Scenes from the Empire

A series of three vignettes from across the Emerald Empire!

Scenes from the Empire

By Robert Denton & Yoon Ha Lee

Special Guest Author Sean Holland

Edited by Fred Wan

 

Unlikely

 

The Month of the Goat, 1193

In over 800 years of recorded history, the halls of Shinden Asahina had not hosted a single Tamori. It was only a forty-two year old family, granted, but not one Tamori had ever sipped tea within the Temple of the Morning Sun, nor ever laid eyes upon the ancient carvings of its stone walls, nor witnessed the burning of the dawn sky above the Fields of the Morning Sun. The stones of the temple themselves could not recall such a time, and as far as the temple’s monks and shugenja were concerned, the event was unprecedented.

                For why would the Tamori go there? Shinden Asahina was far from the secluded provinces of the Tamori. Their lands were wild, their mountains defiant, their castles isolated. Wild lands produced wild people; the Tamori were as much warriors as they were priests. They wore their wakizashi as openly as they bore their tattoos, their lean bodies toned from iron folding and martial sparring. Their prayers invoked stone and fire. They venerated martial fortunes.

                To put it simply, they were too different. The Asahina venerated peace and stillness, believed gentleness was a virtue, and taught that anger led to rash action and folly. They dedicated their lives to pacifistic purposes. If the Asahina were a still pond in serene fields of swaying wheat, then the Tamori were the hidden fires beneath untamed mountains.

                Would a Tamori visit such a peaceful place? Unlikely. 

                So it was for years until Tamori Ruya and her apprentice appeared before the weathered stone Torii arches of Shinden Asahina, asking to speak with the family daimyo. There had been no announcement, no herald to warn of their coming. None expected them or foresaw their visit. Indeed, the Asahina were not quite sure what to do with them. It was as if they’d laid eyes upon a pair of strange beasts the like of which they’d never seen before. To the Asahina, they were only vaguely recognizable as Shugenja. They had caches for scrolls, but also blades of samurai. They had the trappings of priests, but wore them loosely. Their shoulders, arms, and necks were exposed, tanned, and tattoo-painted, yet they were confident and unashamed, their backs straight and their heads held high. They began their walk with their right feet instead of the traditional left, as if to awaken their martial spirit. Their stomping excited the kami and worried the monks. The younger Tamori did not notice how the others stared at them. Ruya did, and smiled.

                For days they were honored guests. The Asahina largely avoided them, for the concept of martial priests surely horrified them. Yet although the Tamori were strange, even barbaric perhaps, Crane hospitality was legendary, and though the Asahina were ascetic, they were also gracious. Rice and barley awaited the visitors daily. With every meal, they received tea. They attended morning and evening prayers without hindrance. They were given quarters beside the temple baths so they would not have far to walk.

                And every day they received the same escort, a youthful girl barely past her gempukku. She was moon-faced with blue eyes, small and slight like a young willow. Her duty, she explained, was to serve them. Ruya wondered if the quiet girl was being punished for something. In truth, Asahina Keigo was simply curious.

                This she had in common with Ruya’s apprentice, a young man named Tomaru. Ruya had not known him to be particularly outgoing, and in fact he was an introvert, more concerned with his alchemical experiments than interaction with others. But in Keigo’s presence, the young man changed. He began to talk openly when she was around, and began to look forward to her daily visits. 

                He had too much energy, Ruya thought. Life here was peaceful, not like their home. He was enjoying himself too much; once she caught him meditating in the gardens beside the young woman instead of studying. Ruya had scolded him for neglecting his martial practices.

                Yet she said nothing one night when she happened to spy him sneaking from their quarters, returning hours later as a moonlight silhouette. She knew then that he was meeting Keigo after dark. Oddly, she did not care. They were both young, she reasoned, let them have their indulgences while they could. After all, years ago, when she’d met her first crush in the firelight of Sengen’s Forge, had she behaved any better?

                And besides, Ruya didn’t mind the little Crane so much. Keigo did not look away when the two Tamori sparred in the Summer gardens. She did not comment on the way they prayed with their fists clenched and knuckles pressed tight against the temple floors. She’d offered swift apologies to her brethren when their kata broke the silence of an afternoon meditation. And instead of frowning, Keigo smiled when Tomaru broke etiquette the first day, coughing at his first sip of fine Gyokuro tea. Smiled and laughed. Tomaru’s face had reddened as her blue eyes sparkled.

