Today’s installment in our new series delves into the themes and backgrounds that establish the present philosophies of the Crab and Scorpion clans.
State of the Clans, Part 2
By Yoon Ha Lee
Edited by Fred Wan
Not long after the end of the Destroyer War…
It was another bitter morning camped in the shadow of the Wall’s ruins, but it would not be Hida Reiha’s last. She could hear the squelching footsteps of the guards in the mud, the plaintive cries of birds, the patter of rain. Rain in her eyes. Rain in her hair.
Standing at the encampment’s perimeter, she thought of water. She thought of the story of Kuni Osaku and the Maw, which she had known longer than any other story, even the ones about Hida. Someone must have told it to her the first time, mother or father or cousins long-dead, but she might as well have been born with the story knotted around her bones.
The Maw had had a shadow filled with soldiers and teeth sharp as terror. Unchecked, he would have marched through the Crab and plunged into the rest of Rokugan, darkness compounding darkness. But one shugenja, Kuni Osaku, raised a wall of water to stay his horde. For seventy-three days she burned the years of her life while Crab engineers built a more lasting Wall. And then, scoured empty by prayer, seventy-three years older, she died.
Osaku’s sacrifice didn’t trouble Reiha. She knew what a Crab’s life was for. No: what she couldn’t get past was the heart-stab fact of her failure. The Crab here and now had failed Osaku and all the builders of walls, had failed their ancestors, had failed Rokugan itself.
“Reiha-sama.” It was a Hiruma guard. “A delegation of Scorpion are approaching us. Ten of them. They have asked to speak to you personally.”
Reiha looked around: gray sky, gray tents, gray light shattering in rain-struck puddles. She had the largest tent, sufficient for meetings. There would be no finely-calligraphed manuals of strategy, no go sets, no sweet bean pastries. She was Crab. She didn’t expect such things. Her guest might feel differently, but that couldn’t be helped. After all that had happened in the past year, she was not in a mood for luxuries.
“I’ll allow it,” Reiha said. “Have someone make tea, I don’t care what kind.” That was a joke, and the Hiruma chuckled obligingly before jogging off. The only tea they had right now was low-grade stuff that some merchant had salvaged. It was an open question whether mud water had better flavor.
The delegation arrived soon. Ten Scorpion, somber and poisonously beautiful in their black and red, but that was normal. It wouldn’t have surprised Reiha if other Scorpion lurked out there somewhere; the guards would already know to be doubly alert. A tall, thin-faced bushi was holding an umbrella over the woman in the center. Reiha noticed the umbrella not because of its riotously colorful ribbon-and-feather motif but because she suspected it of being a weapon.
The woman wore a mask that Reiha had never seen before, black cords cunningly braided with faceted beads of white-and-lilac jade. The eyes and bearing, however, were unmistakable. Bayushi Miyako had come to see her in person.
“I could give you some elaborate speech of greeting,” Reiha said, dripping, “but why don’t we just get out of the rain.”
Miyako inclined her head. “I have no objection,” she said.
Reiha led the way to the command tent. The tent’s guards looked at her, stone-faced, then looked at the Scorpion. She glared back. “A guest,” she said shortly. “Her guards can share their duty with you.” Everyone understood that this meant that the guards would spend their time staring at each other, wary of every chance movement.
Her guards eyed the Scorpion again, but didn’t contest the order.
Inside the tent was a small table, beautiful if beauty was measured purely in functional terms, and two plain cups of steaming tea. That was all.
Miyako sat after Reiha did. “You know my purpose here,” she said in her quiet voice. She didn’t have to elaborate on the doorway to Jigoku that now existed in Scorpion lands, or why she might want Crab assistance with it. She sipped her tea and didn’t even give Reiha the satisfaction of looking appalled at its taste. “But before we begin, I wish to offer you a token of our appreciation.” She slipped a scroll from the sleeve of her kimono.
Reiha knew perfectly well that she was supposed to scratch out a polite refusal. What came out instead was a growl.
