sound while his companions waited for his answer. “I do not approve,” the Lion samurai said finally. “But I will serve.”
* * * * *
They were still an hour’s travel from the Fingers of Bone, according to the maps the Unicorn had made, when they sighted a group of riders approaching. Their leader, a woman with bizarre and vaguely threatening armor and a demeanor to match, rode in front and pulled her horse to a stop within shouting distance. “Identify yourselves, travelers,” she said.
Ayano and Kurumi exchanged quick looks with each other and then they nudged their horses forward. “We are servants of Iweko the First, Empress of Rokugan and Glorious Daughter of Heaven,” Kurumi announced. “We are charged with delivering a message to the man known as Daigotsu.”
“And what is this message?” the woman asked.
“Your pardon,” Ayano said, “but we are to deliver this message to Daigotsu, and not his border guards.”
There was a stir among the soldiers facing them, and the woman gave Ayano a cold smile. “Since you are strangers here I will give you this advice: it is not healthy to mistake the Obsidian Champion for a border guard. But my lord is curious and has ordered me to bring you before him.”
“Thank you, Champion-san,” Ayano said. “Your aid is greatly appreciated.”
“I am Daigotsu Hotako,” the woman said. “You will be safe under my protection, until such time my lord orders otherwise. Nevertheless–” her eyes swept the group, pausing to assess each of the bushi present– “I would strongly urge you to keep your hands away from your swords. Misunderstandings can be so unfortunate.” With that she gave a signal, and her soldiers spread out to surround the group. When all were in position Hotako wheeled her horse about and sent it into a steady pace.
As they drew near the Fingers of Bone the Empress’s messengers somewhat forgot the nervousness inspired by their escort as they beheld the reason for the place’s name. All around them rose gaunt spires of rock, some so large around that dwellings had been carved in them and yet so tall as to give the impression of slenderness. Scattered in between them were wooden dwellings. A few, the oldest-looking, were well-built and elegant. Most were simply shacks cobbled together from scavenged wood, with walls of fabric or hide.
The procession caught the eyes of the Fingers’ residents, and it was not long before the road on both sides were packed with observers. Most looked no different than any Rokugani, but here and there were men or women who clearly bore Taint, and at one point they passed a group with awkward stances and dull expressions. “Undead!” Kyoko hissed, and edged her horse further away from them. Hotako took no notice. The crowd parted silently before her and closed back behind after the group had passed.
Finally they drew up before what appeared to be the largest spire in the group and Hotako dismounted. Her charges did likewise, with Akio taking a moment to pass the scroll-chest to Brother Furumaro. It was a little thing, but she felt better going into danger with her hands unburdened. Servants came forward to attend to the horses, and as they were being led away a heavily muscled man in courtier’s robes came out of the spire’s entryway. He bowed deeply in Hotako’s direction, and she nodded to him. “Come,” she said. “My lord awaits your presence.”
Hotako led them into a great hall with a dais at one end; upon it were seated Daigotsu and his lady, Shahai. Daigotsu’s face was obscured by his mask, while Shahai’s features showed nothing but bland interest. Hotako half-knelt in a warrior’s bow before them. “My lord,” she said, “I have fulfilled your orders.”
“As you always do,” Daigotsu said. He gestured and Hotako rose up and stood at his side on the dais. “A representative of all the Great Clans and a monk,” he continued, sweeping his gaze over the group. “Such an illustrious group of visitors.”
Ayano and Kurumi glanced at each other from the corner of their eyes and then they stepped forward together, bowing deeply. “Daigotsu-sama,” Ayano said, “I am Doji Ayano and my associate is Bayushi Kurumi. We have been sent by the Empress of Rokugan to deliver a message to you.”
“Indeed?” Daigotsu said. “And if I choose not to receive it? She has ordered my death, you may recall.”
Neither courtier showed the slightest unease at this. Dealing with a hostile lord was a problem they had been trained to deal with, and though none of their instructors could have foreseen them dealing with this particular lord their lessons held firm. “One would speculate that this makes the matter of the letter even more important,” Ayano said. “And in any event, you lose nothing by reading it.”
While Ayano spoke, her attention focussed on Daigotsu, Kurumi was studying the members of his court. Hidden behind her own mask she made note of who were the persons of importance and how they stood in relation to each other, then stored all of her observations in her memory. She was not surprised when Daigotsu gestured and the courtier who had signaled Hotako stepped forward. “Usharo,” Daigotsu said, “bring me this letter.”
