The saga of the Great Clans’ reactions to the dramatic changes occuring in the Empire ends here!
Aftermath, Part 4
By Yoon Ha Lee
Fourteen Lions in white robes. Fourteen poems in black ink. The flash of steel and the splash of blood.
Akodo Shigetoshi counted the dead up from one to fourteen. He counted the dead down from fourteen to one. The number would grow–if not here, then elsewhere. It was growing even now. Inside his armor the sweat trickled down his back as he thought of the things that couldn’t be counted: battles unfought, glories unsought, histories slashed short.
He went back to the numbers. The clan needed its warriors, but its warriors needed their honor. And he was no Scorpion to guile them back into service with words of poison and honey, not when he longed for the cleansing cuts himself.
* * * * *
When Ikoma Otemi went to speak with his wife, the first thing he noticed was not her pallor or the scent of her hair, but her obi. Yasuko’s kimono was a proper pale yellow, but the obi was one he had never seen before, faded red cloth embroidered with black interlocking circles.
“I know,” Yasuko said softly. “I know what you will do, husband. And”–she knelt almost silently, in a rustling of silk—“I beg one last favor.”
“You speak as though I condemned you,” Otemi said dryly. “Do you wish to return to your home after I am gone? It would be a simple matter to arrange—“
He had thought that they had come to an understanding of sorts. He reminded himself that, with all that had happened recently, this was only a small disappointment.
“I know that I did not come to you as a wife that any honest Lion would ask for,” Yasuko said, “but this is my home now. No: the boon I ask is other. When you go to Shigetoshi-sama, ask for a death two weeks from now. Say you need time to prepare. Blame your wife’s tears if you must.”
Yasuko knew as well as he did that Shigetoshi would believe no such thing. But he looked at her, thinking of how long it would take to get a message to various Scorpion castles. “Explain yourself,” he said.
“Timing is everything,” she said. “Your honor is a great thing, husband. Let it become an even greater reminder of the empire’s traditions. The Lions have their bards, but the Scorpion have their storytellers and acting troupes. Let them protest with you in their own way, on the day of your death.” She tilted her head back slightly so he could see her eyes.
In their years together, Otemi had learned to find a certain beauty in her eyes. “I will not be party to a plot against the Empress,” he said.
“No plot,” Yasuko said wearily. “Only information that everyone will have eventually. Only a story that everyone will be telling in the courts and in the villages, under shadowed roofs. It will happen anyway, so why not turn the tale to your purpose before others twist it to their own? I don’t know what the Dragon discuss in their high palaces, or how the Crane memorialize recent events. But I do know that this is not the Empire of my childhood, and it makes me afraid. This is the one way I can help your cause, husband. If it offends you, then do as you see fit and I won’t flinch from it. But I—“ Her voice flexed. “I had to offer service in the coin I grew up with. This one last time.”
“No,” Otemi said, more harshly than he had intended. He reached out and drew her to her feet. “You have served well in the past, wife. But you are a Lion now. No more of this talk.”
He pressed her hands between his, and could not help wondering, now that it was too late, how much more they could have accomplished if they had understood each other from the beginning. Lion and Scorpion, right hand and underhand. Perhaps it was just as well.
* * * * *
Bayushi Miyako had spent the better part of the last hour looking at maps. Specifically, she had had the household women bring her pins. She stabbed the maps through with the pins to delineate the extent of the hell-pit she had inherited. A brush and ink would have sufficed, but there was something more viscerally satisfying about the punctures, and right now she needed some satisfaction in her life. She did this on eight different maps to make sure that she understood how much trouble the Scorpion were in–her father had always said it was important to understand the local topography before you went to war–and was casting about for a ninth map when Shosuro Toson arrived.
Toson eyed the mutilated maps but did not remark on them. “You know why I am here,” he said.
“The pit,” she said. “What are people calling it? The Other Festering Pit? The Suppurating Hole?”
“I’m sure someone will think of something suitably coarse,” he said sardonically.
“It’s a fitting punishment for our inadequacy,” Miyako said, biting off each word.
“At least we are in agreement there,” Toson said. “The consequences of our failure to defeat the Destroyers in our own lands are terrible and far-reaching. If we had gutted Kali-ma’s forces with any efficacy, we could then have focused our attentions on the goddess herself. Instead, we had Fu Leng and Kali-ma battling in the wreckage, and your maps only tell half the story of the cost.”
Miyako studied his face. “Do you think it’s a mistake to reach out to the Crab, even after all that’s gone on?”
Toson’s mouth twisted. “I’m surprised you want my opinion.”
“We disagree,” she said, “but I learn something from the disagreements.”
He shook his head. “Don’t say that. Be decisive, for the clan’s sake.”
“We need the Crab,” Miyako said. “We will need them for a long time to come. It is a terrible position to be in, but we must deal with the situation as it is.”