When Reiha could trust herself to speak more or less civilly, she demanded, “Scorpion, do you seriously think you need to give a Crab a gift to get her to do her duty?“
“No,” Miyako said levelly. Her eyes held Reiha’s, steadfast. “I know that the Crab don’t guard the Empire because they expect anything as ephemeral and tawdry as gratitude. You guard the Empire because it is yours to do and it must be done.”
“Well,” Reiha said, only slightly mollified, “at least you understand something.”
“I’ll take that as your first refusal, then,” Miyako said, not without a certain dry humor. Reiha was impressed by her ability to find humor in the whole situation. “Reiha-san, perhaps you have no need for blandishments, but it would ease my mind if you would accept my offering.”
“No,” Reiha said, determined to get the ritual over with as soon as she could.
Miyako might have smiled behind her mask. “One more time, then. I am told that the Crab are a practical people. I don’t bring you a pretty nemuranai that summons cascades of living butterflies, or an ancient obi stitched by Doji’s hands. I bring you something–practical. Please, Reiha-san, read the scroll. You will not regret it.”
“Very well,” Reiha said. She halfway expected the paper to grow teeth and bite her throat out, but surely if the Scorpion Clan Champion wanted to have her assassinated, there were safer places to do it than in the middle of a Crab encampment. Nevertheless, she opened the scroll.
The scroll was made of beautiful paper, threaded through with dried petals and filaments of silk. Reiha wondered why Miyako had gone to the trouble. Then she began reading. She came to the end, then read the words again. She was no expert in calligraphy, but it seemed wrong that such straightforward words should be written in such a graceful hand, with every downstroke of the brush just so.
The Scorpion were offering the Crab the full cooperation of the Kuroiban and the uninhibited sharing of information in matters relating to the Taint or maho. The word “uninhibited” stood out as though it had been written in large red characters.
Reiha understood that a gift of information from a Scorpion was either an act of desperation or of manipulation. In this case, probably both. She thought about it for a moment. The Scorpion wouldn’t have much to offer in terms of material aid right now, especially when they were the ones in need of it, and while they probably had blackmail material and intelligence on every clan in the Empire, the Crab had other matters to deal with than petty politics. Perhaps they offered this because it was all they could think of to entice the Crab.
Or perhaps it was simply that they wanted to help the Crab help them.
“I had to argue long and hard for this,” Miyako said. Her back was very straight and her hands rested on the table between then, thin and callused and strong. “But my will is the will of the Scorpion, and I prevailed.”
“I don’t much care what you had to do,” Reiha said bluntly. “But very well. Your offer is acceptable.” She paused, looking at the other woman through narrowed eyes. “As it turns out, I have already given a considerable amount of thought to your problem. I assume that your pit is at least watched, if not as heavily guarded as it needs to be.”
“We have done what we could,” Miyako said.
“In any case,” Reiha said, “we both know that what you need is a wall. At least you know who to come to for one.”
“Not one wall,” Miyako said. “Two.”
Reiha leaned back, considering. Considering, rather than laughing. “Explain.”
“Two walls, and two reasons. First,” Miyako said, “to permit rapid response to outbreaks, I need a staging point close to the hellpit itself. A fortified village, say. Second, we have in our custody a small number of Tainted samurai. I am”–she spoke very precisely–”reluctant to remand them to the care of the Dragon, when the Scorpion could derive some immediate benefit from front-line sacrificial troops. Such a village would be an appropriate residence for them.”
Reiha worked through the words. “You want an outer wall and an inner wall, and a village in between. The outer wall to protect the Scorpion from the eyes of the Empire, and the inner wall to protect the Scorpion from the pit itself. Make that two inner walls. Everyone will expect there to be an inner wall anyway, so you might as well build an additional one and hide the village between the two innermost walls.”
“You have understood my intentions exactly.” Miyako glanced down at her tea, then finished it with three rapid sips.
It was hardly impossible. From a strictly strategic point of view, she agreed with the necessity of the proposed staging point. But then, she would have expected good strategic sense from a former Imperial Legionnaire.