Kurumi slipped the scroll case containing the letter out of her obi and presented it to the Usharo. Acting rapidly he opened the case, took out the letter and unrolled it, closing his eyes as he did so. After holding it open for a moment he rolled the letter back up, restored it to the case, and opened his eyes. He then went to kneel before his lord, offering him the case.
Daigotsu accepted it, shook out the letter, and began to read. When he reached the bottom of the scroll he paused, staring. A stir of uneasiness went through the crowd, a stir that only increased as the paused extended itself. Finally Shahai herself looked over a her husband, a quizzical look on her face. Daigotsu ignored them all and returning to the top of the scroll he slowly reread it. When he was done he allowed it to roll back up and dropped it in his lap. “Takasho,” he said, his voice quiet.
A man in black and blood-red shugenja robes stepped forward, grinning unpleasantly at Ayano and Kurumi. “Your will, my lord?”
“Bring me the Tao,” Daigotsu said.
“I–my lord?” Takasho said. He glanced back at Daigotsu and quickly bowed. “Your will, Daigotsu-sama.” He hurried from the room, a grey shambling creature following in his wake.
Absolute silence descended on the hall. Ayano and Kurumi stood with poised calm. Behind them Furumaro appeared to be idly examined the architecture of the room, while the rest of their companions struggled to not reach for weapons or spell scroll for comfort. The members of Daigotsu’s court regarded their lord with varying proportions of curiosity and fear, and only Shahai seemed completely lacking in fear.
When Takasho returned he carried a large book with a highly ornamented binding. “This book contains the sacred writings of our Kami,” Daigotsu said, indicating it, “and we rescued it from the Crab at great price. I am sending it to your Empress as a token of good faith.”
There was a the sound of a sharp intake of breath from Akio. Ayano and Kurumi glanced at each other in surprise. Kurumi rapidly blinked in a certain pattern and Ayano replied in the same fashion. They turned back to Daigotsu and Ayano bowed. “Daigotsu-sama, we are far too insignificant to carry such a momentous gift. Surely you would want to keep it until proper messengers can be found.”
“Your Empress found you worthy enough, and you had the wit to avoid the dregs of the Army of Fire hiding out in the mountains. I think you will be adequate.”
“Daigotsu-sama, this is surely a trying time for you and all of the Spider. Surely it would be best for you to keep these words yourself for study.”
“I have no shortage of copies for reading,” Daigotsu said, “and only the original could convey my thoughts to the Empress. Take it.”
Ayano bowed again. “As you request, Daigotsu-sama.” She accepted the book from Takasho and attempted to hold it in a suitably reverent fashion while keeping it as far away from herself as possible.
“Hotako,” Daigotsu said, “my guests will be leaving in the morning. See to it that they are comfortable and safe tonight.”
a”Your will, Daigotsu-sama,” Hotako said. He merely nodded and arose from his seat, taking the scroll. Shahai rose as well, and the two of them swiftly departed.
* * * * *
The grey light of predawn changed the character of the Fingers of Bone, transforming them from hands reaching for the sky to massive, looming sentinels. It was not an improvement. Saburo and his companions loaded their packs onto their horses, trying to ignore the sensation that the the rock spires themselves were spying on them.
“A Black Scroll and the Tao of Fu Leng,” Hideo said. “We are going to be executed by the first Jade Magistrate we come across.”
“As long as we are traveling with them, it is the magistrate who will be in danger of execution,” Saburo replied. With a twist of his head he indicated a group of about two dozen Spider bushi who were preparing to leave with them. Hotako had informed them that they had business of their own in the south and would be traveling with them through the Wall of the North.
“This is not a matter to joke over,” Kohana said. “Killing one of the Empress’s magistrates is a serious crime.”
“We can add it to our list,” Hideo said.
Shunori made a dismissive gesture. “Saburo-san, we cannot possibly take that thing to the Empress.”
“I have given my word that we would,” Ayano said.
“We are going to take it–somewhere,” Saburo said. “We can decide later. And then we will send a message to the Empress and she can tell us where she wants it shelved.” He glanced at Shunori and Ayano to make sure both were satisfied and then turned to mount up on his horse. “Now let’s go. The faster we travel the faster we lose our escort.” He gave the Fingers of Bone once last look, wondering when, if ever, he would see the pleasant house in Toshi Ranbo again.