In the wake of the Empress Iweko’s pronouncements at the conclusion of the Destroyer War, the Clan Champions and their vassals struggle with the ramifications of how much the Empire has changed.
Aftermath, Part 1
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Hida Benjiro entered the tent with the demeanor of a man who had so long ago passed beyond exhausted that he could no longer remember what it meant. He nodded mutely to his sister, Hida Reiha, who waited within, and then dropped onto a low table and rotated his head in a slow circle, listening to the popping of his bones as he did so. The tent was silent for several tense moments, as Benjiro chose to ignore the obvious state of agitation in which Reiha was fuming. Finally, she apparently reached her limit. “You do not even bow to your Champion, now?”
“I could get up to bow, if you wish,” Benjiro said. “However, fair warning, if I bend over very far it is likely that I will fall flat on my face asleep. I thought that might be a bit awkward.”
“Be silent!” Reiha barked. “You were always insolent, even when we were children.”
“You could order me to commit seppuku,” he noted. “Frankly I would be relieved. I could use the rest.”
“How can you just sit there?” she exploded. “How can you pretend nothing has happened? I heard about the Empress’ edict! I know what she has done! You were there when it happened! How could you just allow something like that to take place?”
“Allow it?” Benjiro said, incredulous. “Have you gone mad? How could I have stopped it if I wanted to?”
“If you wanted to?” Reiha threw up her hands. “Are you Crab or aren’t you? Are we simply expected to allow the Spider to live among us now?”
“The Spider are commanded to submit themselves for examination by, among others, the Kuni witch hunters,” Benjiro said. “Those who do not do so are to be executed on sight. Those who do so and who are found to be corrupted are being sent out of the Empire.” He paused for a moment. “You remember the Empire, yes? That realm we are commanded to protect? Personally I think throwing all the Tainted people out of it is a spectacular way to do that.”
“She made a pact with the darkness,” Reiha insisted.
“She did do that, yes,” Benjiro replied. “Something our clan can hardly cast stones regarding, in my opinion. The different here is that the results of the Empress’ bargain is that we now lose all the Tainted Spider in the entire Empire, and that our brave warriors on the Wall can worry about death but not the destruction of their very souls.”
“How many Spider remain?” Reiha demanded. “I know you have an idea.”
Benjiro shrugged. “The intelligence we generals have been given suggests that there are numerous other forces converging to join the survivors here. From what we know, it seems like less than one legion worth of Spider remain. And not all of those are bushi, it also includes some shugenja, courtiers, and the like.”
“Less than a legion? We could wipe them out once and for all!”
Benjiro shrugged again. “Maybe we could, but more than likely they would scatter, and then what? We have perhaps as many as ten thousand Spider hiding throughout the Empire, not to mention the various Destroyers that escaped the battle, and then without the bargain struck by the Empress, dozens or even hundreds of miles in the middle of the Scorpion lands become completely uninhabitable.” He stopped and stared at Reiha frankly. “Does any of that sound like a good idea to you, little sister? Because quite frankly it sounds like the potential extinction of the Crab Clan in the making to me. But then I’m something of a pessimist, aren’t I?”
Reiha shook her head. “This feels… wrong.”
Benjiro sighed. “What would feel more wrong, if you ask me, is allowing the Empire to be wounded beyond its ability to heal when another course action that preserves our way of life was available.” He glanced up at her. “You have been in the Empress’ presence. You know what it’s like. When the Voice issued her edicts… they made perfect sense. It’s simply a matter of perspective.”
“There were far more people who were not there when the edicts were issued than who were there,” Reiha observed darkly.
* * * * *
Hiruma Aki sat in the small tent, numb to the world, and awaited what would come next. Her head still hurt terribly, and she felt periodic waves of nausea that strongly indicated her wound was more severe than she originally thought. The notion that she might die at any moment, however, tended to put such things in perspective.
Everything that had happened to her in the Scorpion temple seemed like a dream. She could scarcely believe any of it had actually happened. The only feeling she could muster, the only thing that felt absolutely, unquestionably real to her, was anger. Anger at herself for following the others in the first place when she had never truly trusted them, and overwhelming rage at the others for allowing themselves to be so crassly manipulated by the Empire’s greatest enemy.
The tent opened suddenly and a wide man with fierce eyes stepped in, his priestly robes smudged with the dust of travel. “Are you Hiruma Akio?” he demanded.
Akio blinked in shock. “Kuni Daigo-sama,” she said breathlessly. She stood at once, swaying slightly, and began to bow.
“Sit down,” Daigo commanded. “I am told your head wound is not insignificant. Will you accept my blessing?”
Akio stared at him blankly. “I… uh… yes, my lord.”
Without another word, Daigo placed his palm against Akio’s forehead, an action that caused an alarmingly sharp wave of pain to course through her head, but it was immediately negated by the strangely warm sensation coursing through Daigo’s hand. When he withdrew it, the pain was utterly gone. “Thank you, my lord.”
“I have heard what happened at the temple,” the Jade Champion said frankly. “If it were up to me, I would have all of those involved save you executed outright. Sadly I doubt their fate will be left to me, but yours at least I can exert some degree of influence.” He glanced at her with a piercing expression. “I trust you have not yet sated your desire to punish the corrupt?”