                This continued for nearly two weeks before Keigo finally brought them good news. An audience would be granted to the Tamori visitors. It was good fortune for the Asahina; Ruya’s patience had nearly run out. She knew that it was not her perseverance that had won this, it was the good word and coaxing of her Crane ally. Keigo had convinced her superiors to hear the words of their unlikely visitors. And not a day too soon, if one asked Ruya.

                They were mismatched for the audience chamber, a splash of defiant summer green and yellow. Ruya’s bare arms and neck showed coils of painted red serpents; she wore them proudly. They stood out against the pale blue of the stone walls, carved with natural scenes and decorated with serene tapestries. Keigo was there, seated beside her master and tending to a coal-box to heat their tea. She was a still lotus in layers of white and blue. Tomaru cast her glances, and irritated, Ruya whispered for him to remember where he was.

                Many things irritated her today. Ruya had asked for the daimyo. Instead, she got Shigemitsu, an older Asahina with patient eyes and slow movements. Watching him serve the tea made her impatient. He spoke of the founding of the temple, relating the story of Isawa Asahina and Doji Kiriko. This segued into talk of the Tao and comparisons between the two family’s interpretations of certain passages. Shigemitsu did not judge the Tamori interpretation, although it seemed he did not agree. Ruya allowed Tomaru to do the talking while she sized up the man. What she had to say would not be for one with a faint heart.

                At last, her patience ran out. “We really must speak with the Asahina daimyo,” she finally insisted, interrupting the conversation. Keigo winced, but Shigemitsu’s pleasant expression did not change. He apologized, but it seemed the daimyo was not at the temples at present. He was permitted to speak for the family, however, and could entertain their business with the daimyo’s authority.

                “Fine,” Ruya said, invoking a slightly panicked look from her apprentice. From within her kimono, she produced a small bag, and dumped the contents on the floor before them. Out tumbled three small pieces of jade and an intricate iron netsuke. “This was discovered in Shiro Tamori,” she explained curtly. “In the name of courtesy, we return it to you.”

                Keigo’s eyes widened. Shigemitsu’s narrowed. Keigo did not fully understand the meaning, but the gesture had upset her master. She looked at the iron netsuke, worked into the exquisite form of a crane in flight, clearly forged by skilled hands. But there was something sinister about its shape, something dark that she felt but could not identify nor articulate.

                “A gift from a passing guest of the Dragon,” Ruya explained. “He claimed it was the work of Asahina Keitaro.”

                Shigemitsu stood, fists clenched. Ruya tensed, challengingly. None spoke. For a time, the two stared at each other, the chamber thick with silence. Keigo and Tomaru exchanged glances, and in his eyes she saw clarity and worry in equal measure. This gift was insulting to the Asahina somehow. Whatever the gift’s secret, it had upset her master, and Tomaru knew it.

                Keigo had her own flash of clarity. Ruya’s tense stance was martial. Shigemitsu was whispering the sutra of calmness, reminding himself of his pacifistic vows. There could be violence at any moment. They were just too different, her lord and the Tamori woman. Keigo could sense that this stillness was a point in time balanced upon a razor’s edge. It was like tripping over a precipice, a cold dread at an unavoidable future. When it ended, her lord would end this meeting. The Tamori would be dismissed from the temples and forbidden to return. These events would be reported to the daimyo, where they would inevitably pass to their champion. Hostility between the clans was likely.

                She thought of her mother’s stories of war with the Dragon, of the tense relationship between the two clans afterwards. The fragile peace, the lingering resentments, the rise in conflicts between Mirumoto and Kakita, between Kitsuki and Doji. What would come of this one moment if someone didn’t act now?

                To her surprise, that person was not her. Tomaru laid his forehead against the floor, pressing himself flat in a display of humility. His long hair swept the floor around him, his loose kimono hindering the placement of his palms, for the Tamori were not accustomed to the gesture. None were as shocked as Ruya, who stared at her apprentice in wide-eyed and blatant disbelief.

                “I apologize,” he said softly, “Please. Hear us out. I beg you.”