“Perhaps,” he said. “It is time to offer you my death, in any case. The clans may not know the reason for our maneuvers during the Destroyer War, but failure is failure. I did not adequately carry out your purpose, and it is for me to shoulder any blame that might fall to you. A new daimyo will serve you better.”
“I don’t think it’s wise to reveal our past plans,” Miyako said carefully. “Coming when it does, your seppuku will look like it protests the Empress’s recent edict. Is this your intent?”
Toson coughed. “It’s unlikely that anyone is going to believe such a high-minded stance of a Scorpion.”
“It will cause confusion,” she said, “and sometimes that’s enough.”
“I have no argument with the Empress,” Toson said with a curious smile. “I admit I am surprised that she is a Scorpion in her heart and is willing to do the hard, necessary thing in a desperate situation, but considering the circumstances, that’s not a bad thing. Her intervention saved our lands. We can only hope that she will return to her customary aloofness and thus give us the freedom to act without worrying about her interference.”
“She dealt with Daigotsu,” Miyako said vehemently. “I have been told all my life that there is nothing a Scorpion will not sacrifice for the empire, but she is the Empress. And surely even a Scorpion wouldn’t then turn around and sacrifice the Empire itself.”
“A stand on principle is all very well if you’re a Lion,” Toson said, “but sometimes survival is the higher priority. Now, more than ever, the Empress needs her underhand. If you are making this argument, Miyako-sama, then people all across the Empire are making these arguments. It is not tenable.”
She rose abruptly and turned away from him. “I have heard the stories of the Shadowed Tower,” she said.
“Dead and gone.”
“And yet our Empress…”
“She bargained hard. The devastated clans–which include us, remember–will have time to recover. That’s worth something.” Toson paused. “The safety of the Oni’s Eye is a pressing matter, too, and I recommend that you give it into the care of Shosuro Miyoto. He is an uncompromising man, which will serve him well in that role.”
Miyako nodded. “Your recommendation is noted, but I have learned that sometimes men who cannot bend will break.” She paced in a slow, inexorable curve until she faced him. “I will give you your death,” she said. “An honorable death, for those who care about such matters. But no one will speak any word as to the cause. Only the Scorpion will know. And other people will think, in this upside-down Empire, that even among the Scorpion there is one man who objects to the Empress’s taste for expediency. In this you may serve me one last time, however distasteful you find it and however much we disagree.”
“I have already told you that I stand with you,” Toson said. “If you wish to set me a test, set a harder one. I will make the three cuts with a peasant’s trowel if you demand it of me.”
“I won’t insult your loyalty,” she said. “But you need to know the use I will make of your death. It is the last thing I can do for you.”
“It is fitting,” he said, surprising her. “It’s not what I would do. But it bends my penance to your purpose, which is good. You did not come to us a Scorpion, but the more you think like one, the better it will be for all of us.”
Miyako looked at him in silence for a long time, memorizing his mask; memorizing the straight line of his back. “Make your death-poem a good one,” she said at last.
* * * * *
Ikoma Otemi did not know what he had expected to see in his Champion’s face during the mass seppuku. The slow hand of horror, perhaps, or simple exhaustion. Instead, Akodo Shigetoshi’s expression had been impassive. Only once had his eyes flickered, and then Otemi knew that the entire situation was taking its toll on the man after all.
Now, Otemi knelt before Shigetoshi in a small but richly appointed room. He was aware of the air shivering over his skin, the glares of the stone lions with their gilded manes and frozen roars. Shigetoshi did not often use this room. At another time, Otemi would have wondered about the choice, but an audience was an audience and he had little time left in any case.
“My lord,” Otemi said. “The Empress, divine though she is, has acted in a way that I cannot reconcile myself to.” He did not dare look up to see what Shigetoshi’s reaction was. “I beg your permission to take the three cuts. I beg permission to ask my brothers and sisters to allow my death to represent their protests, so that their lives may be spared for future service.”
Shigetoshi’s voice was quiet and unreadable. “You are no doubt wondering,” he said, “why I do not do the same.”
It would have been disingenuous to claim that his place was not to question when he had come here to do exactly that. Otemi reflected that there had once been a time when his most pressing problems involved Ratlings and a ghost pirate. It was difficult not to feel that the world’s wheels had turned for the worse.
“The Empress speaks with the wisdom of Tengoku,” Shigetoshi said. “It is hardly surprising that her actions are perplexing to those of us who are merely mortal.”
Otemi’s eyes narrowed. “Then we are not as far apart in our assessment of the situation as I had feared. Tell me, my lord, when we cannot differentiate between heavenly wisdom and mortal weakness, what are we to do? We already know—“ He hesitated only slightly. “We already know what happens to the Lion when an Emperor is consumed by darkness. And we know what it does to the Empire, too.”
