Years before the beginning of Emperor Edition, the aging Master Coin seeks to ensure that his legacy is well defended.
Steel on Steel
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The Yasuki Provinces, year 1188
Some found it unusual for the master of a great family such as the Yasuki to maintain a private residence outside of the family’s ancestral estate, but by this point in his career, Yasuki Jinn-Kuen had proven both successful enough and eccentric enough that no one bothered to question some of his odder habits any longer. Most recognized that it was a waste of their time, but he liked to think that there were a few who also recognized, even if only by some vague bit of intuition, that it was not safe to cross him. It was a silly bit of self-indulgence, of course; had he not spent his lifetime ensuring that no one had any inkling of what kind of man he really was? But still, there was the eternal hope that some precious few were insightful enough to understand a glimmer of the truth. What joy could be left in the world if there was not even a chance of a rival?
The audience chambers of Jinn-Kuen’s estate were lavish to the point of extravagance, but despite this, or perhaps because of it, the chambers that were restricted for the use of he and his staff were cold, and devoid of all manner of decoration. It was in one of these bare corridors that he found three of his most trusted men. One, clearly the senior of the three, held a bloodied arm close to his body. They were assembled around a body laying on the stone floor. The man was clearly dead, bearing injuries that could not be survived by any mortal. “Well,” Jinn-Kuen said. “What an unpleasant surprise.” He turned to the wounded man. “Are the premises secure?”
“The guard has been doubled and the grounds have been searched,” the man answered. “No one else has been found. They are conducting a second search as we speak.” He gestured to the other two men. “Secure both ends of this corridor as long as Jinn-Kuen-sama remains within.”
The other two men bowed sharply and ran in opposite directions. “Quick on their feet, those two,” Jinn-Kuen observed.
“New converts,” the other man said, grimacing at the pain of his wound. “You know how that is, my lord.”
Jinn-Kuen looked at the man’s wound. “You should have that looked at.”
“Once I am sure your house is safe, my lord.”
The lord of the manor clucked his tongue. “You should consider training a replacement, Suteru. Your position is secure for as long as you desire it, because I know you would never allow your duty to be compromised by weakness, but we must face the truth: you are not a young man any longer.”
Hida Suteru’s expression did not change. “I am two years younger than you, my lord.”
“Well no need for that!” Jinn-Kuen snapped. “Still, the point remains. You have decades of experience at an impossibly difficult post. You will need quite some time to train a replacement, I think. Perhaps you should consider it.”
“I will, my lord,” Suteru said. “Recruiting any further inside the clan may prove difficult, however. I need not remind you of Kuni Renyu’s investigations concerning…”
“As you say, you need not remind me,” Jinn-Kuen snapped. “But your point is well made, recruiting outside the clan may be a good idea. I will make the necessary arrangements once you establish the criteria you desire.” He paused and looked at the body. “Any idea who this is?”
“Unfortunately no, my lord. Presumably a thief or an assassin.”
“How insightful,” Jinn-Kuen sneered. “Don’t you have a process by which you investigate things of this nature?”
“Generally speaking, my lord, yes,” Suteru answered. “Under different circumstances, of course, the first step would be to identify who might wish you ill. Of course, you are the lord of one of the Empire’s most powerful and wealthy merchant families, which is to say nothing of the fact that you are a member of the Kolat Masters, commanders of the most extensive criminal organization known to exist in the entire world.”
Jinn-Kuen rubbed his eyes. “I assume you have a point, old friend?”
“My point is that I can immediately think of seventeen individuals who have the resources necessary to order something like this,” Suteru continued, “and the number is that small only because I am assuming that none of the other Masters are responsible for it.”
“I would not assume such a thing,” Jinn-Kuen said. He waved the conversation away. “It is late and I am tired. Make sure that the remains are not discovered.”
Suteru smiled grimly. “In over twenty years, my lord, have any of the bodies ever been discovered?”
Jinn-Kuen chuckled. “No. No, Master Steel, they have not. Good night.”
“Good night, Master Coin.”
* * * * *
As sake houses went, The Sleeping Dragon was not particularly unpleasant. Indeed, Yasuki Dokansuto had been in far, far worse during his decades of service in the name of the Crab Clan. However, considering that he was in the lands of the Crane Clan, it was clearly one of the less reputable establishments. Everything was relative, after all, he reflected, and the Crane had an infuriating tendency to ensure that even their seedy, underhanded sake houses were clean and presentable. How was a man supposed to drink huge amounts of sake and commit embarrassing offenses that he could barely remember in a place like this? It looked like somewhere a kindly old aunt might live. With a heavy sigh, Dokansuto gripped his walking stick and headed in.
