In the wake of tragedy, the position of Imperial Governor is filled by the will of the Divine Empress (and the results of our GenCon 2011 tournament event!).
The Hand of the Empress
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
An insistent knock at his door roused Akodo Tsudoken at once. After decades of military service and two wars, he was accustomed to coming awake in an instant, even as his age became more and more of a consideration. He was at the door even as he brushed aside sleep and slid it open. “What is it?” he asked.
“Commander,” one of the evening sentries bowed sharply. Tsudoken could not immediately remember his name. It was the lateness of the hour, no doubt. “There has been an incident, my lord.”
“What manner of incident?”
The man’s jaw was set. “We believe an incursion has taken place, my lord.”
“Take me there,” he said at once.
Despite his years of service and battlefield experience, Tsudoken had little choice but to turn away from the sight of his fallen men. “They have been… torn apart,” he said, struggling to keep his voice even.
“Yes, my lord,” the shift commander said. “The Kitsuki was on sight within moments of the discovery, even as a man was dispatched to summon you.”
“What were her findings?”
“It was the magistrate’s opinion that these wounds were inflicted with a weapon made of natural materials. Wood, perhaps, but more likely bone or recovered talons or the like.” The man shook his head. “Gruesome work.”
Tsudoken frowned. Something seemed wrong immediately. “Why implements?”
“Why weapons rather than actual talons? The strength of these wounds seems quite inhuman to me. Why could it not be some manner of creature?”
“Ah,” the guard said. “For a creature to reach this far within the city, my lord, it would imply deliberate action and cunning intelligence, if not an overwhelming confluence of circumstance.” He shook his head. “A creature attack seems quite unlikely, my lord.”
“Why?” Tsudoken demanded. “Even after two decades we repeatedly discover new things about this land. Were the culprits found?”
“No, my lord, although the search is ongoing.” The man gestured to either end of the walkway on which they stood. “Neither of the next two duty stations were disturbed. There is nowhere for the assailants to have gone save to have retreated.”
Tsudoken stared at the wall behind them. Age and the extreme temperature had pitted it somewhat, but to his eye some of the damage seemed new. “No,” he said. “No man did this.” He drew his weapon and turned to the others. “A beast has slain our brothers and now pushes farther into the castle! Sound the alarm!” He pointed to a group of half a dozen others. “Follow me to the governor’s quarters! Move!”
The hallway outside the governor’s private chambers was deathly silent. Two sentries were stationed outside the chambers at all times, without exception. They could not even be dismissed by the governor, but only by Tsudoken himself. It was a concession that the commander of the Second City guardsmen had managed to get from the governor after a very long and arduous debate. Tsudoken had never dismissed any man or woman from the post. Now, there was no one in the corridor. There was only a stain of blood on one of the walls adjacent to the door, low near the floor. “No,” Tsudoken whispered. “No!”
The commander did not even open the doors, but exploded through them like a hurricane, his face a mask of anger, his weapon held at the ready. His men followed right behind him, but stopped in their tracks at the scene of carnage that waited within. One of them, one of the youngest, staggered slightly, then turned and retched uncontrollably. Tsudoken barely noticed. His mouth was agape, and his eyes filled with tears. Then he saw a flicker of movement in the chamber’s rear, where the lanterns did not reach. Something enormous. Something monstrous. It moved through the impossibly small window like a flash of lightning, and then it was gone. “The murderer escapes out the window!” Tsudoken shouted, his voice choked. “Follow it now!”
The men turned and ran from the room, circling around toward the exit in the rear of the corridor. Tsudoken knew that they would be too late. He knelt near the shredded remains of the governor. “My friend,” he whispered. “I am so sorry I was not here. Forgive me, please.”
* * * * *
The Imperial City of Toshi Ranbo was, without question, the shining jewel of the Emerald Empire. Unlike its predecessor, the ruined city once known as Otosan Uchi, Toshi Ranbo was built upon stable ground, and earthquakes were rare. This had allowed the architects and engineers of the Great Clans to create a thing of beauty and permanence, and many citizens came from all across the Empire to visit and drink in the majesty of the city’s temples, embassies, and of course the Imperial Palace.
Each day, within the labyrinthine of corridors and chambers that the palace contained, the Imperial Court of the Divine Empress Iweko I was convened. Representatives from each of the Great Clans gathered together with scions of the Imperial families, ambassadors from the Minor Clan Alliance, and advisors from the Brotherhood of Shinsei. Each day decisions were made that changed the political, military, and economic landscape of an entire Empire. The environment could charitably be described as ruthless, cloaked in a veneer of courtesy and sincerity.
Today, however, that veneer had worn away, and beneath it was frustration, confusion, and alarm. “Lord and ladies of the court,” the Imperial Chancellor interrupted suddenly, breaking through the back and forth of contentious debate among the clans as to the nature of the Naga threat facing the Empire. “The Imperial Herald has arrived with vital information for the personage of the Divine Empress, and it is her wish that he present it before her Imperial Court.” The Chancellor nodded to the assembled court, then bowed and ceded the floor to the newly arrived Imperial Herald.