“The Empress is touched by the Heavens,” Shigetoshi said. “At least we are certain of that.”
Otemi thought of the gaijin invasions, of death by fire and death by plague, of dark gods warring, and he was not so sure.
“You are thinking as an individual samurai,” Shigetoshi said with surprising briskness. “But you are a Lion, so I ask you to think as a tactician. Suppose that all the daimyo of the Lion, all of our most honorable bushi, commit seppuku. What then? We would leave the clan to be led by the weak. And if the Empress cannot appeal to honor in a way that ordinary samurai understand, then there must be Lions to do so on her behalf. We cannot afford to destroy ourselves lest Rokugan be truly lost. You said yourself that you would spare the lives of other Lions by taking on seppuku yourself, so you already understand this.”
“I understand,” Otemi said, “but I am not resigned. I cannot help but wonder if the Crab have so easily reconciled themselves to a bargain with their ancient foe, or if the Phoenix, who know the cost of delving into dark knowledge, see no risk. Do the Crane praise the Empress’s treaty with Daigotsu with sweet words?”
Shigetoshi’s mouth pressed into a line. “It’s irrelevant. They must take their honor in their own hands and measure it their own way. Even to consult with the other clans in this matter would be a terrible mistake. I will not send the Lion down the path of sedition and conspiracy.”
“You must do as you see fit, my lord,” Otemi said stiffly. His right knee was beginning to bother him, but he gave no sign.
“Do you have a second?” Shigetoshi asked after an agonizing pause.
“Matsu Kenji has already agreed, my lord.”
Shigetoshi nodded. “A good choice.” Carefully, he slipped his sheathed wakizashi out of his obi and held it out with both hands. “Your life has been full of no small glory,” he said. “It would honor me if you used this.”
For a moment Otemi couldn’t speak. To have his Champion’s sanction, to have the use of his Champion’s wakizashi–the honor was his.
And they would give his protest greater force. Shigetoshi surely knew this, just as he knew the risk he took in honoring someone who questioned the Empress.
“My lord,” he said, and accepted the wakizashi. He knew how much it should weigh, and yet the weight of the world was contained in that blade.
* * * * *
Bayushi Kurumi was escorted in to see Miyako by two bushi and a shugenja. She was dressed in a painfully simple kimono, and beneath her mask her face was drawn.
Miyako straightened from her scrutiny of the maps. “Sit down,” she said.
Kurumi bowed as deeply as she could, then sat. She arranged herself with the beautiful manners that she had learned as a courtier. Miyako almost pitied her for this last attempt at dignity.
Miyako did not dismiss the guards. “I have read through the reports of your comings and goings,” she said. “I have listened to the interrogators’ assessments of your actions. But we both know that you are here because of not only one but two great failures.” She tapped one of her maps. It shifted; a bent pin fell out.
“I do not deny anything you say, Bayushi-sama,” Kurumi said. Her voice wavered in spite of herself.
“You allowed yourself to be manipulated by Fu Leng himself,” Miyako said. “That he was a god is inconsequential. Rokugan has stood for years because men and women of indomitable spirit opposed him. When your time came, you were weak. If all”–her voice sharpened—“you did was help create a new Festering Pit, that would be one thing. But the more inexcusable crime is this: you and your companions contributed to a situation so dire that the Empress herself was forced to treat with darkness.”
Kurumi bowed her head. “It is–it is as you say, Bayushi-sama.” A tremor passed through one hand.
Miyako leaned back and waited until the other woman had composed herself. “I have one last task for you,” she said.
“I will not fail you, Bayushi-sama,” she said.
Miyako smiled thinly. “Most assuredly you will not. You are still a courtier, and as it so happens, I have a particular need for a courtier. When it comes to festering pits, there is no denying that the Crab are the empire’s resident experts. We need them as allies. You will be responsible for persuading them of my sincerity in this matter. I am certain that they have not forgotten our feud against the Great Bear returned, so I am sending them a token of my regret. You will do nicely.”
Miyako paused, then added coolly, “You had nothing to do with the Great Bear, of course, but I imagine the Crab will have strong opinions about your role in Fu Leng’s return. Whatever fate they have in mind for you, you will submit to.”
Kurumi stared at her, appalled. “I had thought it would be Traitor’s Grove,” she said faintly.
A Scorpion’s death, however horrible. Not a death among strangers.
“If they happen to return you to me,” Miyako said, “I will be only too happy to oblige you.” She nodded to the guards. “You will accompany her on her journey. Make sure she arrives intact.”
After they had gone, Miyako took all the pins out of the maps and frowned at the holes she would never be able to repair.
* * * * *
keen edge, bright metal
balanced perfectly to strike–
the hand is rotten
* * * * *
a new face looks out
from the cartographer’s charts–
darkness has two eyes
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