                Shock broke through Ruya’s On. For a Tamori to apologize for anything was beyond unlikely, it was unheard of. But then, her look turned to one of realization, and she recomposed instantly. “The netsuke is manipulating our emotions,” she said. Keigo did not understand, but Shigemitsu did not hesitate. With his gesture, the kami of air tossed the iron trinket into the coal box, where it blackened and smoldered before Ruya’s whispers empowered the coals and melted it.

                Shigemitsu returned to his seat, both his anger and the Tamori’s insult forgotten. It was clear to all that they’d somehow avoided a terrible future, and it seemed they were eager to move past that still moment where it almost collapsed into them. Keigo whispered her thanks to the Fortunes as Ruya re-seated herself, still defiantly proud, but more humble than before. It was the most unlikely thing Keigo had ever witnessed.

                The moment had united them unexpectedly, and now they were on the same page. Ruya explained their purpose here; the Tamori had long pledged to seek and destroy those cursed items that bore the taint within them. Although the agreement between the Empress and Jigoku (Ruya wisely used the word “arrangement”) had spared the Empire much of the Taint’s threat, tainted vessels still influenced their surroundings. They were still dangerous. The Dragon did not seem to acknowledge this fact; as the stewards of the Spider Clan, their attentions focused elsewhere. But while the Dragon declared victory, the Tamori had grown ever more vigilant. When the netsuke-trinket was presented to Tamori Shimura as a gift, he instantly realized that the trinket contained a seed of darkness. The giver was ignorant to this fact and remained so, boldly claiming that it was once forged by the former Asahina Daimyo.

                That was when Keigo learned of their family’s secret shame. Asahina Keitaro had forged countless trinkets in an effort to tame the Anvil of Despair, a vessel of power belonging to the Asahina’s greatest traitor, a man whose name Shigemitsu would not speak. These trinkets had somehow spread from Shinden Asahina after the daimyo’s death, even though none within its walls could recall giving them away; surely the shugenja would have sensed the Taint within them and destroyed them. For years the Asahina were quietly been seeking information on these trinkets, trying to track them down, but their efforts yielded little.

                None needed to mention the shame of this scandal. That the Empire was now peppered with Tainted trinkets made from the forges of the Asahina was an unthinkable shame.

                Yet shaming the Ashaina was not the goal of the Tamori. In their simple, perhaps barbaric way, they had brought this trinket back to the Temple of the Morning Sun and sought an audience with the Asahina Daimyo. To the Crane, the Tamori may be uncultured, their ways horrifying and unthinkable, but they still understood the value of honor. They were offering the Asahina their chance to erase this stain on their own. 

                As one, they moved to the summer gardens, laying the coal box before the Shrine to Hinome, Fortune of Cleansing. They whispered the invocations to the Jade Sun. When they finished, they stared as the smoldering remains slowly rendered to ash. Keigo stood beside Tomaru. Their hands nearly touched under Ruya’s gaze.

                The discussion continued. It was the Asahina’s duty to seek out and destroy these cursed trinkets, but the Tamori had their duty as well. There was overlap here, it seemed. Common ground. Ruya dared to whisper that her family knew well the shame of tainted daimyo. Shigemitsu knew not to reply, but he understood regardless. All knew the lineage of the Dark Oracle of Fire. While the Asahina had this private shame, the Tamori’s shame was public.

                Shigemitsu and Ruya each regarded the other. Their ways were polar opposites. One embraced the path of air, the other of earth and fire. One was dedicated to peace, the other to war. But they both had this duty, this shame. And so they came to an understanding.

                Their agreement was spoken in whispers and bound by honor. Shigemitsu spoke on behalf of all Asahina, and Ruya accepted on behalf of all Tamori. Nothing more was said. Nothing more was needed.

                The guests remained for a few days after, but eventually they departed. Keigo watched them from the Shrine to Hotei. She’d said her goodbyes the previous night, both to Tomaru and Ruya. The elder had thanked her for meeting her apprentice in their quarters for a change. That and Ruya’s look said it all, that she knew of the secret meetings at night, their unchaperoned meetings. She was openly amused by Keigo’s reaction, but Ruya kept their secret and didn’t say a word. If she’d spoken of it to Shigemitsu, he might disapprove, and disapproval was the tomb of lovers. She’d just smiled as Keigo blushed.