“No, my lord,” she said instantly. “Never.”
“Very good then.” Daigo handed her a small chop that bore a jade seal. “Welcome to the Jade Legion, Hiruma Akio. We have a large number of gaijin demons on the loose. I trust you do not need to rest straight away.”
She stood at once and clutched her weapon tightly. “I will never rest while there is darkness in the Empire, my lord.”
For the first time, Daigo smiled slightly. “Very well, then. Come with me.”
* * * * *
The Lady of the Crane, Doji Domotai, lovingly stroked her son’s face and kissed his forehead before handing him off to a servant. “Place him down for his afternoon rest, please,” she said quietly, smiling at the sleeping face of her sole heir. Once the two had left the chamber, an instant change came over her; her expression became severe and her brow furrowed. “There are difficult days ahead of us.”
The others assembled in the chamber nodded in silent agreement. Asahina Beniha folded her hands into her sleeves. “What should be addressed first, my lady?”
“I think the most significant matter is the Empress’ exclusion of us from her address concerning how the clans will respond to the conclusion of this war,” Domotai said. “It presents an impression that we are weak.”
“The difficult truth is that we are somewhat weakened at this point, my love,” Doji Kusari observed. “The rapid succession of conflicts would have left our ranks in a depleted state regardless, and that does not even take into consideration the devastating effects of the plague and its aftermath.”
“You know as well as I that there are too many who would exploit this opportunity,” Domotai corrected. “I will not see our clan diminished by petty opportunists.” She grimaced. “I only wish the Empress had said something. Anything, really.”
“She was sparing us the disgrace of failure,” Kusari said quietly. “What could she have given us to do that we could have completed with the resources we have at this point?”
“Every loyal and honorable Crane would gladly risk their well-being for the benefit of the clan,” the Champion reminded them. “I would expect those of us in this room to remember that above all others.”
“What would you suggest, Domotai-sama?” Beniha asked. “We cannot change what has been done. We can only move forward. I presume you have a plan for doing so?”
“You are correct that what has happened cannot be changed,” Domotai said. “If we cannot remind the Empress of our worth directly, then we shall do so indirectly.”
Kusari frowned. “What do you mean?”
“There are a great many in the Empire who have never seen and certainly never heard the Empress,” she explained. “For many of them, accepting these edicts may prove… difficult. Given the relatively recent issues with conspiracies such as the Gozoku, we must ensure that such problems do not recur. The Crane will stand at the foreground of those championing the wisdom of the Empress, and in doing so we remind everyone of the ties between the Crane and the Child of Heaven.”
Kusari looked at Beniha, who nodded slowly. “It seems a sound plan,” he acknowledged. “What consideration should we give to the Otomo? They will certainly be attempting a similar gambit for their own benefit.”
Domotai waved the comment away. “I will put into words what every Crane Champion for centuries has known in their heart: the Otomo have no relevancy. They are redundant and arrogant beyond all measure. They may prove an issue in higher courts, but we have enough talented individuals accustomed to operating at that level that we will have little difficulty, I think. The lower courts will likely lack Otomo representation due to their limited numbers, and there we can gain a great deal of ground rapidly.”
Kusari cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Should we pause to consider the impact of the edicts themselves? They are… significant. What is our reaction?”
The Crane Champion held out her hands. “What does that matter? The Empress has issued her edicts. The matter is concluded. We can either trust in the Divine One and prosper, or we can compound our difficulties by objecting and fall utterly into obscurity, never to recover.” She paused for effect. “I know which one I choose.”
* * * * *
“Do you find any of this… unusual?”
Kakita Hideo looked sidelong at the dainty form of Doji Ayano walking alongside him. “After everything we have seen in the past two years, what do you think could possibly be unusual about this?” He gestured at the garden around them. “This is as normal as one could reasonably expect at this point in our lives.”
“Not this,” Ayano said, waving away the surroundings. “The fact that no one has censured us for… for everything.”
“Who has the authority for something like that?” Hideo asked with a shrug. “We met with the Empress and were acting on her authority. Even if Lady Domotai were so inclined as to pay attention to such a minor nuisance as us, why would she risk her political capital by censuring us when it is possible we were acting on the directive of the Empress. To be frank, it will be far simpler to simply overlook us and let us lapse into obscurity.”
“How comforting,” Ayano said darkly. “I do not particularly wish to fall into obscurity.”
“I see little alternative,” Hideo said. “We are stained. Those who know what happened have too many questions to be comfortable with the events at the temple, and are typically of high enough status that they can ensure we are not in a position to imperil the clan’s standing in the future.”
“And those who are uncertain of the actual events,” Ayano agreed, “cannot be corrected for fear of spreading out disgrace.” She sighed heavily. “It is unfortunate, really. I enjoyed the Imperial Court tremendously.”
Hideo shrugged. “Most never see it at all. Be grateful you had your time in the sun before we were cast to the outer regions. As for myself, I personally no longer have the stomach for the company of others, I think.”
Ayano looked at him with obvious concern. “What does that mean? What do you intend to do?”
Hideo said nothing.
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