Today’s ongoing series brings new information about the Spider Clan and the Imperial families, and their goings-on during the onset of Emperor Edition.
State of the Clans, Part 3
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
It was late in the evening, and theImperialPalacewas uncharacteristically quiet. Those who frequented its vast hallways and corridors during the day typically found its darkness and silence very unsettling. The legions of servants who maintained the palace and its environment moved around like shadows in the night, cleaning every surface and ensuring that everything was exactly where it was supposed to be. It was like an art form into itself, for the rare few who ever witnessed it. Takuan was one of those, and he enjoyed the serenity of the palace at night. There had been few times during his life when he could have truly enjoyed relative peace and quiet. When he had been a child, there was so much clamor over whether he would be married away to some important delegate in the Crane. As the second son of the Otomo daimyo, he was considered quite a valuable candidate, if not particularly glamorous. When he had chosen his name at his gempukku, to honor one of the lesser-known brothers-in-arms of his grandfather, there had likewise been a clamor. Takuan had always been a student of history and drama, and there had been much speculation regarding his selection of a name. The choice to honor a ronin, even a ronin as glorious as the first Takuan, had been something of a scandal, and the young man had discovered he had a taste for scandal. It alleviated the tedium. This trait would come to define his life in general, and for that he had no regrets.
As he walked through the hall, Takuan saw an elderly servant, a face that had been familiar to him since his days as a child. “Good evening to you, Aikime,” he said to the old woman busily scrubbing away at the floor.”
“Good evening, Otomo-sama,” the old woman said, but the very last syllable caught in her throat like a blade. “Oh!” she said, clapping both hands to her mouth, her eyes filling with tears. She threw herself onto the floor. “I did not mean disrespect, my lord!” she sobbed. “Forgive a confused old woman!”
Takuan chuckled. “Be at ease, little grandmother,” he said reassuringly. “You knew me by that name for a great many years. I take no offense.” He withdrew a silver coin from his belt. “For your grandchildren. For the festival.”
The old woman’s eyes swam. “Thank you, my lord,” she rasped, as she resumed vigorously scrubbing while avoiding all eye contact. Takuan chuckled again as he continued down the hallway. The lower castes were so flighty, always on the edge of panic. How they could ever hope to advance in the kharmic cycle was beyond him.
The chamber that was Takuan’s destination had a lone sentry posted. It was customary for a sentry to remain in position in the late evening hours if a personage of importance remained at work, although he sometimes wondered if that policy had been instituted simply to oversee this sort of situation. He smiled and bowed his head in greeting, and if he was perhaps a bit too dramatic with the flourishing of his robes, if he was more inclined to display the colors of his heraldry a bit more than necessary, well then that was certainly a small pleasure he could afford himself. The sentry, a Seppun, visibly bristled but bowed sharply as custom required. This time Takuan kept his amusement to himself.
As he entered the chamber and the door closed behind him, he was struck for a moment with the beauty of the woman within. She was physically attractive, of that there could be no question, and her choice of attire was always conservative yet flattering. However, to Takuan, the real beauty was in her eyes. There was there a fierce brilliance, a burning that bespoke an unparalleled intellect and cunning, and it never failed to inspire in him feelings of intense affection and admiration. “Hello, my blasphemous wife.”
She looked up, and once again he was struck by the intensity of her gaze. She smiled, enjoying their private joke. “Hello, my traitorous husband.” When they were alone together, they playfully spoke of one another in the terms that others wished to use but were to afraid to do so. “Is it so late already?”
“Indeed,” he said, admiring her raven tresses and the carefully maintained streak of white that cascaded along her right temple. It was her lone acknowledgement of her mother’s clan, something she rarely spoke of unless it was to seek advantage in the courts. “I thought perhaps I might escort you to a late dinner at Hwan’s this evening. I understand tonight they are serving duck and dumplings.”
“Oh my, that sounds delightful,” she answered, rolling up the scroll on which she was working. She stood, allowing her richly textured black and grey robe to unfold from where she had been sitting. “I really am quite hungry,” Susumu Kuroko said with a smile.
Susumu Takuan returned his wife’s smile. “How has the business of administration gone today?”
“Quite well, actually,” Kuroko replied. “The administration of an entire family is, I am certain, an enormous task. However, when your family numbers a mere twenty-eight members, it is quite a bit simpler.”
“Twenty-eight?” Takuan asked. “Bariko had her baby, then, and… what? Was there an oath of fealty?”
“No,” Kuroko replied with a coy smile. “Bariko had twins.”