“You realize,” Reiha said, “that such an endeavor would not be met with approval by the rest of the Empire.” She understood the constraints of construction work; she knew that observers would be able to draw certain inferences from the amounts of stone and lime transported, the amount of dirt excavated, the timetables involved. “At the scale you speak of, you would need the aid of shugenja to preserve secrecy.”
“I could provide shugenja,” Miyako said. She was pale around the eyes, but composed.
Hida Reiha thought it was a terrible day when the Crab’s duty involved building walls inside the Empire, to contain the corruption in its heart, instead of at the Empire’s border, to keep the corruption out. Still, there was no help for it but to deal with the hellpit where it was, instead of where she would have preferred it to be.
Reiha thought, too, of her brother telling her that there was nothing to do but to accept the Empress’s edict embracing the Spider, and welcome the partial respite in the fight against the Taint. Her own brother, after the years they had stood together against the darkness. She couldn’t do anything about the edict; she had at least come around to his point of view on that matter. But that didn’t mean that there weren’t other things she could do in defense of the Empire that the Empress had been so willing to erode.
“Yes,” Reiha said, and again, “Yes. I will help you.” She was smiling coldly.
Bayushi Miyako did not smile, but she bowed deeply from the waist.
Thirteen years later…
Kurumi, no longer Bayushi, woke up two hours before dawn, as she had done every day for the last several years. There was very little light to be had. She lived in a small hut all to herself, which the peasants and eta would have called luxury. In her case it was a punishment.
Carefully, she crawled over to a basin and washed her face with tepid water. Next to the basin was a pearl-inlaid box that had once contained scented cosmetics and the occasional poison. The cosmetics had run out years ago. Now she stored her mask in it.
Every morning, she unrolled the mask and held it in her hands, thinking about false faces and fallen gods and Traitors’ Grove. Then she rolled it up and put it back under the tray, and drew out a plain wooden comb to brush her hair. She had once owned one made out of tortoiseshell and carved with thorny vines, but she had bartered it away nine years ago for rice and firewood. Someday she would have to barter the box, too, but she imagined she would keep the mask, like a shackle, until the day of her death.
Beauty was an art, and although Kurumi no longer wore fine kimono of silk brocade or jeweled pins in her hair, she was still beautiful. She would not cut her hair or let her face disappear beneath a week’s worth of soot and grime. Kurumi made it a point of going through the rituals of beauty even now, not because she expected to profit by them, but because Bayushi Miyako had sent her here as a sacrifice-offering. Kurumi wanted to make sure that the Crab never forgot who she was or how she had betrayed the Empire. She knew what her shame was; she refused to hide it.
It was not bravery–she saw the wounds that Crab bushi came back from the Wall with–but it was what she had left.
She dressed slowly and carefully in undyed ramie. It was hard to tie the obi properly sometimes. The Kuni interrogators had not left scars after she first came to the Crab, by Hida Reiha’s orders, but even now she had terrible aches. Still, she woke up earlier and took the extra time to do it right.
For breakfast she ate two small rice balls wrapped in pickled leaves, which she had prepared the night before. She didn’t especially like the piquant taste of the leaves, but food was food and she was in no position to be picky. For the day’s lunch, she wrapped up more rice balls in a satchel. She still had a sticky candy from last week’s village festival and hadn’t made up her mind when she would eat it. Treats were scarce, now.
Kurumi wrapped herself up in a coat–autumn was starting to be serious, and she felt the cold keenly–and stepped outside, satchel in tow. She prostrated herself before the Crab sentry. Today it was a woman. They always were. This one’s name was Kaiu Raku, and she came here for this duty about twice a year. She was small for a Crab, but leanly muscular and easily taller than Kurumi herself.
Raku’s expression was the familiar one of patient contempt. After a moment, she made a noncommittal noise, and Kurumi knew it was safe to get up.
“I am not doing this for your benefit,” Hida Reiha had told her all those years ago, when she explained the arrangements she had made for Kurumi’s life.
Kurumi had knelt before her, wrists bound by rough rope. She was still in a great deal of pain from the Jade Champion’s interrogation, and the Crab Clan Champion could have been talking about the worst sake she had ever had or the games her son used to play. It was only later that her words made sense to Kurumi. Mostly, she was aware of the pain and the fact that she wore no mask. She would find it tucked into her obi later on and wonder at that strange considerateness.