Inside, the proprietors at least had the decency to ensure it was dimly lit, making certain that the annoying niceties and decorations could be overlooked in the gloom. There was a hint of smoke, although the scent was an unfamiliar variety to the old merchant. It might be some unknown flavor of incense, or perhaps some recreational smoking that he was unaware of, or even some exotic dish being burned in the kitchen. Regardless, he felt more at home immediately upon entering, which made things simpler. He found it much easier to conduct delicate business when he was comfortable. Peering through the gloom, he quickly recognized the man he had come to find, and strode merrily over to the man’s table, keenly aware that everyone else in the entire establishment had chosen to sit as far from him as possible.
“Hello there!” Dokansuto said. “Mind if I sit?”
The young man sitting in the gloom looked up from his sake with an expression of mild annoyance. “Did you not notice everyone else leaves me alone?” he asked pointedly.
“Surely I did, surely I did,” Dokansuto said, sitting down. “I imagine it must be a bit difficult for a man such as yourself to find company, if he wanted it.”
“Are you implying something?” the man asked.
“Well, I just mean, look around,” Dokansuto said. “Everyone is afraid of you, aren’t they? Everyone is afraid of the terrible Doji Haikazu.”
The man leaned back in his seat. “Am I supposed to be impressed that you know who I am?” he asked. “Everyone knows who I am. Look at them.” He gestured toward the other patrons and the staff. “They all hate me, fear me, or both. And I do not care, not in the least. If I wanted company, I could get it easily, but I do not. So why are you here, and why should I not simply cut you down for daring to speak to me?”
Dokansuto cackled. “Fortunes, I remember being young! I admire that fire you have in your belly, my boy, I really do. I miss those days terribly.” He wiped a tear of laughter from his eye. “Still, you must admit, finding a way to explain my death would be a bit of a difficulty for you, wouldn’t it?”
Again, Haikazu gestured to the other patrons. “They would say whatever I told them to. Hated and feared, remember?”
“And you would tell them to say… what, exactly? That a man well past his fiftieth summer drew a blade on you? A blade that he wasn’t carrying, by the way?” Dokansuto waved it away. “I would not be so simple a death to explain. Not like when you killed Mirumoto Taikiren.”
Haikazu’s eyes narrowed. “I killed Taikiren in a duel,” he said softly.
“Well, so you say,” Dokansuto said. “And the truth of the matter is that you probably would have, if it had gotten to that point. Fortunes know you certainly have killed plenty of men in duels, after all. But Taikiren was not one of them.”
“What is it you want, exactly?” the Crane demanded.
“Is it difficult?” Dokansuto asked. “I mean, being a Doji. You are from a lesser branch of the family, so you have been denied the birthright so many of your kinsmen enjoy. And the fact that you are not a Kakita has robbed you of the prestige commensurate with your skills as a duelist. Why, from what I hear, there is a girl, no more than a child, and from a disgraced lineage at that, who is the talk of the duelists among your clan. Just a girl, and already more of them talk about her than you.”
“Korihime’s half-breed calf?” Haikazu scoffed. “When she has graduated, I will deal with her, and then we shall see whose name is on the lips of the Kakita masters.”
“It seems a long time to wait for fame,” Dokansuto said. “Unfortunate, isn’t it? You deserve so much more…”
“What do you want?” Haikazu demanded, striking the table with his fist. “Say it and be gone. I grow sick of your company.”
Dokansuto smiled and placed a small box with a letter attached to it on the table. “Simply read this and see what you think,” he said. “It is… well, let us call it an opportunity. If you are interested in such things.”
“Such things as what?”
The old Crab shrugged. “Money. Power. Women. Respect. Whatever you want, really. It’s up to you.” He smiled and placed a handful of golden coins on the table. “Please, permit me to settle your tab. It is the least I can do to pay you for the pleasure of your company. I leave you to your bottle. Perhaps we will speak again.”
“I doubt that,” Haikazu said.
* * * * *
The magistrate’s outpost was little more than a house near an old, rural road. The traveler pulled his horse to a stop and waited patiently as a lone samurai emerged from the interior. The young warrior walked over and offered a half-hearted smile. “Good day, sir. May I see your papers, please?”
“Certainly, young man,” the old man said with a smile. He held out a scroll. “I think you will find everything in order.”
“Of that I have no doubt,” the warrior said, barely managing to keep the dismay from his voice. He frowned for a moment. “Sir, there are two scrolls here. This one is your travel papers, but I believe this other one you gave me by mistake.” He held it out as if to return it.
The old man did not move to take it back. “No, I meant to give it to you.”
The warrior frowned and slowly lowered his arm. “What is it… uh…” he looked at the travel papers, “What is it, Dokansuto-sama?”
The old Crab shrugged. “Read it and see.” He glanced around at their utterly desolate surroundings. “You don’t seem to have much else to do right this moment, do you?”
The warrior frowned, but slowly opened the scroll and read it. He glanced back up with a wary expression. “These are travel papers in my name, authorizing my temporary transfer to the Crab lands,” he said. “What is the meaning of this?”
Dokansuto shrugged. “It seems you are being transferred, I suppose. Fortunately for you, I am heading in the same direction. We could travel together, if you like.”