“Wonderful!” Takuan laughed. “With such strong, talented parents, I am certain they will be tremendous assets to the family when they come of age.”
“Not to mention that every child born is an opportunity to grow the family’s ranks through an eventual marriage,” Kuroko answered. “Although admittedly few among the higher echelons wish their children to marry a Spider.”
“There will always be those who allow ambition and a desire for advancement to overcome such meager concerns,” Takuan said comfortingly “What news from our friends the monks?”
“Seventeen monasteries are presently at full strength, and plans for two more are being drawn as we speak,” she said. “One in the Unicorn lands.”
“Outstanding. Any holdings inside clan borders are a tremendous boon for us.”
“Very much so,” Kuroko agreed. “We have made great progress in certain quarters with diplomatic overtures. It seems that Naleesh has inherited her previous incarnation’s compassion for all things associated with her brother, but the counsel of the Khan prevents her from acting upon it. At least so far.”
“Naleesh-sama is a gentle soul,” Takuan said, the respect he felt for the Unicorn Champion bleeding over into his tone. “A pity Min-Hee is such a dreadful bore.”
“All things in time, my lovely little treachery,” Kuroko said playfully. “For now, the more important matter is that in a matter of a month or thereabouts, lord Kanpeki will be paying his annual visit to theImperialCity.”
Takuan nodded, his expression growing more somber. “We will need to ensure all is in readiness.”
“And we shall, but of course the accursed Otomo, and no offense to you or yours, beloved, will do all they can to insulate him from us. They will fail, but they will make matters unnecessarily difficult.”
“No offense taken,” Takuan said. “Even I find most of my family insufferable. Why else would I have caused such scandal to marry into the Spider Clan?”
“I thought it was because marrying the daughter of the Imperial Advisor was such an improvement over being second son of the Otomo,” she teased. “But in all seriousness, whatever influence you have over your former family should be put to use ensuring we have as much adjudication over the visit as possible.”
“Of course,” Takuan said. “I will start making arrangements first thing in the morning.”
“Did you receive any correspondence from your contacts in the Colonies today?”
Takuan frowned. “I did. It is a rather mixed report, I am sorry to say. The clan continues to make inroads beyond theIvoryMountains, but the Mantis are becoming more of a problem as they cross paths with our excursion forces. Meanwhile, the situation in theSecondCityhas not yet improved with regard to the clans and their dispensation toward us, but the new Imperial Governor is proving to be most interesting. Based on what our kinsmen have said, I suspect she may prove to be a tremendous benefit to our endeavors in the settled portion of the Colonies.”
“How odd,” Kuroko said. “Are you sure your contacts in the Otomo have no further information on this woman?”
“I fear the governess is something of an enigma, even among the Otomo,” Takuan said. “Still, her association with Otomo M’rika is certainly a point in our favor.””
“Now, now, husband,” Kuroko said, glancing around the corridor. “One never knows what ears might be listening.”
“Yes, of course. My apologies, dearest. Being around you makes me foolish. Among other things.”
“Yes, well, let us explore those things over dinner, shall we?”
* * * * *
A young warrior bearing the colors of the Unicorn Clan stood upon the northern wall of theSecondCityand watched as the caravan disappeared over the horizon. Once it was out of sight, as was his command, he turned and disembarked from the wall, crossing through the military district and heading into the Imperial district without speaking. Others parted to allow him to pass, many bowing as they did so. It was an unfamiliar sensation for him, and one he was not yet altogether comfortable with. He had not sought the position he now held for recognition or political gain; he was a warrior, and it was his only desire to serve with honor as had his father and grandfather before him.
“Tselu-sama!” a voice called.
Shinjo Tselu turned to see a much older man approaching. He managed to keep from grimacing at the man’s stern expression, but it was a difficult task. He was not yet accustomed to outranking such venerable men as the head of the Second City Guardsmen. “What troubles you, Tsudoken-sama?”
Akodo Tsudoken stopped and bowed stiffly. “I have the report, my lord.”
The young warrior looked at the older man blankly. “Report?”
Tsudoken’s expression darkened even further, his cheeks reddening visibly “I was instructed to prepare a comprehensive report on the strength and disposition of all the Second City Guardsmen’s assets and present them to the Ivory Champion,” he said, a strange emphasis on the last two words. “I have done so.”
“Of course,” Tselu responded. “I was not aware that such a report was being prepared, but I am delighted to have it. I will enjoy reviewing your organization, Tsudoken-san.” He paused for a moment, then added. “I have nothing but the utmost respect for you and those who serve you.”
Tsudoken’s expression softened somewhat in surprise. “I… thank you, my lord.”