                In her heart, Keigo knew she would see them again. Their honor had forged an agreement to this fact. An unlikely alliance by all accounts, but perhaps all the better. For she knew, as Tamoru knew, that the two families would accomplish far more together than they would apart. The Asahina were the Yin, the Tamori were the Yang, and this duty was their balance. Another flash of clarity showed Keigo much more, that the Tamori and the Asahina would grow far closer along this unknown path. But that was the uncertain future. These were but first steps.

                The Dragon and Crane never publicly acknowledged the meetings between the two families, nor the small groups of Tamori and Asahina traveling the empire together. The Kakita and Mirumoto still tested one-another’s mettle in duels of skill, the Doji and Kitsuki were still courtly rivals. If they themselves noticed that the relations between their Shugenja families had inexplicably improved, none spoke of it. There was no written agreement, after all, no announcement, no explicit unification. Now and again, an Asahina and a Tamori would be spotted in an obscure court, coastal town, isolated shrine, or simply traveling the road together. They were polar opposites, wandering the lands, seemingly sharing a singular purpose. Samurai would scratch their heads in wonderment before returning to their daily routine.

                To even speak it out loud seemed foolish. The Tamori and the Asahina families working together?

                What was the likelihood of that?

 

* * * * * * * * * *

 

Two Cups

 

Two mornings after the wedding, Matsu Kenji woke in the darkness and dressed quietly and carefully. Her armor was on a stand in the room, but she left it alone. In the slivers of moonlight, its colors were scarcely visible: a glint of washed-out gold here, the texture of silk cord there. She was thirsty, but thirst was a small matter. There was a cup with a little tea at the edge of the table, and another cup, drained, across from it, but she could wait.

            “You should drink,” her husband said, sitting up in a rustling of blankets. His name was Michi. It was impossible to tell in the darkness, of course, but he had been a Crane duelist two days earlier, and she had made a point of looking at him closely then. Kenji knew how tall he was, and the two scars that crisscrossed his right palm, and the breadth of his shoulders; she knew the way his hair was silken-fine in her hands. She knew that she could kill him if it ever came to that, but he would probably kill her in the process. It was important to assess these things and hold them close in your heart.

            “There’s no need,” she said, sitting back down. Her mouth felt dry, though.

            His voice was wry. “My dear, we are sitting on a hoard of leftover sake that a mob of Crab would envy us for. Not to mention teas with excellent pedigrees. There’s no need for you to deprive yourself.”

            “You sleep lightly,” Kenji observed.

            “I’ve been a soldier in my time,” he said. “Were you going to go for a walk?”

            He was her husband now. There should be no secrets between them. “Yes,” Kenji said.

            The wind blew in the trees, and the branches rattled against the walls. If she didn’t listen too closely, it might have reminded her of the hiss and crash of the waves. But the air was wrong, all wrong. It smelled of pine sap and fallen needles and late-falling snow, not white foam and the bite of salt.

            “Go, then,” Michi said. “It’s no bad thing to look at the night sky. I grew up enduring a lot of terrible haiku about the sea of stars. Young Crane and bad sake: always an entertaining combination.”

            “And what will you do?” she asked him. Kenji had not been terribly interested in him to begin with; interest had not been required. She knew her duty. The one man she had loved was dead–by his hand, by hers, by their Champion’s wakizashi–and it was time for her to give children to the clan.

            In spite of herself, she was becoming curious about Michi with his scars and his easy manner and his palpable lack of resentment. She was starting to regret not paying more attention during the tedious matchmaking process.

            “I’ll be up waiting for you, I expect,” Michi said. “If you don’t drink now, I imagine you’ll only be more thirsty when you come back to bed.”

            If he had been a soldier under her command, she would have told him to get sleep while he could. But of course, that wasn’t the case. “Tell me,” she said, “do you write terrible haiku?”

            “Are you trying to shame me?” But he was laughing a little. “I’m afraid you’ll only find out the answer to that question if sake is involved.”

            “Perhaps excellent sake produces excellent poetry.”

            “I’m certain that we comprehensively disproved that at the Kakita Dueling Academy,” Michi said ruefully.

            “Stand in the light,” Kenji said. “I want to see your face again.”