The warrior looked over the papers again. “How did you come by these papers?”
“Does it matter?” the old man asked as he stared at the Crane warrior. “Are you or are you not Doji Muroken?”
“I am,” the man said. “I ask you again, though, where did you get these papers?”
“Why do you ask?”
The warrior rolled it up. “I believe they are forgeries,” he said frankly. “Perhaps the finest I have ever seen, but forgeries just the same.”
Dokansuto smiled. “You are every bit as keen-eyed as I was told.”
“What is the meaning of all this?” Muroken demanded.
Dokansuto looked again at their empty surroundings. “It is difficult, isn’t it? Every sensei you have ever had, every commanding officer, has had nothing but astonishing things to say about your swordsmanship. You are among the most prodigiously talented warriors in the clan, and would doubtless be a military hero throughout the Empire… if there were anywhere for you to fight.”
Muroken’s mouth was a thin line. “You sought me out here, specifically? For the purposes of this conversation?”
“If there were wars, if there was even the possibility of a war, then you could find yourself placed on the battlefront, commanding men. But no. There is nothing. So you, like your comrades, are rotated through a series of unimportant duty posts. Like this one.”
“Sir, this is not a conversation I feel comfortable having with you.”
“Of course there are still armies, and those armies need officers,” Dokansuto nodded and smiled. “Who fills those posts? Men whose fathers have political connections. Men whose sisters are courted for profitable marriages. Men with less skill but more connections.” The old Crab shook his head. “It hardly seems fair.”
Muroken forced a smile. “What is it you want, sir?”
“I want to give you the chance you deserve,” Dokansuto said, withdrawing a small box and another scroll from the bag on his horse. “Take this. Think things over. I will be spending a few days in the village south of here. If you wish to come along, you can find me at the Yellow Orchid.”
Muroken took the box with a frown. “The Yellow Orchid? That place is disgusting.”
Dokansuto sighed happily. “I know. Wonderful, isn’t it?”
* * * * *
Somewhere in the Twilight Mountains, the rays of the morning sun struggled to dissipate the thick, clinging fog that obscured every detail of the landscape. From the mists, two figures emerged. One bore a white mask that hid his face. The other bore a black mask, identical save for the color. Both wore the colors of the Crane Clan. One had a blade from which hung many colored tassels, indicating the clans of those he had defeated in a duel. The other bore a rank insignia that indicated his membership in the military of the Crane.
The two men faced one another amid the fog for a long moment, neither speaking. Finally, the soldier drew his blade and stood waiting. Then, in a flash, the duelist drew his blade and leapt at his foe.
The two men dueled for several long moments. The duelist was faster, but the soldier was adept at defense, and nearly cut his opponent in two on several occasions. Only the duelist’s quick reflexes saved him. The two cut and slashed at one another, inflicting a variety of minor wounds but neither able to deal the final blow. Finally, in desperation, the duelist leapt back from his foe and cut through a major branch of a nearby dead tree, dropping a sizeable piece of wood upon his opponent. The soldier rolled away form the worst of it, but was cut badly along the side by the duelist in the process. “Agh, Fortunes!’ the soldier swore. It was the first time either man had spoken.
The duelist stopped, his blade held high. “Wait…” he rasped. “Muroken?”
“Of course,” the man on the ground said. “What did you think? You were always so thick-headed, Haikazu.” He grimaced at the pain of his wounds. “Finish it.”
Haikazu slowly lowered his blade. “Why?” he demanded. “For them? Because they wish us to kill one another?”
“You knew what this was.”
“I did not know it was you!” Haikazu shouted. “Do you think I would kill my own cousin? Did you think I have fallen so low?”
Muroken laughed. “I recognized your style from the moment you drew your blade. As ever, cousin, you are all bluster and no execution.”
Haikazu turned and stood shocked at the two men standing nearby. Only moments before, there had been no one, and there was nowhere for them to have concealed themselves. Where had they come from? But the question he heard himself asking instead was, “Who are you?”
The older man in the straw hat was regarding Muroken curiously. “You knew that this was your cousin? You were prepared to kill your flesh and blood?”
“Give me a moment,” Muroken gasped. “I still may be able.” He stared at the older man with frightening intensity. “I want the power I deserve.”
“You sicken me. All of you.” Haikazu waved them away as if he smelled something sour. “I want nothing to do with this. Do not approach me again.”
As the Crane duelist walked away, Hida Suteru frowned. “He will be a problem.”
“I doubt that,” Yasuki Jinn-Kuen said. “Let us get your new student a healer to dress his wounds, shall we?”
“Why?” Muroken said through clenched teeth. “I lost.”
“Debatable,” Jinn-Kuen said. “Your skills were equally matched. Your cousin was victorious because he cheated. And quite frankly, we can teach you to cheat even more proficiently.” He smiled. “I think we have the right man for the job.”
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