“I would be honored if you would call me Tselu.”
The Lion warrior’s expression grew stern once more. “That would be inappropriate, my lord,” he insisted. “I understand that this question may be unimportant given the fact that you were unaware of the report, but what is your inclination toward the Guardsmen, my lord? Is it your intent to dissolve them or reorganize them under your command? I do not wish to overstep my bounds but I do wish to prepare recommendations for my officers if that turns out to the case.”
Tselu hoped that his alarm did not show through. “I have no intention of doing that, commander,” he said, struggling to keep his voice even. “I will review your report but I have no preconceived notions of how your guardsmen should be organized.”
“I see,” Tsudoken said. “Very well, then, my lord. I will await any recommendations you have to offer.”
Tselu watched the other man walk away with a troubled expression. He held Tsudoken in the utmost respect, that had been an absolute truth, but he had as yet very little understanding of his duties as the newly selected Ivory Champion. He glanced down at the strange variant of the Imperial Chrysanthemum that the Imperial Governor had selected upon her arrival and ascension to the position. He continued on to the Governor’s Estate, where he was to report to the governess. Hopefully she would not have any more surprises for him.
When Tselu found the governess, she was surveying a large painting in the palace’s primary audience chamber. “Governess,” he said, bowing deeply.
“Tselu, I am quite glad you are here,” Otomo Suikihime replied. “Tell me, what do you think of this piece?”
The young warrior looked at her blankly for a heartbeat, then up at the painting. “It is… uh… quite nice? I have never been a student of the arts all that much.” He paused and peered at it for a moment. “Wait, is that an Akitare? Even I know that style. There is an original hanging in the Unicorn embassy. The master of the estate regards it as one of the clan’s greatest treasures in the Colonies.”
“Which I completely understand,” Suikihime said. “Still, his works may be celebrated throughout the Empire, but with my new perspective here in the Colonies, I find them terribly traditional. Terribly… what is the word I want to use? Pedestrian.” She gestured and two servants began removing the painting from the wall.
“My lady?” Tselu asked.
“I think I want something new, something bold and daring.” She gestured again, and this time a scribe stepped forward. “Please compile a list of the best known artists and artisans operating in the Colonies. I want something new and sensational for court.” She nodded, dismissing the man, then turned back to Tselu. “Did you need something?”
He bowed again. “I merely wanted to report that I watched as Daigotsu Kanpeki’s caravan departed the city, my lady. I would anticipate they will arrive at Journey’s End Keep by nightfall.”
“Very good then,” she replied. “Normally it takes about a month to reach Toshi Ranbo, in my experience. Would you agree?”
“Normally yes, my lady. Given that it is winter in the Empire, however, the journey will doubtless take longer. Perhaps as much as twice that long.”
Suikihime smiled. “Would that not be a delight? To be free of the Spider Champion for four months. I shall savor the very thought.”
Tselu shifted his weight uncomfortably. “Say what you will of the Spider Champion, my lady, but we are fortunate that the Spider obey his commands as if they were issued by the Heavens themselves, and he is loyal to the will of the Empress.”
“Is he?” Suikihime mused. “I wonder.”
Tselu held out a scroll. “The captain of the guard presented this report to me, governess. I did not request it, however; did you? I have it for you if you wish it.”
“I requested it, yes, but it is for you.” She smiled and fanned herself lightly. “Administration of the Second City Guardsman will fall to the Ivory Champion, so I felt you should familiarize yourself with their operations.”
“Of course,” Tselu replied. “If I may, my lady… my duties have been rather ill-defined thus far. I do not wish to fail you, but I fear that I might simply because I do not know what my duties are in their entirety.”
“Well I have not decided all the things I shall have you do just yet,” the governess replied. “Other than protecting me, of course. Beyond that, I will assign you duties as I see fit. Do you find that is a problem?”
“No, my lady,” Tselu answered. “There are some who wonder if additional positions will be created. Some look upon me as some Colonial version of the Emerald Champion, and wonder if there will be additional counterparts for the other Jeweled Champions or Emperor’s Chosen.”
Suikihime made a most disdainful face. “How boring!” she exclaimed. “I do not wish to recreate theImperialCityhere. What fun would that be? This is an opportunity to embrace new ideas and new customs, to create something altogether different and exciting. Why would I pass something like that up?”
“I… uh…” Tselu faltered. “I suppose most assume that because you are a scion of the Imperial families, that you are traditional.”
The governess of the Colonies laughed. “They will find, as you have, that I am far from a typical member of the Imperial families.”
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