            It wasn’t very much light, but even so the elegance of his features was evident. She thought she could get used to waking up to that fine arch of brow, that beautiful strong mouth.

            There would be time and time again to look at this face, even if she would never be able to look at it without thinking of another man. “There’s nothing of love for us, you know,” she said, because it was important for him to realize this. “Only duty.”

            “I understand duty as well as anyone does,” Michi said, “but you are mistaken.” Before she could interrupt, he went on: “I don’t expect ever to hold your heart. We don’t live in a world of romances out of pillow books. But the virtue of the Crane is excellence, and it doesn’t matter whether your heart has been given elsewhere. You required a husband; I will be the best husband that I know how to be.”

            Then he spoiled the solemnity of his words by adding, “And I rather feel that it’s an honest husband’s duty to point out that if you don’t ever drink that sake, my natural curiosity will compel me to taste it, if only to figure out why it isn’t worthy of you. Besides, I am determined to learn how to walk in a straight line while on a boat–“

            “Ship,” Kenji said in spite of herself.

            “–ship, then, and I suspect that sake will be required to console me for my failures in this area until I get the hang of it.”

            “I doubt you fail at anything for long,” she said.

            “I’m certain I will have an excellent teacher.”

            Kenji looked away from his face, then, and out the window.

            “Go, walk,” her husband said. “Do you want sake or tea when you get back?”

            “Surprise me,” she said.

            “You’re going to regret saying that,” he called after her.

            She was already out the door, but she was surprised to find that she was smiling.

 

* * * * * * * * * *

 

The Monastery among the Winds

 

The old sohei known as Mainin worked patiently replacing and retying the cords of his armor. They had become brittle since he last wore it. War had again come to the Empire. The forces of darkness moved across the land, poisoning it by their very presence.  Even old warriors like him would be needed to stem the tide if the Empire was to survive. Slowly, he stood and donned his armor, speaking a blessing before pulling on each piece.

            Clad in the full panoply of war, his naginata decorated with ofuda, Mainin looked out over the wounded samurai gathered in the courtyard. They were garbed in so many colors, blues and golds, greens and reds. All had been sent here away from fighting, to safety, to recover in peace, but now the war was coming to them. It would not let them heal. Those samurai who could walk and fight, many splinted and bandaged, gathered their arms and armor for one more battle: a battle that would be the last for many of them. Many lives would be cut short but that, Mainin knew, was the price to save the Empire.

            The Monastery among the Winds stood in a small valley near a minor pass through the Spine of the World, accessible to the lands of the Lion and Scorpion – easily supplied, yet isolated unless one went seeking it. The Order’s Imperial patrons, primarily the Seppun, had prepared it for the Empire, stockpiling supplies and weapons and training sohei over the years. It had not been an easy task, for there were always other demands, but now the wisdom of those efforts was bearing fruit.

            Mainin moved through the gathering bushi, giving out blessings, ofuda and words of encouragement to those who sought them. A sudden flash of blue and white among the warriors, brought back memories . . .

 

            Mainin was a young man, newly inducted as a sohei; it was in late spring. The azaleas were just coming into bloom when the Imperial magistrate, a Crane if his flowing white hair was any indication, and his entourage rode in. The sohei watched them. Visiting samurai were a rare sight in those days. It seemed that the Magistrate had recruited far and wide, having companions from many clans. They moved with purpose, dismounting and heading directly into the main building to find the head of the monastery.

            Soon enough they returned, accompanied by one of the Abbot’s assistants. “You, monk,” the Crane said to Mainin, “your Abbot has assigned you to aid me.”

            “Hai, magistrate-sama,” the sohei Mainin replied, hefting his naginata. “May this one gather his traveling kit?”

            The Crane nodded. “Kindly be quick about it.”

            One of the few horses owned by the monastery was assigned for Mainin’s use and together they rode out.

            “I am Asahina Akira, senior Imperial Magistrate, and these,” he waved back, “are my yoriki and yojimbo. We have come into these mountains seeking a dangerous group of bandits and smugglers. We are told, Mainin-san, that you know that paths, hidden and open, in this area well.”

            “Hai, Asahina-sama,” the sohei nodded, “this one gathers wood, mushrooms and herbs from the local area.”