The Imperial Herald glanced at the assembled courtiers and smiled slightly, clearly somewhat uncomfortable at being placed on the stage before so large an assemblage. “I have received word from the Second City, delivered via the most expeditious means available to the Unicorn Clan. It is my grave duty to inform you, Divine Empress, that the first among your servants in the distant colonies has died.” The man lowered his gaze. “The Imperial Governor of the Colonies has been murdered.”
Even among the tightly controlled members of the Imperial Court, there was a chorus of gasps and a murmur of disbelief. The wizened Voice of the Empress closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. “The Child of Heaven is overcome with remorse at the news of the Imperial Governor, one of her most valued and trusted vassals, has been taken from her service. His family and clan has her condolences, and her gratitude for his honorable service.”
A member of the Lion delegation stepped forward, stoic as ever but clearly affected by the news. “My Empress, it will be my great honor to pass those wishes on to the Ikoma family. I know that they will mourn the passing of such a great hero. We are, all of us, grateful for the chance to serve, and will continue to do so without fear or hesitation.”
Doji Rengetsu stepped forward and bowed both to the Empress and to the Lion delegation. “The Crane recognize and honor the deeds of the former governor and his family. Ikoma Katsuru was a great man and a true servant of the Empress. If the Crane can in any way assist with the adjudication of his duties, I know that my lords would wish to do so.” She paused and smiled. “In recognition of Katsuru-sama’s contributions to the Empire, of course.”
Kitsu Tamasine frowned. “I feel certain there will be no need to accept the Crane’s… generous offer.”
“The Lion have done great things with their duties in the Colonies,” a young Mantis priestess said, stepping forward. “No one can deny that. However, neither could anyone deny that there is no clan better suited to a supervisory role in the Colonies than the Mantis. We have superior knowledge of the terrain, and a support infrastructure that is unsurpassed in terms of its…”
“The Spider have superior knowledge of the terrain as well,” Tamasine interrupted, clearly enraged. “Would you have us surrender control of the Second City to them?”
A quartet of sohei accompanying a young man bearing the Spider mon bristled, but the courtier waved them down without a word.
“The Empress is dismayed,” the Voice of the Empress said sharply. “This is a moment of tremendous loss and suffering, and the contentiousness of the Great Clans rears its head despite the gravity of the circumstances.” The room dropped into instant silence, with many looking down in shame. “Sadly, this is merely an indication that the political conflicts that have plagued the Imperial Court for the past few years remain as robust as ever, and the Empress cannot permit them to spread to the Colonies. Unfortunately, neither can she select an individual from that region who cannot pass her scrutiny in person.” He drew a deep breath and surveyed the room. “It is for that reason that the Empress will select the new Imperial Governor from the ranks of the Imperial families.” The Voice rose, as did the silhouette of the Empress behind her screen. “The court stands complete for the remainder of the day as the Empress wishes to consider the matter. You will be summoned by the Chancellor when the announcement is prepared.”
Yoritomo Hama sat at the table, rubbing his hands together and periodically cracking his knuckles. It was something of a nervous habit, he knew, but he had found that it made others uncomfortable, so he had never attempted to suppress it. “I would like to know everything there is to know about this Otomo Suikihime.”
Moshi Madoka smiled very faintly. “I anticipated you would wish to know,” she said. “I have collected the information available. How succinct a report would you like?”
Hama waved the comment away. “Give me the particulars and I will request the details I think Hiromi-sama would wish to know.”
“Suikihime-sama is a rising star among the Otomo family’s younger generation,” Madoka began. “She is something of a threat to many among the family elders, and it is suspected that her name was placed in the Empress’ ear simply because many among their upper ranks fear that she will supplant them.” She shook her head. “Tragic, really.”
“Business as usual in the Imperial City,” Hama said. “I assume there is something more?”
“Of course,” Madoka continued. “The issue at hand is that Suikihime is the niece and apprentice of Otomo M’rika.”
Hama frowned. “I have heard that name.”
“You would be one of only a few, then,” Madoka replied. “She is something of an enigmatic figure within the family. She was one of the first Sanctified Ones created during the Divine Empress’ reign despite some suspicion of association with the Spider. She later made the trek to the Colonies, and was responsible for blessing the land on which the Second City was built. She married a prominent Otomo who visited the area, and maintains the family’s estate there.”
“Why was M’rika herself not appointed, then?”
“Allegedly, Otomo M’rika is of advanced years and, according to the information I was able to discover, has never been in the presence of the Empress. Ergo, she is ineligible to hold a position of such power, as no Spider past or present may be appointed to any position of significance without the scrutiny of the Empress.”
Hama smirked. “I am familiar with the restriction, thank you.”
“Regardless,” Madoka said, nonplussed, “M’rika appears to have moved farther to the south and now oversees Imperial assets in the southern Mantis ports. However, Suikihimes-sama is alleged to be a great student of her methods and philosophies, and perhaps this is why she is so feared among the Empire-located Otomo.”
“What is her preferred method of leadership? Do we know?”
Madoka’s smile was anything but genuine. “She prefers a very active approach, or so I have been told.”
“Wonderful,” Hama said. “I do not think this particular match-up will go well for the Mantis at all.” He glanced up at Madoka. “Can you imagine what Hiromi-sama will say?”
“A virtuous priestess does not dwell upon the profane,” Madoka answered simply.
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