“If it were just you,” Reiha went on, “your continued existence would be of no value. It would be tempting to feed you to a passing oni, but of course we are the last people who should do that. The truth is that we are going to be raising a generation of Crab who won’t know–” She stopped. Through the haze of pain, Kurumi might have been aware of the roughness of Reiha’s voice.
“The candle is burning down,” Reiha said after a while, which didn’t make any sense either. “Soon there will be Crab who grow up knowing that the Spider were always, in their lifetimes, a Great Clan. Soon there will be Crab who think that having a Scorpion Wall as well as a Crab Wall is normal. Other clans can win and lose their shabby little wars one generation at a time because it doesn’t matter. We must win our war every generation, over and over again, or Rokugan will be full of pits and there won’t be an Empire anymore.”
“Whatever you desire of me, I will give it, Hida-sama,” Kurumi had rasped, aware only that some kind of response was required of her.
“Live,” Reiha said in a voice like ice and iron. “Live so that a few more Crab know the face of failure, a few more before the candle burns down and my son has to inherit this shambles. Live.”
Kurumi thought about Reiha’s words a lot when she was falling asleep. She would have liked to say that the dilemma of the Crab kept her up at night, but the truth was she was generally so tired that she fell asleep almost as soon as she lay down.
In any case, the Crab came to guard her, not because any of them cared whether she lived or died, but so they could look at one of the people who had freed Fu Leng. Sometimes they came in groups. Sometimes they called her terrible things and she had to bear it in silence. At first, Kurumi had wished that one of them would let their temper slip and end her miserable life quickly, crush her skull with tetsubo or ono or a simple rock, but as much as they taunted her, no one ever did.
Kaiu Raku was not kind–nobody was, and she had no right to expect kindness in any case–but under her care Kurumi felt a sort of pallid relief. Raku was scrupulously fair, and never showed her any particular cruelty. As she escorted Kurumi to the renovation site, she kept a merciful silence.
At the work site, Kurumi took up her shovel and her wheelbarrow. She knew where to go: even now, as improvements were made to the Wall, there was a great deal of simple dirt to be cleared away. Her hands were coarse with callus, and her skin was roughened by the wind and the sun. Once she would have scorned both these things. She had grown past that quickly enough.
She worked alone. The villagers rarely spoke to her, but on festival days they let her sit in the shade of her hut, like a ghost written in words of exhaustion. Here, they called to each other and occasionally chanted work-songs in their rough dialect, or offered each other sips of sake during the breaks. She had grown accustomed to the cadences of their schedule.
They never gave Kurumi work so difficult that she would break under it. The Crab hated her, but they were good judges of labor and they abhorred waste.
Her back hurt her, and so did the arches of her feet, but she made no complaint. She had grown intimately familiar with different kinds of dirt: the pebbles that were caught in it, or the tangled roots, or occasionally fragments of old bone. Sometimes she thought that she would like to grow a garden, to plant something beautiful and fragrant, but the thought of working the earth any more than she already did always defeated her.
“He’s watching you,” Kaiu Raku said unexpectedly. She had been standing watch as alertly as if she expected goblins to swarm out of the scaffolding at any moment; not an unjustified concern, based on Kurumi’s experience. “He won’t come any closer, but he would want you to know that he’s watching you.”
In spite of herself, Kurumi unbent a little and followed Raku’s gaze to one of the completed towers. At its base stood a man she had only seen once before, shorter than most Crab: Hida Kisada, the Little Bear himself.
I am the face of failure, she thought. Look upon me, and learn.
The work she did here was small to begin with, and when she thought of the duty of the Crab it was smaller still. It was one thing to build walls of stone and mortar and stern angles. Anyone could do that. But it was more important to build walls around the weaknesses in your heart. Kurumi knew that better than most.
The Crab had known that for a long time, of course; the Wall was built of their will. But now the Scorpion would have to learn that lesson, too.
She resumed her work, and by the time the sun was low and it came time for dinner, the Little Bear was long gone.