            “Excellent,” said the Crane with a thin smile. “Take the Ikoma and the Moto with you, find the smugglers and either drive them to us or report back with their location. We will camp at the juncture of the main pass and the spur that leads to your monastery.”

            Many of the narrow paths were ill-suited to horses. The Ikoma, the Moto and Mainin dismounted and sent their horses on with the others.

 

            The Moto stalked like a hunting wolf, his large frame tensed for battle at any moment, while the smaller Ikoma moved with the fluid precision of the highly trained. Mainin felt his skills did not match these agents of Empire. “Have you seen smugglers in these paths?” asked the Ikoma.

            “Not that this one can be certain of,” Mainin replied. “Sometimes one sees traces of groups that passed through, perhaps at night, or of hidden camps. But one cannot say with certainty what people were up to. But there is a particular set of routes that seems more used than the others.”

            “Take us there,” growled the Moto fingering his bow.

            The first place they looked was abandoned with no indication of travelers having been there for months.

            They moved on quickly. Mainin’s knowledge of the land combined with the practiced skills of his companions brought them along one of the many hidden paths. Mainin gestured to his companions to slow and carefully looked over the crest of the rise. There were people there below, more than he expected. Mainin guessed more than forty on foot, many guiding sturdy ponies along the narrow track. Just under half were armored guards and even the men leading the ponies seemed to be armed. A man wrapped in heavy furs was in the lead. He was the only one mounted. 

            “What do you see?” asked the Ikoma quietly.

            “Three dozen men or more, most armed,” whispered Mainin.

            “Twelve each. We can deal with them,” said the Moto with a feral smile.

            “But those are not our orders,” said the Ikoma, gesturing Mainin down and taking his place. “A hard looking band indeed.”

            The Moto scrambled up to look, recoiled and slid down quickly.

            “What is it?” hissed the Ikoma ducking back.

            “I know one of those men, the mounted one. He was once an Ide caravan master,” said the Moto, looking pale. “It was said he vanished in a sandstorm.”

            “There is more,” prompted Mainin.

            “He was a sorcerer, not a priest, he practiced gaijin magic. No one mourned when he was thought dead.”

            Mainin tightened his grip on his naginata. “We must warn the magistrate.”

            “Go, monk,” whispered the Ikoma, “you know this terrain. We will shadow them and delay them if needed. Go!”

            Mainin moved away. Once he was sure he was out of earshot of the smugglers, he ran.  He ran like he never had before among the twisting mountain paths. His route paralleled the smugglers’ path but it was longer. If the smugglers picked up their pace, they would reach the magistrate first. Fear spurred him to greater speed. He would not let it be said that his failure -which would reflect badly on the Brotherhood – had caused the death of an Imperial magistrate.

            Mainin saw the magistrate’s people, setting up a camp. He skidded to a halt. He forced himself to focus, relying on his breathing exercises to be able to speak… in a moment or two. The magistrate’s guardians had already moved into a defensive circle.

            The Asahina, a bow held loosely in his right hand, approached the sohei. “What news, Mainin-san?”

            The monk finally had his voice back. “Two score, all armed, with a gaijin sorcerer. They will come that way.” He pointed to where the winding path emptied into the main pass.

            “We face unholy magic,” called the Asahina, “prepare for combat.”

            “We had suspected such was the case,” he confided to Mainin as he turned back and offered the sohei an ofuda. “Place that over your heart.” Nonplused, Mainin did so.

            Now that he had his breath back and his wits about him, Mainin looked about. The Magistrate’s people had begun setting up camp, the horses were safely out of the way. One of the magistrate’s companions dressed in the slate blue of the Crab was doing something along the expected route of the smugglers. Nearer, the others were readying weapons or scrolls with the calm efficiency of long experience.

            The sohei moved to join the Magistrate. “Where can this one best help, Asahina-sama?”

            “If you would, protect the Asako and the Moshi priestess,” said the Magistrate as he selected an arrow from his quiver and gestured with it before setting it to his bowstring. “We will need their prayers.”

            “Hai,” nodded Mainin before jogging over to the spot indicted. He nodded to the other two. The severely dressed Moshi who was holding a sacred mirror and praying to the Sun ignored him, while the heavily bundled Asako was focused on making sure his scrolls were ready at hand.

            “Keep to my left,” said the Asako, “in front and to the left.”

            “Hai, Asako-sama,” Mainin said waiting to see if further explanation followed. None did.  The Asako returned to his scrolls and the sohei returned his attention to watching for the enemy.

            The Crab had come back to camp and was stringing a yumi, humming a tuneless song. The magistrate let a handful of dust trickle through his fingers, judging the wind. A warrior in antique armor in the style of the Dragon Clan practiced kata with two swords. Mainin thought he had seen a woman in subtle grays and muted reds, but she was nowhere in sight now. Coming up from where the horses were tied strode a ronin in mismatched armor carrying a surprisingly beautiful yari.

            “They are almost here,” came a soft voice, pitched to carry but seemingly from nowhere and everywhere.

            “I hate it when she does that,” grumbled the ronin.

            “Your nagiyari are ready,” said the Crab, gesturing to where a dozen or so of the throwing spears had been planted in the ground.

            “Domo, Kaiu-sama,” said the ronin. “So, unholy magic?”

            “As expected,” replied the Asahina magistrate, slowly drawing back his bow. The ronin shifted his yari to his left hand and picked up a nagiyari.

            The former Ide rode into view. He reined in his mount and his armored men fanned out behind him.

            “I am senior Imperial magistrate Asahina Akira. By the authority of the Empire and the Emerald Champion, you are my prisoners,” said the Asahina, his voice carrying exceptionally well. “Put down your weapons or we will be forced to use violence.”

            The once-Ide laughed. “Step aside, little Crane, and your blood will not stain this insignificant pass.”

            In a single fluid motion, the Asahina drew and released. Time slowed as the arrow arced through the air only to be dashed to the ground in front of the sorcerer by a gust of wind.  “Someday that will work,” sighed the Asahina and the battle was joined.

            Mainin remembered the instructions given to him by the Asako, holding his position.  When a dragon shaped jet of flame leapt past him, he understood why. The Moshi was reeling off a long prayer behind him. Before it could strike the sorcerer the draconic jet of flame boiled away in the air, shrieking horribly as it did so.

            The armored bandits ran forward, more a mob than a unit. Several threw weapons as they closed. Mainin cut a nagiyari from the air rather than risk it striking one of his charges. Several of the bandits went down, crying in pain, their feet pierced by the caltrops scattered by the Kaiu earlier. Arrows and nagiyari transfixed four more before they reached the Mainin and the Dragon.

            Armed with a variety of weapons, katana, yari and naginata, the rabble were dangerous. They were perhaps not as skilled as Clan samurai but they were experienced killers all and desperate. Mainin parried and cut, trying to keep them from advancing past him. All around him was combat but his attention was caught by a sphere of green glass arcing high through the air. The distraction almost cost him his life. Only his armor prevented a yari tip from cutting open his throat. He heard the glass shatter and then an inhuman moan echoed through the pass. Everything stopped for a moment.

            The sphere had shattered next to the Kaiu and released a being of green and black vapor. It had engulfed the Crab and one of the bandits, their flesh melted and burned away in the creature’s grasp. “Be purified!” shouted the Moshi from behind me and a ray of light, as pure and bright as the sun itself, lanced into the center of the vapor creature. It screamed and collapsed in upon itself before exploding outward in a spray of caustic liquid.

            It was too late for the Kaiu, the blacked bone of his skull was revealed as his helmet fell to the ground quickly followed by his body. “Kaiu!” screamed the ronin, leaping forward with his yari. Moving like a man possessed he speared two of the bandits and drove the others away from the body. The Dragon covered him until an ill-fated yari thrust pieced his side, he fell back, barely standing.

            The Asako snapped a clipped prayer and a serpent of stones flowed at the sorcerer. This one almost made it within striking range before the former Ide smashed a smaller glass globe into it. The serpent burst apart. The Asako cursed most unholy things for a priest. The Moshi had begun another chant.

            An arrow sprouted from the sorcerer’s chest. He grabbed an ornate brass bottle off his belt. A second arrow from above was whipped away by an unnatural gust of wind and driven into his mount. The rider promptly brained the beast with the bottle to keep the horse from panicking. As the horse collapsed beneath him, the former Unicorn slid free of the saddle with all the grace usual of that clan. Landing, he glared up at the side of the pass where the Scorpion samurai-ko was aiming another arrow and tore out the stopper of the bottle with his teeth. The thing that poured forth, all swirling eyes and claws, took the Scorpion’s next arrow and then launched itself through the air to her place on the rock wall. She screamed as it attacked her and they both tumbled down the side of the pass to lay unmoving.

            The ranks of the bandits had been thinned, the Magistrate and the ronin pushed forward.  Mainin used the reach of the nagi to keep the three left facing him from advancing further. From behind the sorcerer came several of the animal tenders, one splattered in blood, running for their lives. A moment later the Moto, covered in blood though none of it his own, and the Ikoma followed.

            Seeing their master ahead, the animal tenders turned to face the Moto rather than the sorcerer’s wrath.  They were no match for the savage Unicorn who carved through them with ease. As he stepped over the body of the last one, the Moto’s former clansman drew an unusual dagger from his sleeve and threw it. It was a blur, moving faster than the eye could see. With a hollow thunk that echoed through the pass, the dagger buried itself in the Moto’s forehead and he toppled backward.

            The sorcerer suddenly realized, he was alone and surrounded by very hostile enemies.  Mainin was wounded, having suffered a variety of small cuts and stabs. The ronin was not looking good, blood soaking one of his sleeves. But the magistrate, the Ikoma and the two shugenja were mostly unharmed. The others were out of the fight, dead or nearly so.

            “Curse you all!” the sorcerer shouted to the heavens. Just then the Moshi’s chant ended and the last ray of sunlight caught and was reflected off of her holy mirror to slice entirely through the sorcerer’s right arm. He cried in pain and fumbled at his belt with his left hand.

            “Slay him!” shouted the magistrate. Like the incarnations of vengeance, Mainin, the Ikoma and the ronin descended on the sorcerer before he could fetch another of his gaijin tricks. A moment later, decapitated and his heart pierced, he no longer posted a threat to the Empire.

            The Moshi tended to the unmoving Dragon, “He will live.”

            The Asako’s investigation of the Scorpion’s fate did not bring such good news. “Soshi-san died slaying a foe of the Empire.”

            “The Empire has gained too many heroic ancestors this day,” said the Asahina. “We will see they are remembered.”

            “What about the sorcerer and his bandits?” asked Mainin. “We do not have enough wood to burn them all.”

            “Tomorrow the fire kami will help us with that problem,” said the Asako.

            The Ikoma fetched one of the pack ponies, skittish with the smell of death. He unloaded it revealing weapons. The others had more and more: wavy bladed knives and spear heads, double-edged daggers with odd grips, axe and mace heads of unusual make. “Enough for a small army,” the Lion said, “though I could not say where they are from except beyond the Empire. Sadly our expert on gaijin and our master of weapon smithing are both no longer with us.”

            “No matter, they will not be used against the Empire now,” said the Asahina. “Are they tainted?”

            The Moshi and the Asako studied them for a few minutes and asked the kami. “They are just weapons,” sniffed the Moshi.

            “Good. Ikoma-san, take your favorite example of each type, they will be our prizes.  Mainin-san, you shall take the rest and the ponies to carry them as our thank you to your Order for its aid.”

            “Asahina-sama is too generous,” Mainin replied with a bow.

            “Think nothing of it. Your order will have to make certain that these corpses are properly disposed of, after Asako-san work, and purify the area. Lastly you will be performing rites for my yoriki who perished today.”

            “It will be done, Asahina-sama.”

            “The Empire together can defeat any threat,” said the magistrate surveying the battlefield.  “Hopefully the cost will not always be so high to safeguard our home.”

 

            Mainin never saw the Asahina magistrate again but the gaijin weapons he gifted to the order were reforged over the years into weapons for the Empire. Weapons that would now be used against those that sought the Empire’s destruction. The promises made by all of those many years of the order’s preparation were being redeemed. Wounded bushi, who would otherwise have died, now stood ready to return to defend the Empire with an armed host of sohei at their side prepared to show their devotion. Sadly, the price of saving the Empire would be so high that Asahina-sama would weep.

            As they marched into the pass, Mainin, his voice old but still strong, began a prayer of thanks and blessing upon the Empire. One by one the others joined in, their voices united as one as they marched into battle.

 

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Author: Shawn Carman View all posts by